'You cannot rig success in Bollywood'

POET. LYRICIST. Script writer. Javed Akhtar carries the legacy of an illustrious family of seven generations of writers. He is the son of well-known Urdu poet and film lyricist Jan Nisar Akhtar and Safia Akhtar, teacher and writer.

By Vijay Dandige (Contributor)

Published: Fri 13 Apr 2007, 11:25 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 11:46 PM

The highly respected Urdu poet, Majaz was his mother's brother. His grandfather was Muzter Khairabadi, whose work is considered a milestone in Urdu poetry.

Along with his ex-partner, Salim, he scripted super hits like 'Zanjeer', 'Deewar',' Sholay', 'Haathi Mere Saathi', 'Seeta Aur Geeta', 'Don', 'Trishul', among others. Salim-Javed as a writer-duo gave to Amitabh Bachchan and to Indian Cinema the memorable persona of the 'angry young man.' After his split from Salim in 1981, he has written a number of successful films: 'Sagar', 'Mr. India', 'Betaab', 'Arjun' , 'Lakshya' and several others.

Javed Akhtar started writing Urdu poetry in 1980. His first collection of nazms and ghazals entitled 'Tarkash' received rave reviews, and was translated into an English edition entitled 'Quiver' by Dr David Matthews of London University. It was released by Nobel Laureate Prof. Amartya Sen. It was translated into Bengali by noted Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyaya. M. F. Hussain, the celebrated painter, has painted sixteen canvases based on poems in 'Tarkash.'

Javed Akhtar has written a large number of poems against communalism, social injustice, for national integration and women's rights. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has declared his song, beckoning the misguided youth to come forward and build the country, the National Anthem for Youth in 1995.

On the initiative of President Abdul Kalam, Javed Akhtar has written five poems on the Indian flag. Famous music maestros Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Ustad Zakir Hussain, L. Subramaniam and E. Srinivas have interpreted these musically.

Javed Akhtar was in Dubai recently, as a judge for the auditions of the Indian Idol show at Knowledge Village. 'In Dubai, as usual, girls were better than boys. Girls are really coming forward,' Javed Akhtar said. 'It's happening to an extent that one has become conscious of it. Girls are just excelling.' Sporting his signature khadi kurta and churidaar, Javed Akhtar talked to City Times.

As a lyricist, where do you see yourself?

Where am I? People I respect are Taher, Shailendra, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Bharat Vyas, Pradeep... they have done great work. I look at their work with awe. When I look at their work, I feel I have not achieved anything.

How does an idea for a poem come to you?

It's difficult to say because different ideas come in different ways. But as far as my literary poetry is concerned, not songs or scripts, I only write what I really feel very strongly about, what bothers me or concerns me... anything that comes from my heart. But I feel that ultimately good poetry has to be the synthesis of your heart and mind. If it's only heart, it's nothing but emotion, and it won't sustain for a long time. If it's only mind, it's too cerebral, and it won't touch people.

And how does it emerge, in a free flow or in stages?

It depends. Sometimes it flows; sometimes I write it once in a flow, and see and edit it. There's no harm in having a second look at it.

As a writer, what changes have you seen in script-writing in Bollywood over the years?

The emotional content is very weak. You know, we've become clever, smart, savvy, but that innocence, surrender of ego, involvement and passion is lacking. The depth of emotion is missing.

You have been very selective with the composers you work with. Why?

That's not so. But somehow I've only worked with people with whom I'm comfortable. I should have great respect for people I'm working with. They should have some decency because it becomes very difficult to deal with people who are uncouth.

Have you ever given a thought to directing movies, like Gulzar?

I don't know... I keep thinking about it, but perhaps I've become lazy. I don't have that initiative.

There is a now trend of remaking of old classics, like 'Umrao Jaan.' What do you think about it?

Remakes per se are not wrong. Would you say that Bimal Roy shouldn't have made Devdas with Dilip Kumar, or after Anarkali, K. R. Asif shouldn't have made Mughal-e-Azam, or after Aurat, Mehboob shouldn't have made Mother India? No. So a remake per se is not bad, but if you can give a nicer interpretation or improvise on it, then it's fine. But if you take a film and remake it and totally degrade it, then it's a shame.

How many truly good screenwriters are there in Bollywood now? Why is the standard of script writing so poor?

Good writers or good scriptwriters are not born in a void. You need an atmosphere, a demand for good scripts, by the producer, by the director, by the audience. Now what is a good script? It's one where you have a clear-cut, strong conflict, clear-cut, well-defined characters. Now going one step forward, in commercial cinema or mass communication, you have heroes, maybe a man or a woman. But you have iconic characters. That's why, it is mainstream. Now, you create icons based on the contemporary morality and contemporary fantasies or aspirations. When you personify that morality and aspiration, that's the contemporary hero or protagonist. I think the society at the moment is very confused. It doesn't have clear-cut morality and clear-cut aspiration. And the kind of aspiration they have, they would rather not own them publicly. That's why you don't have iconic images. And since you don't have iconic images, you can't have strong stories in mainstream cinema. It's very complicated. It's not that you don't have good writers. Now, what will be a good story today in mainstream cinema? What kind of a hero will be like a real hero? What kind of a woman will be idolised today? They're not very sure. That's why, we have wishy-washy characters, and when you've wishy-washy characters, you've wishy-washy scripts.

Aren't scripts done according to demand?

No, no... nobody orders. In society, things happen through a kind of process of osmosis. You come to know and you inform each other: this is right, and this is wrong, this is acceptable, this is not. Somehow, it gets conveyed to everyone. Today our society doesn't have a collective aspiration. And it doesn't have a clear-cut morality. You know, in the 50s and 60s, we knew that working class people were good people and the capitalist was the bad person. And though there was naiveté in it, at least one was sure of it. In the 50s and 60s, we knew that Meena Kumari who suffered and sang bhajans was a good woman, and the woman who went to clubs and cabarets was a bad woman. Things were very simple. So, you could make stories. Now you're not sure what's right and what's wrong. Today, everybody wants to be a mill-owner or a capitalist. The capitalist is no longer a villain in the fantasy of people. So, who is the villain in the story? And when you're not sure of the villain, how can you be sure of the hero? So, I think there's kind of a moral and aspirational dilemma in the society, which reflects in the stories.

Many writers today blatantly lift ideas or even scenes from foreign films and use them with impunity. And when questioned, they claim it as 'inspiration.' How do you view this?

I tell you, no writer can dare do that. If a writer sells a story from some Hollywood movie, the producer will catch him by the neck. No writer can do it on his own. It happens with the connivance of the producer. It's generally the producer or the director, who are in a more secure position, who instigate the writer. They're the ones who are responsible for it.

In the olden days, film songs were not just songs, they were poems, pieces of literature, but nowadays song lyrics are, to say the least, ridiculous. Okay, it might be viewed as a novelty. But does not mean anyone can pick up a pen and write any gibberish and call it lyrics?

I admit the situation is terrible. And anyway, some of us are fighting against it. Within our capabilities, we're trying to maintain a certain standard. But by and large, the situation in this respect is dismal, no doubt about it. But again, sometimes people ask me, 'Why can't songs like Pyasa and Kaagaz Ke Phool come today?' You see, those kind of songs were possible only because there were those kind of films. You have to make those kinds of films to have those kinds of songs. Secondly, there are multifactors that are working against good songs. In general, the life tempo has increased and music being a part of life, its tempo has also increased. So, music has gained speed at the cost of depth. First of all, music has become less conducive for a good song. And as you know, most of the songs are written to the tune. That was so even in the 50s and 60s. But at that time the tunes used to be such that you could write a good song. Another thing, as you pointed out, the standard of script has gone down badly. Now what is a song? It's part of the script; it's written for a situation. If the situation is shallow, then obviously songs cannot be very deep. Thirdly, the man who's making the film today has never been taught poetry in school or college. He was never exposed to poetry; he doesn't have an ear for poetry. So, by and large, literature and poetry has lost lot of territory in society. Even the masses, who are sitting in theatres, are not that poetry-savvy, as they used to be 30 or 40 years back. So, such is the atmosphere. But, as a matter of fact, you should be impressed that, in spite of all this, some people are doing decent work.

Is the movie industry becoming a 'dynasty' affair, where star father s and star mothers pushing their sons and daughters?

No, I tell you, it cannot work, because in the movie industry, you cannot rig success. Ultimately, it's the millions and millions of people who will either reject or approve of an actor's son or an actresses' daughter. You can't manipulate it. A star's son or daughter will have only one advantage: he or she will get a break. But, after that, it's strictly between that person and the audience. It's the audience that ultimately decides, not the star father or the star mother.

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