Javed Akhtar interview: ‘The only way to make a film is to make one that at least you will like’

In an interview, the renowned screenwriter, lyricist and poet on the craft of writing, and sexual harassment in Bollywood.

After years of writing scripts and lyrics for Hindi films, Javed Akhtar will appear in a brief role in Nandita Das’s upcoming movie Manto. The eminent screenwriter, lyricist and poet remains an active voice on Twitter, often expressing unpopular views on the issues of the day and earning the wrath of fundamentalists and trolls. Meanwhile, Akhtar is still being asked questions about Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay character, one of his most famous creations in the 1970s along with his former writing partner Salim Khan. We asked Akhtar a few more, including about whether the Bollywood star system will ever change and the prevalence of sexual harassment in the film industry.

Is it true that a biopic is being made on you, which your son Farhan will act in and direct?
I have also read so but I don’t think there is any truth to it, at the moment at least, because Farhan hasn’t said anything to me. He is probably a better person to answer this.

You recently acted in Nandita Das’s upcoming biopic ‘Manto’.
If you were watching this film in a theatre and you said, you have acted in this film, by then my part would have come and gone. You can hardly call that acting. It’s just an appearance.

Why did you never attempt production or direction?
For one, I was too lazy and then I was doing fairly well writing scripts and songs, so I never thought of doing anything else. Besides, as a writer, one always had a lot of say in our films, be it cast, location, costumes, or whatever. There was always a lot of interaction and brainstorming with the directors. That was very satisfying.

And you are now writing a script.
Yes I am, but the actors and director is yet to be decided. All I can say is that it has an unusual background and there’s something very fresh about it.

Mr India (1987).

Given the way A-list films have been performing, is the age of superstars coming to an end?
I think we tend to take very quick decisions and then we tend to change them very quickly too. You cannot evaluate a person’s career or a trend on a film-to-film basis. It should be seen over a period of time. If two films do well it does not mean a trend has started or if two films don’t do well we can’t proclaim that a era is over.

Progression is not linear. At every given time, different films are made and different films succeed. To say that any particular genre of films succeeds or has gone out of vogue is not acceptable to me. All genres remain valid all the time and in every genre, there will be good and bad films. A very boring realistic film can be made, as can a very interesting fantasy film and vice versa. A new genre is being developed too, as are being made by Aamir Khan or Zoya [Akhtar]. These are mainstream films with a level of realism that is much higher than what it used to be, and they are effective.

How can a filmmaker be sure that the movie will be successful?
Honestly, there is no such way. Films are like people, and just as some people are successful and some are not so, it is with films. The only way to make is a film is to make one that at least you will like. That way you are starting with at least one person liking the film. If you start off thinking people will like it, you have already lost 100%, which is the one person, you, who had liked it.

Is Vijay, played by Amitabh Bachchan from the films written by you and Salim Khan, still relevant?
Quite a few people in quite a few cities have asked me to write a film of that kind because they feel the angry young man is again relevant. They feel there is dissatisfaction in society, unemployment, an anger that is not finding a direction or an outlet in the younger generation.

But I don’t think anything comes back exactly in the same form as it used to be. Society, norms, ambitions, morality have all changed. So he may still be angry but he will be angry in a very different way.

Who among today’s actors could portray him?
So many. We are not short of good actors. Let us not talk of seniors like Aamir. Among today’s younger actors, it could be anyone from Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Farhan [Akhtar], Varun Dhawan. These are all very fine actors.

Take Varun. for example. Many young actors, perhaps because of their education, have a sort of inhibition for certain scenes, songs or dialogue, but Varun can do anything, dramatic or real. On the other hand, he can perform in absolutely absurd situations like Amitabh could.

Deewar (1975).

Which of your films would make you proud if your grandchildren saw them?
It is a given that whether I feel proud or not, my grandchildren will see Sholay. But I would like them to see Deewaar, Trishul, Don, Shakti, Mr India.

Has your poetry become more philosophical with time?
If I may put it this way, the first layer of my poetry was very nostalgic. It was about the past, my childhood, my adolescence, my mother, the room where I lived, the house and so on. Later on, I got more interested in the present and the future than in the past.

Now, that kind of pining or pure emotion is no longer there. It is more about thought that is felt. Just thought is dry and prosaic, be it about the universe or the socio-economic climate of the day or people who are great admirers of others, such as fans. But thoughts with feelings, these are poetry.

You are quite vocal on Twitter. Why?
The amount of misinformation and lack of information out there is shocking. If it had been benign, one could ignore it but I can see that it is malignant. Because of this misinformation or lack of information, people have many biases and prejudices that affect today’s society. It becomes imperative to correct them and tell them that this is dangerous and wrong.

What is strange is that sometimes, Muslim fundamentalists and extremists abuse me and advise me to change my name and sometimes, Hindu fundamentalists and extremists suggest that I should change my citizenship. I am neither going to change my name or my citizenship. I believe that as long as fundamentalists from both sides of the spectrum are abusing you, you are doing something right.

1947: Earth (1999).

Is it difficult to be perceived as a Muslim in these divisive times even though you are a proclaimed atheist?
The Muslim extremists do not perceive me as a Muslim and the Hindu extremists think I am a jihadi. This doesn’t disturb me at all because in comparison to these two crazy sets of people, there are millions and millions and millions of people who understand what I am saying and they stand by me. So if, on the one hand, I get hate mail, I get very positive and encouraging messages too.

As an insider, how prevalent is sexual abuse and harassment in Bollywood?
It happens rather insidiously and secretly, and every person who suffers doesn’t always report it. So it’s very difficult to have data and percentages. But common sense says it has to be prevalent because this is a phenomenon in society. It seems more in the film industry because this industry is under the microscope at all times.

Are we suggesting that women who work in the corporate sector, in government offices or as domestic helps don’t suffer? It is a general problem in hospitals, hotels and airlines too. It’s just that people get some sort of a thrill in knowing about the personal lives of those in the industry, so it is magnified.

Are we even inching towards gender equality?
Yes, we are. In spite of the reluctance of a certain segment of men, it is happening and it can’t be stopped. It will continue to happen. Things are changing more in bigger cosmopolitan cities compared to small towns, but it is trickling down.

And how much of a part will films play in this change?
Films are given much more credit than they deserve. Ultimately it’s a passive medium, it doesn’t challenge the status quo. Makers are clever enough to see that the status quo is being challenged and if they say that, they will be liked.

Honestly, we don’t have many Mahesh Bhatts, who made a film like Arth so many years back when nobody had the guts to make a film like that. You need to be crazy to be a Mahesh Bhatt and people have become very sensible and wise nowadays, unfortunately. But they also know that Main Chup Rahoongi is not acceptable to the audience and that is why the female protagonist is becoming bolder and bolder. It is not filmmakers who are changing society, it is society that is changing them.

Luck By Chance (2009).
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.