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Published: Verve Magazine, 75th Black and white issue, Features, July 2009
Photograph by: Sitanshi Talati-Parikh

You cannot be entirely objective towards a person who can be considered one of India’s greatest talents. And yet, Javed Akhtar doesn’t let you down. He is approachable, relaxed and as erudite as you might expect – talking a world of sense from a lifetime of experience, with more than a pinch of humour. Of course, the writer-lyricist-poet admits in a staged whisper, “Shabana [Azmi – his wife] is much more serious than I am.” Candid and rather regretful about his shortcomings – “being not-so-disciplined and rather lazy” – the father of two rising stars of Indian cinema (Farhan and Zoya Akhtar) speaks his mind to Sitanshi Talati-Parikh


On being down-to-earth

I have never thought about it. If someone starts thinking about why he is modest, then he isn’t a modest person. If you have certain objectivity, you will know that wherever you are, there are many people who are miles ahead of you!

On what it means to be a star
When I was young, I also admired many people – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a writer called Krishna Chandra, Dilip Kumar. Ultimately, as you grow up, you realise that some people are bestowed with some exceptional talent – they have focussed, worked hard, contributed something towards art, literature and human society – but behind all those achievements there is a human being, a person. I don’t feel that kind of blind admiration anymore. A ‘star’ is actually a very vulnerable person, well aware of his/her own shortcomings and weaknesses and failures.

On nostalgia – about the industry that once was
Life offers you packages. It’s not that things were good and now they are not good. Ultimately the film industry is becoming more streamlined, with people becoming more professional and more focussed than what they once were. The film industry is coming out of the feudal era and entering the industrial mindset. The good films of the 50s, 60s and 70s had a lot of social relevance, depth and literary flavour – and a certain dignity. Think Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra or Ramesh Sippy. Today films have more variety, technical finesse and people have become smarter, less pretentious and less melodramatic. But, today cinema lacks the strong edifice. Indian films don’t have the kind of power they once had. Rhetoric is not used the way it was. There is an attempt on understatement and restraint, a great reliance on the audience’s IQ. At the same time, I don’t see the magnum opus quality in their scripts – the saga-like stories are missing today.

On bridging the gap between esotericism and entertainment
Why has the industry decided that you can either be sensible or you can be interesting? Is it a choice? Ultimately, good mainstream cinema is extremely sensible and extremely interesting. This is the desired synthesis that I look for. Films like Lagaan, Taare Zameen Par, Dil Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti all fall in that category.

On the darkest period of Indian cinema
In the 80s (all the way to the mid-90s) somehow something had happened to our society – and the film industry is a part and parcel of our society. The reasons are multiple – somewhere our aesthetics (be it music, architecture, cinema, theatre or politics) experienced a dip in moral values. Think of the times of Sarkailo Khatiya Jada Lage (Raja Babu, 1994), Choli Ke Peeche (Khalnayak, 1993) and Babri Masjid and the Ram Janma Bhoomi dispute. Cinema of any society doesn’t exist in any kind of socio-politico-cultural void. It is connected and even commercial cinema reflects the mindset of society. It is not a coincidence that such kind of cinema was doing well – where good cinema was actually marginalised. Thankfully, by the mid-90s we started reviving and the worst is behind us.

The best grey roles you have ever written are…
Gabbar Singh’s dialogues (Sholay, 1975), Vijay in Trishul (1978), Deewar (1975); or the important minor characters like those in Arjun (1985), and Raja in Mashaal (1984).

On feeling successful
I have had my share of defeats, deprivation and humiliation; at the same time, if I go to the grand total it is in my favour. Life has ultimately dealt me good cards. I don’t know if I am flattering myself, but I genuinely believe I could have achieved more than what I have. And that I should try to do it.

Awards mean…
I am in a strange situation – when I get an award I don’t get the same kind of thrill and excitement that I once did, but when I don’t get it I still get some kind of unhappiness. It is a bad deal – you get it and you don’t feel a thrill – it’s just another confirmation; you don’t get it and you start getting very suspicious – where am I? Why has it not come to me? Is my work not good enough? It is a precarious situation to be in!

On colour evocation
Black makes me think of Black power, black panthers (or the Black Panthers), Martin Luther King, slavery in the US, civil rights.

White leaves me with mixed feelings – it has a calming effect. It is a colour of peace and tranquillity, the word that comes to mind is an Urdu word: suqoon. Ironically, I don’t think of the white race with the colour white, while the colour black evokes thoughts of the black race.

Grey equals ultimate maturity. When you can see grey, you have matured. Black is not as black and white is not as white, if you have sharp eyes.