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Published: Verve Magazine, Verve Man, October 2008

Heady from the unprecedented success of Rock On!! Bollywood’s latest poster child of youth cinema, Farhan Akhtar talks to Sitanshi Talati-Parikh about his kind of movies, juggling family life with work and how genes make a difference

Superb actor, director, script-writer and now also a good singer (in a raspy sort of way), Farhan Akhtar steals the show with his overwhelming energy and passion on screen. Slipping into the skin of the protagonist, you feel him come alive and half expect him to jump out of the screen. How is it possible to be the master of all trades? Akhtar believes it’s just about applying yourself a 100 per cent in what you have chosen to do. Then there’s his excellent lineage. “I would agree that genetics must play a part in creating a natural leaning towards something that has been so dominant in past generations. But eventually, it cannot make you a good director or actor. That you will have to do yourself,” says the artiste, who keeps pace with a marathon schedule, and is known to never sit idle – not even for a moment.

Powered on by the desire to tell stories, Akhtar believes film-making is a collaborative art form which makes choices about script, crew and cast (among others) very crucial. He takes his time to decide on all these things before getting into a project. “I don’t know what motivates people to make the choices they do – I would hope that my work and its appreciation would serve as a catalyst for other people to do more original work and benefit from it – creatively and at the box office.”

Why, then a sequel to Don? “I found myself obsessed with the title character and the background score. I had to get it out of me. Luckily, I found many people who were as obsessed with the film as I was.” Akhtar has created a cult genre with his youth-centric films. Dil Chahta Hai became the film that revisited Bollywood norms and resonated with a huge college-going audience. That set the pace for Akhtar to continue down a road that told stories that he understood, that he wanted to tell, and which upgraded the passé films into a slicker, smoother and more identifiable medium. At the end of the day, as the film-maker puts it, “it is important to have something to say in an entertaining, engrossing manner.”

Akhtar was not consciously trying to set a social trend. He is clear in stating that, “It is not advisable to design a film keeping in mind its social impact. The design will show if that is the approach. Stay true to the story and do it because you believe in it. If the audience recognises your heart in it, everything else will follow — Rock On!! is being appreciated by an audience of 10 to 60 years of age. If the story has a universal emotional core, then it should be able to connect with all generations.”

And yet, each time it is a different story. Akhtar confesses he is a fan of all genres of movies. Lakshya didn’t do as well in the box office, but it was another story that had to be told. And then came Rock On!! – a simple story, a story you would have heard before, but one that rocked. It was the perfect blend of cinematography, acting, concept, style and above all (as with most of Akhtar’s work) dialogues that work. That are not stilted or refurbished like many of the others are.

There is actually a club of like-minded film-makers, where constructive criticism is an option, of which Farhan Akhtar, Kunal Kohli, Madhur Bhandarkar, Rakeysh (Omprakash) Mehra, Ashutosh Gowariker, Raju Hirani and Vipul Shah are a part. While Akhtar shares a great rapport with Gowariker, to the extent that they “discuss each other’s work candidly, knowing that all views are coming from a space of respect and admiration;” Akhtar’s film-making style is reminiscent of that of Aamir Khan – in that they are both gifted with supreme originality of outlook. And above all, a great sense of characterisation. Both have impeccable tastes in casting – and making an ensemble cast work is often what it takes.

Akhtar is constantly on the look out for talent – whether young or old. The website of Rock On!! actually has a talent hunt for upcoming stars. When questioned whether it was to increase the buzz on the site, he states that it is to find talent, young or old. “A good actor can be hidden inside any person of a age or gender.” That is surprising, considering that Akhtar, like Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Karan Johar, has chosen to work with established actors in his initial films. Akhtar doesn’t attribute this to stalwarts being a safer choice. He is noncommittal in his response. “I have been fortunate to have worked with some big names and talent in my films. That was the need of the script and character. Rock On!! allowed us to work with new talent as it suited the nature of the story. For me, cast is determined by character, not the other way around.”

The film-maker, who considers it a privilege to hail from a legendary family of parents — Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani, and Shabana Azmi – is very firm on the subject of credit. Where once Honey Irani had lost out on credit for her work on Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, leading to relations being soured between the two film families, Akthar believes that, “credit is as, if not more, valuable than your fee. The money will come and go but your name will be up there forever. No one can take that away. We are very careful to make sure every single person involved on our films is given their due credit.”

A Martin Scorcese and Woody Allen fan, Akhtar admires their ability to keep reinventing themselves. It appears that he is modelling himself after them, waiting for more hidden talents to surface. Coming up soon is his sister Zoya Akhtar’s film Luck By Chance, in which he is acting. His next directorial venture is slated for 2009. Akhtar prefers not being bottled into acting or directing. “They are both a part of who I am and I hope to keep exploring and learning new things about the art and craft.”

Is his life easy? “I love doing what I do, so it’s not about easy or difficult for me. I try my best.” Married and father of two young daughters Shakya and Akira, Akhtar is constantly playing a juggling act. “I do take my children to set with me when it is possible because it is important that they know where I go and what I do. They should not feel I am disappearing for periods of time without reason.” Known to be exacting, is Akhtar an easy person to get along with? With a light chuckle, he responds, “I get along with myself just fine!”