Three fine furrow lines settle on Javed Akhtar’s temple. Each probably signifying an aspect of his life – poetry, cinema and philosophy. An indelible part of some of the most popular and revered stories and lyrics of Indian cinema and its various journeys across political and social upheavals of the past few decades, Akhtar has amalgamated all his fine experiences and ideologies to create lyrics that not only move us, but make us think as well. It is the 18th of August, Gulzar Saab’s birthday and it quite a happy coincidence that I, Manju Ramanan speaks to the illustrious poet over a rather busy restaurant at the Kempinksi at the Palm, Dubai. But does the setting deter the man with a million mellifluous words? No, not at all!
Are perfect settings required to write a good poem?
Thankfully I don’t need to be in sylvan surroundings to be able to write. I don’t need a mahogany table, a window etc. I can write anywhere, anytime. I have written in the plane, in the car while going to meet the film crew. I can write here.
It is Gulzar Saab’s birthday today (August 18th). What is that one word that comes to your mind when you think of him?
Originality. Gulzar Saab is one of those rare people whose lines is his signature. You know it is a Gulzar poem when it is recited to you. It is a rare achievement and he is not anyone’s echo. But today is also Chengiz `Khan’s birthday. He was a conqueror from the East, so the western historians popularized him as a barbarian. Had he been from the West, he would have been lauded like Alexander the Great.
All your family members are extremely creative people. What is an ordinary dining room conversation between you all? Films?
No, not at all. They all talk about food and which kabab is better than which one. And I am the least participative of the lot since I am not a foodie.
Does poetry have to adapt to current cinema?
Today’s cinema is anti-poetry. I will not blame the lyricist. He or she is not free to write what they want to write. There is no dearth of talent but there is a strange compulsion that they have to adhere to that is not favourable to poetry.
So that is reflected in our music as well?
Very much. And that is sad because the West listens to music and we people from the East like to sing along. We are all singers in India whether we have a voice to sing or not. Music to us, serves a different purpose. Very rarely would you see someone in the West hum a song or singing along while cycling or walking. In India it is taken for granted. That’s why our songs have lost longevity. Also there is a misconception that anything that is dignified, has depth is not for the younger generation. Art has to reduce the frenzy of life and not add to it. Alam Ara had 50 songs and it was the very first talkie. That is the way of telling the story. Our film making traditions have evolved out of the renderings of the Ramayana, the Shankuntalam and the Mrichakatikam. Some music directors are averse to the idea of lip-syncing in our films, but we come from a culture of story telling through music.
Pain, poetry or the process, which is the toughest?
Poetry is an outlet and part of the healing. The process is an experience we go through. After an incident happens, it stays in a non-man’s land – between the conscious and unconscious mind. For instance, I have been through hunger but I couldn’t write about hunger when I was in the situation. I needed a distance to write about it. But not that much that the umbilical chord between the experience and the expression breaks.
Have our films redefined romance?
Yes of course because pining has stopped. Today everything is accessible. And accessibility is not great for romance. When things are easy, your passion reduces. Imagine, could we have a Romeo –Juliet kind of romance if they spoke all their feelings on a cell phone?
The boldest films you have seen?
Fire, Garam Hawa, Shahid and Aakrosh have raised some pertinent issues.
What happened to the angry young man in Indian cinema? Has he been replaced or has be evolved?
The angry young man hasn’t been replaced. A lover boy came in for a bit and vanished. We are talking about the persona of a hero. A hero is the personification of contemporary morality and ethics. The moment morality changes, heroes change.
At one time the heroes were men- Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna etc. Today the leading man is a boy not a man and the leading lady is a girl not a woman. Films reflect the changing market because the audiences are between 18-20 years of age.
Have we defined the contemporary onscreen heroine?
I think we are still grappling to define who is a feminist onscreen. We haven’t really pin pointed the modern contemporary woman. Conservatives are in no hurry to nail her because it works for them. The liberals are not sure who she is. So we have warped points of view – in one film there is a woman character that says that I’ll marry after I sleep with one man from every nationality. Is that what is women’s liberation? I am not sure. Also the number of women smokers is on the rise and the male smokers have gone down. Is that women’s liberation? I am not sure. Are they implying that they are free. I think we are still totally in the dark. A Meena Kumari in Mai Chup Rahungi reflected the morality of her times. Even we know that the times of the goongi gudiya is out and the bluff is called now.
If we don’t have a clear-cut definition of a contemporary woman shown onscreen, we cannot have great cinema. We will only confuse the audiences.
What are the lyrics and poetry that you go to when you are with yourself?
Urdu is staple to me though these days I have bilingual dreams. I studied English literature and enjoy it but Urdu is like daal chawal to me. I enjoy all kinds of cuisines but my own is my comfort food. But if I am sleeping and you throw water on me, chances are that I won’t shout at you in English.
How difficult is it to be simple?
If you take yourself too seriously, people are going to make fun of you. The idea is to lighten up. People who are arrogant and conceited have low self -esteem and are not self -assured. They become very entertaining.
Fire up your Emotion
Good poetry needs to be felt. If it is only about rationality and philosophy, you ‘ll be convinced but it won’t appeal to you. It is important that a thought has emotional quotient. Only then will fire another heart. There is a challenge to writing. You have to break the pulpit but you cannot be condescending.