Over the years whenever Javed Akhtar saab has come to Dubai, I have had the golden chance to speak and interact with him. An institution by himself, he will patiently explain a tough urdu word during a mushaira by translating it for you, enthrall you with his own nazms and shayiri, pause to spin on a word’s rhetoric and pull your leg jocularly mid-conversation creating a general camaraderie of humour, good will, knowledge and happiness. Here are some excerpts from my interview with the master taken from the back seat of a car while dropping him back to the Hyatt Regency from my friends Irfan Azhar and Deeba Irfan’s home at Jumeirah Park. Javed saab was in Dubai attending the Jash-e-Javed event organized by Jash-e- urdu group where shayars from India and Pakistan were invited. The event also celebrated his and the iconic Shabna Azmi’s 37th wedding anniversary in Dubai.
Do you consider today cinema to be today’s literature?
I think in the 1940s, cinema and literature were very near to each other. This is true till the beginning of the sixties. The emerging Middle class, that consumes cinema the most, then would have been the third or fourth generation educated masses and they were close to the classics and literature. But after the era of liberalization, there emerged a middle class in overwhelming numbers that was different. They lived a higher quality of life, their children went to good schools were turning towards a better future. In this race, quite a lot of things were lost including the habit of reading and literature. Also, there was a big advent in technology and the focus shifted away towards knowledge and not reading. We know that today, reading habits have declined and we are yet to develop the same relationships with books or works of art, as we used to. We have a keen younger generation waiting to look for more stimuli from the baggage our generation left on the platform. I am not a pessimist. But how many films today are based on classics. On that account, we are still a long way before we say today’s cinema is today’s literature.
Is it a challenge to write for a younger generation addicted to social media today?
Life has increased its tempo and its fast pace. People won’t accept stories that are slow. We have to be careful yet not surrender to the pace of the modern times. There has been a compromise between speed and depth and one shouldn’t rule another. Also, rhetoric has gone out of fashion. There was time when language was art itself and people would express their art through their control of language with great flourish. Today brevity is the virtue. Saying a 100 different things in ten words is the challenge. But shortening things has its benefits because it cuts out fluff and gets more real. One-liners are more interesting to a population rather than use whole sentences. There is no room for elaborate descriptions or melodrama. Films used to adopt the language of the theatre. Now they adopt the language of the streets.
How do you see the rampant trend of biopics in Indian cinema?
A shortage of real stories pushes people for biopics. Also, actors cannot be blamed since they can only accept what is offered to them. Biopics give a ring of the truth and real and reality stories are very important to us.
Do you see OTT democratize content?
A great development in these days in the advent of OTT. It has not only brought in good content, I believe that this deluge of good content will not remain water-tight for very long. It will start affecting mainstream cinema because the audiences are the same for both platforms. It will push commercial cinema to increase its level of authenticity and reality. Commercial cinema has to up its ante to match the reach and the popularity of OTT.
How do you distinguish a good song from a popular song today?
As you are aware that a lot of songs get pushed by sponsorship for its million views etc. So what is popular today need not necessarily be authentic. A good song or a hit song cannot be measured till the time the publicity for the song is withdrawn. If it survives, it is a good song. So many songs come and go without a trace that is why. Today all the music reality show contestants who are in the age group of late teens or mid-twenties still sing the songs of the sixties. Why? Why don’t they sing new songs? It is because the hype that is created around a new song might be unreal. Also,it is largely enforced on you through various channels. The moment the sponsorship is gone and you remember it, then it is a popular song.
Do you see romance dwindle from Bollywood movies?
Romance is getting lost from real life too and that is reflected in movies. Love is there but there is a difference between love and romance. Romance has a drama and dream like quality. It has pining within it, it has distance and the sweet emotion of waiting. Today, with technology, that wall is broken. There is no pining left. You can reach out to your lover or girl-friend easily. Do you think Romeo and Juliet today wouldn’t have texted each other?
There is a big movement in the world of independent Indian music. How do you see it grow?
I welcome it with open arms. Good music doesn’t need the vehicle of Bollywood to carry it forward anymore. Shankar Mahadevan and I and a few of our friends have gotten together to start a company called Gun Guna Lo and it will be the Netflix of music. Each shareholder will contribute 4 songs every year. This will be of his/her choice and we won’t interfere with the creative process. About 30-35 members will create a bank of songs of their own choice and it will be on this platform we are creating. The royalty will go to the creator and a tiny part to the company. It has the who’s who of the music world in it and I believe aristes will feel more secure, empowered and free with this initiative
Are you critical of your children’s work?
I am critical but by and large they have done excellent work and I am appreciative of what they do. Their standard of good work is very high and they have imposed it upon themselves and aren’t willing to compromise their standards at all.
You are such a successful name yet you say that terror motivates you?
I m a very lazy man. I keep talaoing my work and when I am dangerously near a deadline, I start to work. Sometimes the work I have done is unimaginable. I have written lyrics while on my way to the recording studio, at the back seat of my car. I am lucky to have made it this far. One day I will be caught!
How do you protect your inner space?
I will quote the Gita here. Arjun asks Krishna how much should one be involved in life and he gives him the example of a lotus leaf that floats on water. It is wet on one side but the other side is absolutely dry. It signifies attachment and detachment. You need objectivity and subjectivity in a person. While we go through love, friendships and relationships, the other side should watch it with a discerning eye just like you watch an OTT show. So you are both in it and outside it. That is where humour comes from. If you start taking things seriously, you become a very boring person. Also, a little objectivity makes you look at things clearly. There is joy and sorrow in making mistakes but it is inevitable. Just don’t repeat them. Make new mistakes.
How do you see content change post the pandemic?
It is yet to be seen. We will come out of it slowly because the pandemic is still around. If we write a contemporary script, should we mention Corona or not is the question. What is the protagonists come with masks on their faces. Should be set the story in post or pre- pandemic era. We have had three years of the pandemic. How do we negate that out of our stories.
Two creative people in a marriage that lasted 37 years. How did you manage it?
The terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ have gathered a lot of moss around them. They are institutions that have coined these terms and the caveats to each. Two people = be it two brothers, sisters, business partners, lovers, can live happily with each other by respecting and loving each other, looking after themselves, and each other’s respect, their egos and internalizing the reality that the other is as important as them. That the other has the right to dream and pursue it. This is particularly important to men than women. You are not the son and your partner’s life is not meant to orbit around you or spin around your needs. Every person is a star in himself. If we accept that, things are smooth. Also,there is a gross misunderstanding of the word equality. Equality doesn’t mean that both partners will be equal. It means that it shouldn’t be one partner’s privilege to have the final authority. Leadership should move and shift between them as per the situation.
What are the films that you would like to see remade today?
I have nothing against remakes but if a script has explored his final optimum and flourished, I would leave it alone. But if it hasn’t due to reasons of budget, writing or any other reason and can be improved upon, then why not. I feel that Meri Jung and Arjun can be made better today because my script fell short in the second half I feel. I think it could be improved. I am told that Arth is going to be remade again. It all depends on who is playing Shabana’s role. Any actor who cannot come up to her level will be rejected.
So, are you self-critical?
You better be. When you are working, you are totally involved, be it a chapter, a poem or a book. Don’t fall in love with what you have written because you might have to be merciless when you edit it. You should be totally unforgiving of your work if it doesn’t match a certain standard. Cut everything out if the impact is not there. The narrative won’t get damaged but you have to be honest to it.
Any recent films you have enjoyed watching?
I don’t believe that all films of the past were good films. People often romanticize of the past era like that. There were good and bad films back them as they are now. But I have watched and admired Article 15, Udaan and Masaan.