When poet, lyricist, and screenplay writer Javed Akhtar was born, his father, a diehard Communist, read out the Communist Manifesto to him, instead of reciting the azaan, the Islamic call to prayer, in his ears, as is the tradition. The seeds were sown for an extraordinary journey.
Named Jaadu by his professor-writer parents Safia and Jan Nisar Akhtar (later changed to Javed when he was enrolled at school), life was magical till the day after his eighth birthday, when his mother died, an event that changed the trajectory of his life.
In this conversational biography with documentary filmmaker and writer on films Nasreen Munni Kabir, Akhtar looks back with fondness and emotion at his life – his struggles, his mistakes, and his penchant for swimming against the tide.
“(In my family) I had politics on one side and poetry and literature on the other. It was natural that I’d be influenced by both,” he tells Kabir in Talking Life, the final part in the trilogy that includes Talking Films and Talking Songs.
Following his mother’s death, Akhtar shuffled between Lucknow, Aligarh and Bhopal – largely ignored by his father (who now lived in Bombay), and at the mercy of friends and extended family. There were times when his younger brother Salman and he had to go hungry for days, and sleep on school benches full of bugs. He revisits these dark chapters of his life in a very matter-of-fact way. There is not a grain of anger or shame, or an attempt to gain the reader’s sympathy. He narrates these episodes with his biggest weapon – humour.
He recalls his teenage years in his inimitable style: “The pujari (in Bhopal) knew we students were always broke, so sometimes he took me to the temple and would apply a teeka to my forehead. I’d ring the temple bell, and then he would pick up a few coins lying in front of the idol and give them to me.”
The only time one senses a tinge of bitterness is when he refers to his father. “I wrote to my father, asking him what he was doing. I never got a reply. All these incidents added to the growing resentment and anger I felt towards him, and our relationship became increasingly negative and strained.”
His mother’s death saddens him to this day. He remembers every single detail about her. And what he doesn’t, was described by her in beautifully crafted letters to her husband which were published posthumously. His mother had “a great sense of curiosity” and once wrote to her husband: “What is plastic? I keep hearing this word. What is it used for? Can you send some?”
When Akhtar arrived in Bombay in 1964, he was 19. He landed at the doorstep of his father, who had remarried, and had another set of children by then. Akhtar’s stepmother made it clear that he wasn’t welcome.
The two years of intense struggle that followed in Bombay – starving and without a roof over his head – is the stuff of Bollywood stories. His first job was as an apprentice at Kamal Amrohi’s company, Mahal Pictures. His salary was ₹50.
“At the entrance of studio floor number one there were some long planks and two wooden crates. They became my property. I took the two wooden crates, put a plank across them, and slept on it at night. I did not have a dhurrie, sheet or pillow. I positioned this plank-bed in such a way that the light coming from floor one fell on me so I could read at night.”
Life took a turn for the better when he teamed up with Salim Khan. Though their first film script narration resulted in a “jugalbandi of yawns”, 20 of the 24 films that the duo did together were superhits.
He tells Kabir that, whether it was Sholay, Deewar, Trishul or Don, the storyline nearly always came from Salim. “The basic twists, even the persona of the angry young man, who became so famous, were Salim Sahib’s ideas.” However, in this partnership the iconic dialogues were always his: “Mere paas ma hai”, “Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahi, namumkin hai!”
When he was asked by filmmaker Yash Chopra to write songs for Silsila, he initially resisted the idea but then started enjoying that phase of his life. He is sad that the use of the song (in films) has changed. “Sometimes, the song tells you far more than a scene. A song like Wo subah kabhi toh aayegi cannot be replaced by dialogue.”
When someone asked him recently to write a song in “everyday language”, he retorted: “In your vocabulary a song cannot be written, only a telegram, but now even that’s not possible because the era of the telegram is over.”
When Kabir asked him if filmmakers of the 1970s were secular in their thinking, he tells her, “…Art can only survive if it is secular… You cannot remain parochial, communal, narrow-minded in art… that is why the right wing all over the world has been unable to create great artistes.”
Akhtar, who fought for changes in the Copyright (Amendment) Bill, says he could have done much more if he hadn’t wasted time drinking alcohol, which he gave up decades ago. “It wasn’t guilt or any great moment of enlightenment. It was my desire to live a long life.”
Often, he thinks of death. What bothers him is that he will not be around to see what happens next. “I sometimes now ask myself – what does old age mean? I think it’s your age plus 10… The age you are ceases to be old age. Now, I am 77 – it’s no big deal, but 87 is something else!”
He also thinks about his father. “Sometimes I feel sad for him; at other times, I think he was a weak man. I’d like to know whether he was aware that he had let his children down. I never got the feeling he realised it. He believed it was he who was wronged in life – you can sense that in his poetry. It’s so easy to believe that the world has wronged you.”
Kabir presents a hitherto unknown side of Akhtar in this freewheeling candid interview. As for Akhtar, as always, he wins hearts with his honesty, and his courage to stand by his convictions.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.