May 23, 2001


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Javed Akhtar, extempore!

Javed Akhtar has not been one to follow convention.

Javed Akhtar He began as assistant director to Kamal Amrohi, was solo dialogue writer for a few films (Sarhadi Lutera, Yakeen) and then joined forces with Salim Khan (a wannabe actor).

Together, they went on to script some of Hindi cinema's biggest blockbusters like Seeta Aur Geeta, Zanjeer, Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Deewaar, Sholay, Don, Trishul and Dostana.

He then turned to writing lyrics (poetry runs three generations up in his family) in the 1980s with Silsila and Saath Saath. He hit big with Mr India and Tezaab.

The resultant split in his association with Salim Khan also led to his going solo at scripting films like Betaab, Arjun and Saagar, and refurbishing the Salim-Javed script Mr India.

When the sleaze wave hit songwriting in the early 1990s, Javed Akhtar almost single-handedly restored the dignity of film lyrics with 1942 - A Love Story, Papa Kehte Hain and Border.

It was a prolific phase -- Javed penned songs with diverse themes and for music directors as varied as Anu Malik, A R Rahman, Zakir Hussain, Vanraj Bhatia, Bhupen Hazarika, Jagjit Singh, Raju Singh, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Shankar Mahadevan.

Off and on, Javed would announce his return to his first love -- scriptwriting.

Meanwhile, the man compered Guftagu on Zee TV. He now anchors Rahe Na Rahe Hum on Star Gold, which is aired every Saturday.

For the first time, Javed actively campaigned for the Left Front which swept the polls in the recent West Bengal Assembly elections.

On a hot evening, Dr Rajiv Vijayakar chats up Javed Akhtar in the cool refuge of his sitting room:

Javed Akhtar What is Rahe Na Rahe Hum about?

It's a show that goes down memory lane to revisit classics.

The difference between this show and others like it is I don't talk to anyone who was part of the films' team. It is essentially my own analysis, my own take on the films. It is an emotional rewind to the films that I loved as a movie buff and as a student of cinema.

The best part about the exercise is that there is no script. I speak extempore.

That means you also choose the films concerned?

Well, they gave me a long list to begin with and I have selected 26 initially. We began with Mughal-e-Azam and Ganga Jamuna.

I am looking at some really exceptional films like Pyaasa, Sujata, Satyakam, Amar Prem, Do Ankhen Barah Haath among others.

Have you included some of your own films?

No, no, I cannot give way to such pompous self-indulgence!

But don't you think that some of your films, objectively speaking, should be included?

You see, it is difficult for me to be objective about them. We might include a few later but I will have to change my approach.

How different is this from Guftagu?

Guftagu had me talking to people on social issues. Here I am talking -- that too extempore -- to the camera.

Of course, that did make me awkward for a couple of episodes.

You have actively campaigned for the first time in the recent West Bengal polls. Was this your decision or did they approach you?

Javed Akhtar They did approach me. But you see, I wanted to work for them, too.

Were you motivated only by your own leftist inclinations?

Well, I am left-oriented. But you must understand that the left front has an amazing record in West Bengal. They won all the elections there in the last 25 years. Each time, by a sweeping majority. This must be a record in democracy anywhere in the world.

And the CPI (M) has achieved this despite the consistently hostile central governments, opposition and media.

Their integrity and honesty also inspired me -- no scam or scandal associated with them for a quarter century. Their reputation is spotless and their good work gets them to power every time. That inspired me.

But the general situation in Calcutta isn't very good.

Yes, I agree there are problems, but they are in the city. But the government is doing some great work in the rural areas.

You see, I believe that strengthening the farmer can solve most of our problems. If he is not happy, there will be a rural exodus to the urban areas and will choke the already congested urban milieu, too.

Besides, if you are honest, you always face problems from the dishonest side!

Why have you not joined the CPI (M)?

I have great respect for them, but I do not want to adhere to any discipline.

You see, I want my freedom to disagree, to remain intact. I cannot toe the line for every small thing.

But communism is increasingly passe everywhere.

Yes, but I foresee the Left becoming more effective in a multi party system like India. Besides, it is the only ideology that protects the interests of the worker, especially in today's milieu where most of the politics is based on casteism and communalism.

As responsible citizens, I think the time has come for all of us to stand up against forces that are indulging in balkanisation of the country and trying to divide people on sectarian and communal grounds.

But isn't the left not casteist or communal because basically they do not believe in the Almighty?

That is a very simplistic and inaccurate view. Secularism and belief in God are not related. Let me explain. Personally, I am an atheist but I believe in secularism, which is the right to follow a religion of one's choice and have equal status in the country you belong to.

But an atheist can be communal in his thinking, while a religious person can be completely secular. Also, we must be individually free and have the right to not follow any religion at all!

Over the last few years, you have been constantly talking about returning to scriptwriting. Is it happening or not with Ramesh Sippy's new film?

Well, I must admit that I took a rather long holiday from scriptwriting. I do not know about Ramesh's film but I have now decided to write two films a year. The break came because I felt I had slackened in my enthusiasm and involvement. And that was showing in my scripts.

Besides I was thoroughly involved in writing songs for films and albums. I needed to feel excited about writing scripts; I wanted to feel hungry for them.

Having worked in another musical era with men like Laxmikant Pyarelal and R D Burman, what do you think is the musical scene going to be like in the years to come?

I think the worst is behind us. Though there is a lot of room for improvement. And the main deficiency is in the field of lyrics.

Do you agree with the statement that a song hooks the listener because of its tune but endures because of the lyrics?

In general, yes, I would agree. But you do remember even great tunes, and a song can get its initial popularity also because of lyrics that stand out.

Javed Akhtar with wife Shabana AzmiBasically, a song needs to be strong in all elements -- lyrics, music and vocals.

Why do today's lyricists need excuses like there are not enough good stories and filmmakers? You have always believed that films have had the same eight or ten situations all along. The trick is to do something innovative there...

Well, earlier, ordinary songs would have good lyrics, too. But the best lyrics would still be created for outstanding stories like Pyaasa, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Baiju Bawra and Mamta, to give just four examples.

I would diagnose the current problem this way: in those days, even the average filmmaker or the man who churned out stunt films like Tower House, Light House and whatever other house, would respect good dialogues and lyrics.

Today, songs are functional. The finer points like grammar, metaphor and style are completely ignored. The average man's vocabulary has also gone down; he cannot even express himself sometimes.

You won your fourth National Award recently. Do you react at all to the whispers that you had a lobby there every time?

This is news to me! No one has ever asked or accused me of this. Are you sure that isn't your imagination?

There are talks in music circles...

Well, I won all awards, not just the National, for Border and Refugee. In which case I must have had lobbies everywhere all those years!

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