July 24 2014
One of Bollywood’s most enigmatic and divergent voices was in London recently and spoke expansively about his life and career…
SNAKE-DANCING, cracking a hundred jokes (or what seemed like it) and reciting famous Hindi dialogues were just some of the antics that endeared Bollywood idol Farhan Akhtar to his audience at the British Film Institute (BFI) last Wednesday (July 16).
Mind you – he could well have just stood there on the stage at screen one at the BFI Southbank in London, blown a raspberry, done a moonie and the audience would still have lapped it up as “funny, genius and original”.
It was that sort of crowd.
They loved it and him, and really he didn’t need to say an awful lot for their opinions to move one way or the other. It was already, to a man and woman (and two-year-old girl who came for a hug), in the ‘utterly besotted camp’.
Appearing in a screen talk with film aficionado magazine “Sight and Sound” editor Nick James, as part of the London Indian Film Festival (July 10-17), Akhtar in many ways epitomised new Bollywood cool.
He is a man of prodigious talents: producer, director, screenwriter, lyricist and actor.
But perhaps most recently, it is his starring role in the 2013 film, “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” (BMB), which has won him a whole new round of fans and admirers (especially those womenfolk who swoon at his much vaunted and sculpted six-pack).
He declined to show it – even though James did make a gentle request. “My jacket’s glued on,” quipped Akhtar.
He is among a handful of filmmakers credited with bringing a new sensibility to Bollywood, creating more realistic and engaging storylines and taking more chances on challenging audiences and believes Bollywood and independent Indian cinema are getting closer together but there are elements that still need to change.
BMB is a biopic of one of India’s most famous athletes, Milkha Singh, who narrowly missed out on a medal at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960 in the 400m event. He did win Commonwealth Games Gold for the same event in 1958 and it remains one of the few achievements by an Indian track athlete.
Akhtar’s portrayal of Singh has been hailed as one of the best performances in Indian cinema in recent years and he virtually swept the board when it came to acting awards in India last year.
The 40-year-old Akhtar trained hard and underwent a punishing regime which saw him eschew his favourite burger and chips.
He admitted to the audience it was tough but he was very taken by Milkha Singh’s story and director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s passion for the project.
“He (Rakeysh) was so motivated by Milkha’s story – Milkha’s a big hero for him.
“Rakeysh is a sportsman, he used to swim at a national level and he had heard stories about how hard Milkha used to train, so when I met him (Rakeysh), I could see he was in love with this film and he really wanted to share this love with people and that really did motivate me.
“And when I met Milkha and he told me everything that went on in his life and I met his family, and they were so warm and welcoming, it felt like we have to do whatever it takes, so that when they and Rakeysh see the movie they won’t feel they have made a mistake by casting me – that really got me going.
“It all stemmed from Milkhaji’s amazing life and the director’s passionate commitment.”
A clip was shown from the film which depicts young cadets dancing and singing boisterously to the beat of a Bhangra-style track.
Akhtar revealed that there were only three professionals involved in the sequence – the rest were all actual army cadets and that the scene was based on Milkha’s own experience of army life.
Akhtar told the audience that every now and then the soldiers were allowed to let their hair down and Milkha would really go for it.
The clip is below
While this has been Akhtar’s most notable role to date, he also appeared in sister director Zoya’s films also.
He was one of the trio of male friends in “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara”, a film that broke ground in its production values and storyline.
Many felt it could be seen and enjoyed by those quite averse to conventional Bollywood fare – and even though it does have music and dancing of a sort – set in the Spanish festival of La Tomatina (when people immerse themselves in tomatoes), it has a grown up storyline that charts the fate of friends on a stag holiday. Akhtar said that none of the actors could bear to look at a tomato for six months after filming eight hours a day with them.
Raised in a filmmaking family, Farhan’s father, Javed is a poet, screenwriter, lyricist and all-round wiseman, his mother, Honey Irani, started out as a choreographer and later acted, directed and wrote.
Akhtar’s first film “Dil Chahta Hai” (which Akhtar himself loosely translated as, ‘Why did he do that?’) in 2001 is regarded as a seminal work, changing the shape of Bollywood films, winning awards, and garnering much respect.
Akhtar wrote the film which charts the course of friendship between three relatively well to do men on the verge of marrying and settling down and making the big decisions in life.
Though it featured two big Bollywood stars in Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan and another one big at the time, Akshaye Khanna, it had a different sensibility to the usual Bollywood fare and there were no staged dancing numbers, only music.
The film drew on Akhtar’s experiences as a young man and his desire to write something about the nature of friendship and its challenges.
“In 1996, I took a very extensive trip around the US, and it was the first time I really travelled alone, I was 20 and a lot of that came into this film,” he explained after a clip was shown to the audience. “And the characters are a blend of people I know.”
One of the scenes is among the most popular in modern Bollywood and features the three men overlooking the sea from a high vantage point in Goa (Chapora Fort). For a short time, there is no dialogue.
“I wanted to convey the beauty of three people being comfortable with each other,” said Akhtar.
He revealed that the scene where a ship comes into the shot at the end was not taken in Goa but in Australia, where some of the film is also set.
He said that a lot of people continue to send him photographs of themselves and friends from this particular spot.
Perhaps most tellingly of all, the film features a highly unusual romance – and one that goes against many Bollywood norms.
Khanna’s character Sid falls in love with a much older woman and who has a drink problem and their relationship barely materialises and leads to rifts in Sid’s friendship with Aakash (Aamir Khan).
“I wanted to change the dynamics about what a relationship is meant to be about,” revealed Akhtar. “I think Aakash’s (negative) reaction would be the reaction of most people.”
The woman in question, Tara, was played by Dimple Kapadia, a considerable Bollywood star making a return to the big screen after something of a hiatus.
Akhtar had then announced himself with “Dil Chatha Hai” and had – probably to many, stepped out of the shadows of his illustrious father.
His first film was co-produced by Ritesh Sidhwani, and the company they set up to make films, Excel Entertainment.
Akhtar explained how he stuck to creative affairs, while Sidhwani focused on budgets and other such concerns after James asked how difficult it was for him to combine a producer’s role with acting.
“The production side is handled by Ritesh and we say: ‘This is the film we should be making’, and we sit down with the director and look at creating (the film).
“I don’t get involved in budgeting or hands on production, that’s not my thing and I am completely reliant on Ritesh for that. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know whether there would be an Excel, we balance each other out.”
As a director, Akhtar also enjoyed considerable success with “Don”, which was a remake of 1978 classic with Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s biggest star in the lead role.
For his film, Akhtar cast Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), arguably the most popular actor of his generation, and a good friend, in the lead.
He said he was good friends with Khan before casting him and they had bonded over things like snake-dancing and then proceeded to show the audience what this was exactly.
Akhtar said the original film and fearsome character of ‘Don’ had stayed with him and he felt compelled to redress it – his father had co-written the original script.
“There’s this line in ‘Don’, where he says: ‘It’s not difficult to catch Don, it’s impossible’ and in the original ‘Don’ says this line, and dies 15 minutes later.
“That always bothered me and I wanted to correct it. I wanted to give that line the respect it deserved.”
He said the role for SRK was a personally important milestone – the 1978 film with Bachchan had had a huge impact on him – so much so that the young Shah Rukh used to recite lines from the film, imagining he was playing ‘Don’.
“It was a dream come true for him,” revealed Akhtar.
His own acting debut came in a film called “Rock On” in 2008.
He recalled meeting director Abhishek Kapoor quite randomly in a bar in Mumbai.
Kapoor knew Akhtar had already composed and devised lyrics for film songs alongside both his father and sister, Zoya.
“He (Kapoor) said he wanted to use my voice in the film and asked me whether I wanted to act.”
When Akhtar read the story about the lead singer of a rock group, who doesn’t quite make it first time around but later enjoys success 10 years later and is reunited with his ex-girlfriend and other band members from that time, he was hooked.
“It was an amazing story and I said immediately I want to be part of this film. He had no idea that I sang, so when I landed up at a recording studio with my guitar, he must have thought I was taking it all a bit too seriously,” Akhtar chuckled.
The film enjoyed much critical acclaim and it was regarded as another significant achievement for what was loosely being called, Indian ‘parallel cinema’ or ‘new wave’.
Often the storylines were more realistic and far less formulaic and more challenging for audiences.
And so what is next for the multi-talented Akhtar?
He said he wanted to devote some time to his wife and two young children but was also far from done on the work front.
He has not given up on acting either.
“It’s very age related, it’s a time people think you are hungry about wanting to do a certain level of work, so this is a good time for experimenting with different roles and different films and I’m enjoying it tremendously.”
He said he chose to do a film as an actor because he had some deep and instinctual connection to the script.
“It’s about listening to the inner voice, what excites you, and if there is no reason to say no, you should say ‘yes’. Somethings sound extremely promising on paper but there’s something you can’t connect with and you must say ‘no’ because that script will find someone who believes in it, the way you believe in something else.”
He said he will also go back to writing.
“There’s been a gap of two to three years and I have a lot of material which will eventually make its way to the screen.”
But most of all, you can definitely expect to see him in the director’s chair again.
“I definitely want to direct again and directing is my first love by far, and I will go back to direction.”