Farhan Akhtar spun his first tall tale as a child – he told his classmates that he came to school by helicopter. “It was the first time I realized people are easy to fool, because I used to say this to kids on the bus with me,” recalled Akhtar at The Boss Dialogues with Indu Mirani recently.
Some stories in particular have been difficult to shake off, such as playing the lead in Vijay Lalwani’s 2010 thriller “Karthik Calling Karthik.” “A lot of it was firstly, just solitary work and secondly, just reacting to voices that you’re hearing on the phone,” said Akhtar. “That was a difficult one to come out of because that was the first time I felt the need to really move away from everything and put this weight on my shoulders of not having friends, of being disconnected from people; to put myself into a miserable situation and having the thought that that’s my life and nothing can change it.”
His most recent role in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s upcoming biopic “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,” scheduled to release on July 12, was particularly challenging, and not just because Akhtar had “to do runs uphill with a tyre strapped to my waist.” Like most Indians, Akhtar was aware of Milkha “The Flying Sikh” Singh winning gold medals for the 400-metre at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games in 1958. But he wasn’t prepared for the full weight of the story that Mehra narrated (and that Milkha sold the rights to for just a rupee). “It’s very rare when you hear a story and you find yourself weeping at the end of a 40-minute narration,” said Akhtar. “How he managed to achieve phenomenal things without concern of physically, emotionally, mentally, the kind of pain he put himself through… It’s a very inspiring story for young people.”
To begin with, Akhtar had to still his street-smart instincts to play a man who trusted people implicitly, and believed in sustaining relationships for life. “The character is someone who has nothing to do with city life, which is a very intrinsic part of who I am,” said Akhtar, who also had to work on “the focus you need in the eyes when you’re an athlete, and the Punjabi accent. I have to keep correcting myself now because sometimes, when I am doing a scene, to punctuate something, I might say, ‘O teri!’ and it has nothing to do with what I am playing now.”
Akhtar’s parents Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi are renowned figures in the film industry, but when he wrote the script for his well-received 2001 directorial debut “Dil Chahta Hai” based on a few of his tight circle of childhood friends, his family was floored. His stepmother and sister “were in shock for four days that I managed to write anything,” but soon rallied around with his father to be “very influential not just on me at that time but also on that script.” And his friends don’t mind. “When something exciting or funny or silly happens, I always tell them, ‘I’m making a note of this, and this will come up.’”
In fact, he only got into the movies because his mother delivered an ultimatum – “the threat of being thrown out of home” – after he’d bunked attending a year and a half of college to watch movies at home (a pursuit that subtly shaped his taste in performances and storytelling). Since then, Akhtar has been fully engaged as a producer, director, dialogue writer, lyricist, singer, and actor – and after every film he finishes, he returns to take another go at casting for a script that he’d written shortly after “Dil Chahta Hai.” “More often than not, the films that make you feel very confident – not box office confident, because who knows what happens there – that it will be a good film are the ones that resonate with you emotionally when you first hear them, or while you’re writing them; those are the ones that really matter even to people when they talk about your work,” he said. ARTINFO caught up with Akhtar about masculinity in the movies.
Sports movies are a rarity in India. Are we not interested in the genre or is it because we aren’t aware of our sporting heroes?
I don’t think that people aren’t interested in sporting films. We’re still discovering our sporting heroes, maybe now with “Paan Singh Tomar” that’s happened, with “Milkha” that’s happening now, with the Mary Kom film that’s about to happen, maybe it’s an avenue that will open up. Still, I think the people who will eventually go and make these movies, should make it because they are interested in that character – because sportspeople inspire you; that’s what sporting stories do.
Whether it’s fiction like “Rock On” or a biopic like “Milkha,” is there a type of “hero” that appeals to our generation?
I think the definition of a hero, firstly, has changed a lot. When we were growing up, we had the very classic good-versus-evil. I think it was used innocently because films were cut in terms of ‘He is always good – and he is bad so he’ll be beaten up in the end and the cops will come.” I feel that we have heroes today who at times can confuse you, as to should I really be liking this guy or not. That’s a big thing to think about, because they’re not a conventional hero in that sense. So I don’t think in every film, the lead actor or actress should be called the hero of the film; I think they should be called the protagonist, or the primary cast of the film, because if we keep calling them heroes, and we don’t really say that this is what we want to propagate, then you’ve put yourself in a very strange situation of saying this is what a hero should be like.
You’ve said that through your recent initiative MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination), you hope to ask men to redefine the prevailing concept of masculinity. You’ve emphasized the importance of seeing a generational change that could occur, “if we can start educating boys about gender equality and about what they need to feel about themselves when they go from 12 to 17; when they are in the process of saying ‘I’m a man,’ what is it that defines a man.” Is there a certain masculinity that is portrayed as acceptable in our films?
I am no one to say what is acceptable or not in films. My opinion genuinely is that what is at times considered romantic in movies or what is considered as the process of wooing, can be a cause of worry. If you’re telling me that this is the guy I have to root for in the film, then I feel that it should be a responsibility to maintain at least a certain level of decency in that character. If you’re going to show me this character jumping on top of a girl, the girl saying ‘Leave me alone,’ but he will not, and then she’ll eventually end up with the same guy, then I feel it’s okay, this is how I should woo someone because this is how everyone is doing it and nobody seems to be complaining. If you’re an impressionable mind while growing up…I mean, we all saw movies. At the age of 14, I won’t ask my dad, “So tell me how mom and you got together?” You’re going to take it in from what you see, and if what you’re going to see is your icons doing this, then it can be a bit dangerous and people need to think about it.