The multi-faceted Javed Akhtar was in Bengaluru recently for a poetry festival and chatted with BT
How is it to be in Bengaluru?
I was here last year, and had performed Kaifi Aur Main here. I used to come frequently here at one point in time. When I think of Bengaluru, I think of Sholay, as the movie was made here. I have spent many months here during the film’s making.
You have written for two Kannada films — Premada Kanike and Raja Nanna Raja — as part of Salim-Javed. Do you still get offers?
I can’t write for Kannada films because of my language limitation. It is my loss that I do not know this great language.
Are you impressed by the sudden resurgence in poetry among urban youth?
I feel we are moving towards some kind of renaissance. I see the curiosity about literature, particularly poetry, being a revival in our society thanks to the young generation and I am deeply touched by it. I see it all over India, and that makes me hopeful. We as a generation have abdicated our responsibility — our parents had given us cultural heritage, but our priorities
were so materialistic that we forgot to hand it over to the next generation. But thankfully, the younger generation has realized the loss. Now I am optimistic.
Does your interaction with the youngsters also reflect in the songs you write for films today?
When I had joined film industry, the public was god. Now public has gone out of the frame, the latest god is the youth. But I think filmmakers have a low opinion of the youth’s IQ, which I do not agree with. If the writing is deep and meaningful, they are like, ‘Youth ko yeh nahi chalta hai’ or ‘Unhe toh light he chahiye’. What has happened is that the tempo of life has increased, and there has to be compatibility or a synthesis between the beat of life and arts. But young people are not willing to waste their time on false, hollow rhetoric. They have a kind of aversion towards flowery language, big talk and intricate dialogue. They want you to say what you mean. The youth will appreciate you if you write from the heart and be communicative in minimum words in understandable language.
There was a time when the likes of Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri used to write lyrics for Bollywood songs. But cut to now, do you think poetry is going out of Bollywood songs?
Going out is putting it very kindly. I think it has gone out. There was a time when Sahir Ludhianvi, Shailendra, Majrooh, Kaifi, Bharat Vyas, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kavi Pradeep and Shakeel used to write for Bollywood. But we should understand songs are written for a situation. You can write a song only as a part of the narrative. So it is not possible to put a song like ‘Jane Woh Kaise Log They’ in a happy-go-lucky film or ‘Ye Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye Toh Kya’ in a movie about an ambitious person. So, the story should be such that it should provide place for such kind of songs. You have to have great talent, but need a situation and a tune that will give enough time and space to the words to sync in. Now there is a trend that the percussion in a song is above the voice, so the words become a riddle. These conditions are not conducive for songs with a certain depth. Despite that, I think some of the new lyricists are doing good work and seem to be extremely talented. I am sure if given an opportunity, they will do even better.
Do you think we underestimate our literary geniuses?
Sahir was the first songwriter to bring thought to Bollywood songs. He was one person whose literary poems and Bollywood songs were not very different — his songs are pure literature. He didn’t have any contempt for film songs. In fact, he gave the songs a lot of dignity. And I think Shailendra’s lineage of shayari starts from Kabir. He was capable of saying deep thoughts in simple minimalistic words.
We as a race do not respect our people because of low self-esteem. Go to the British National Museum, there is a hall where manuscripts of poets like Shakespeare, Blake and Oscar Wilde are kept. In the same hall, they have kept Yesterday (which was a pop song) in Paul McCartney’s handwriting. This is confidence. We are not brave enough to give the respect to Anand Bakshi that he deserves because he is a Bollywood lyricist. This is our inferiority complex.
Speaking of self-esteem, Naseeruddin Shah recently commented that Rajesh Khanna brought mediocrity to Bollywood. Are we belittling our legends?
Naseeruddin Shah does not like successful people. I have not heard him saying good things about one person who is successful — he has criticized Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan.
What do you have to say between comparisons between you and Gulzar?
There is no need to make any comparisons. Different writers have different styles and any style can produce good and bad work. It is very difficult to write good poetry. But it is even more difficult to write poetry in a style that is only yours. When I hear Gulzar Sahab’s songs, I immediately know it is written by him. It is not an ordinary achievement. I have great respect for his work.
Do you want your son, Farhan, to write Hindi poetry?
Parents should stop wanting after a stage and should respect their kids individuality. One shouldn’t expect from other generation to lead a life that is your fantasy. It is their life and every parent should respect that. I am, in fact, bothered when parents take it upon themselves to get their kids married. When Farhan and Zoya were in the last lap of being teenagers, one day I sat them and said to them, ‘Now you are towards the end of your graduation, I am here to help and support you. But as a parent, I don’t think it is my responsibility to get you married. If you can’t decide who you should marry — you shouldn’t get married at all. Most of the marriages are mistakes anyway, so make it yourself? Why should I do it for you?’
You have seen politics up close as a member of parliament. Does it make its way into your writing?
Any sensitive situation, especially in a democratic set-up, will get you to think. And opinions shape what you write. But I am against deciding a topic to write poetry on. That becomes an article. Poetry is in the realm between the conscious and the subconscious mind. So, it should be a combination of your thoughts and feelings.
You are a multi-faceted personality. Have you ever considered direction?
I keep on fantasizing about it, but I don’t know when I will do it or if I will do it at all. Writers become lazy, you know.
Do you have a ritual while writing?
Writers have many fads, but my only thing is that I prefer a plain paper, one that is not ruled. In the preface to my book ‘Talking Songs’, Shabana (Azmi) has written that if producers come to know how quickly I write the songs, they will stop paying me. So, the source of my inspiration is the terror of not meeting the deadline.Does the actor matter to you while writing the lyrics?
Oh yes, it matters a lot. So as a scriptwriter I must accept my limitation — I cannot afford a bad actor. In fact, I am mortally scared of them. I have not written such good scripts that can be carried by bad actors. A bad actor is like a wall that will stop your words from reaching the public. I have been very lucky that when Salim Sahab and I were working together, we had the most competent actor of our times (Amitabh Bachchan). If we had bad actors, then we could never have created the magic. An actor is like the centre forward in the team. If he is bad, then no matter how many balls you pass to him, he will put it outside the goal.
Bollywood today is dominated by dynasties — Kapoors, Roshans and now Akhtars. In such a situation, what scope does it leave for the newcomers?
See Shah Rukh Khan or Ranveer Singh. The fact is that the film industry is the only place where dynasties can’t work. You can give your child the chance — it is your duty too to some extent. But you cannot manipulate whether he will survive in the industry. You can’t impose what people will like. That will only be decided by the public.