‘Sense of humour is for sad times’, says Indian screenwriter-lyricist Javed Akhtar

Discussing a new biographical book on him at the iconic British Library in London, he talks about some of his most vulnerable moments

By Yasser Usman

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There’s no school to learn poetry, but all the great poets can be the school for aspiring poets, Javed Akhtar told the audience at the Sharjah International Book Fair. — Photo by M. Sajjad
There’s no school to learn poetry, but all the great poets can be the school for aspiring poets, Javed Akhtar told the audience at the Sharjah International Book Fair. — Photo by M. Sajjad

Published: Thu 25 May 2023, 7:27 PM

A good conversation has the power to transcend time and space. I experienced it recently when I was in conversation with the screenwriter-lyricist Javed Akhtar at the iconic British Library in London. The panel also had actress Shabana Azmi and author Nasreen Munni Kabir. We were discussing Talking Life, a new biographical book on Javed Akhtar where he goes down memory lane, remembering his childhood, struggles, success, relationships, even guilt and regrets. Talking Life is the final part in the trilogy that includes Talking Films (1999) and Talking Songs (2002).

Javed Akhtar with Shabana Azmi
Javed Akhtar with Shabana Azmi

The evening was a part of the celebration of 50 years of Zanjeer (co-written by Akhtar). So the conversation revealed many fascinating stories on Hindi cinema of the 1970s and ’80s when the screenwriter duo Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar ruled Bollywood, writing blockbusters like Sholay (1975), Deewaar (1975), Trishul (1978) and Don (1978). A question always lingers on about who did what in the famous jodi (pair). Javed Akhtar, for the first time, explained the ‘division of labour’ in the team Salim-Javed.

“The story ideas of all our successful films came from Salim sahib. We wrote the screenplays together and finally, I used to do the dialogue. It was my department,” said Akhtar. This means, ‘Mere paas Maa hai’ (I have mother), ‘Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahi namumkin hai’(It’s not difficult but impossible to catch Don), ‘Kitne Aadmi the’ (How many men were there?)… all the memorable lines were written by Javed Akhtar. Later, Salim-Javed went their separate ways as independent screenwriters. In 1980s, filmmaker Yash Chopra persuaded him to write songs for Silsila, the beginning of his journey as an illustrious lyricist.

But the most poignant part of the book is when he is talking about his mother Safia, who passed away when Javed was only eight years old. That evening, he and his six-year-old brother slip out of their house to have one last glimpse of their dead mother at the graveyard, which is a mile away. But by the time they reach their mother’s grave, it is cemented over. The sense of loss persists even decades later.

Javed Akhtar now tries to look at it rationally: “It still hurts. It’s so strange. I am a grandfather now — my granddaughters are much older than I was when I lost my mother. It is illogical, irrational that a seventy-year-old man still gets tears in his eyes when he remembers his thirty-six-year-old mother. A mother who was younger than my own children are now. Perhaps I did not allow myself to grieve when I should have.”

After his mother’s demise, Akhtar lived with various relatives. His father remarried and the stepmother made it clear that Javed wasn’t welcome in the house. Akhtar and his younger brother Salman had to struggle. The only person Akhtar remembers with an amount of bitterness is his father. “I felt resentment and anger towards him, and our relationship became increasingly negative and strained.” Without his father, the initial years of struggle in Bombay were harsh with phases of starvation and no place to live.

Yet, Akhtar looks at almost all events of his life with remarkable honesty. His trademark wit and ability to laugh at pain never leave him. Akhtar told me a profound thing — it was his sense of humour that saved him in times of pain and struggle. “You know, there are shock absorbers in a car that save you on bumpy roads. A sense of humour is also a kind of shock absorber. It is meant for bad times and comes in handy for making horrid moments tolerable.”

I asked his wife, actress Shabana Azmi, if they ever fought like normal couples and did he ever write romantic poetry for her? “He doesn’t have a single romantic bone in his body,” she said. “My point is, if you’re a trapeze artiste in a circus, do you hang upside down in your own house too?” he replied.

Akhtar also candidly spoke about his alcoholism, the times when he would be drinking one bottle a day. He said his drinking was based on misguided values and he thought there is something glamorous about it. After drinking, he’d become nasty and unpleasant. He was in his forties when he decided he’d never drink alcohol again. “Because I love life. I don’t want to die. I would have been a better husband, a better father, had I not been drinking. I carry a cross of guilt on my shoulders and I am destined to live with it.”

Author Nasreen Munni Kabir interviewed Javed Akhtar multiple times over the last few years for the book. She is particular about calling them ‘conversations’ and not ‘interviews’. “An interview is a conversation where you talk about the new, current events. Something that is happening now. These are deep conversations where he is reflecting at his life with a fresh perspective,” she said.

Conversations are known to be catalysts to deeper connections, and a better understanding of ourselves and the world. I asked if during the long conversations, did it ever feel like he was talking to a therapist, and if it was cathartic. Javed Akhtar went silent for few moments and then said, “Yes, I can say it was cathartic to an extent. Sometimes, it also felt like I was talking to a therapist. But in this case, the therapist does not have to follow a client confidentiality clause. She can write and tell the world everything I told her.” And the sense of humour was back.

Yasser is a film commentator and author based in London


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