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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