A real all-rounder
He has managed to dazzle in all his creative beginnings, showing high promise in his debut as a writer-director in Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and in his first film as an actor-singer, Rock On!! (2008). And now, Farhan Akhtar has proved, conclusively, that he does not need home-ground to ‘excel’ and ‘entertain’ (his banner’s name is Excel Entertainment!).
In his first released outside film as an actor, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Farhan has given his finest and most nuanced performance yet. The much-applauded biopic made by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra is not only a commercial hit, but was also in the shortlist race for the Oscars. The son of writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar and actress-writer-director Honey Irani has proved that it’s all genetics — because even his distinct individuality is an inheritance.
Donning different hats
While it takes weeks to pin down the man for a meeting, the wait is worth it. Asked about what inspired him to take up Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he candidly admits that he found Milkha Singh’s life such a heart-moving and emotional saga that he loved the idea of sharing it with the world.
Farhan says that it never entered his mind to know which elements of the script were dramatised for the screen, or were even completely fictional. “See, I did not even want to discuss these points. I was given a role and a script, and if I did not believe in everything as real, I would not have been able to deliver.” For this reason, Farhan did not even query Milkha Singh himself about anything in the script, though they had several meetings.
Coming up next is Shaadi Ke Side/Effects, directed by Saket Chaudhari and co-starring Vidya Balan for Pritish Nandy Communications, in which Farhan tries his hand at romantic comedy in this sequel to Pyaar Ke Side/Effects. Shifting from a demanding biopic to his first comedy, however, was not a strain at all.
“You just have to be true to your creative instincts,” he feels. “Comedy is about two vital points — great timing, for which one must have an understanding of humour, and about being able to keep a straight face. Any great comic, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen or anyone in India, has these twin abilities very well developed.” And Farhan should know his comic ropes, given the path-breaking sense of fun he displayed in his very first film, Dil Chahta Hai.
Not many are, however, aware of Farhan’s other activities outside his own production banner. Apart from acting in Fakir of Venice even before Rock On!! (the film was shown at international festivals but never released in India), he has written the English portions of the popular song O Re Chhori for Lagaan (his father wrote the Hindi lyrics) and penned the English lyrics of Anu Malik’s Bride And Prejudice with sister Zoya. Farhan’s latest enterprise is a live band. “My friend Sarosh and I are its only constant members. The rest keep changing!” he chuckles.
About his versatility, he says, “I never did anything just because I wanted to try it out. I had to know within that I was ready to venture into that particular field.”
So what made him take to direction in the maiden script he wrote, Dil Chahta Hai? “To be honest, the film was written as a random script. As the characters and events evolved, with a lot of autobiographical touches, the script became close and personal. I could not trust others with it, so I had to direct it myself. Now, I am often asked when I will direct a film again. The answer is: not until something similar motivates me! I have directed four diverse films, including Lakshya, Don and Don 2, which were totally different despite a common protagonist.”
Lakshya, he maintains, changed him as a human being. Having travelled a lot in India and the world for shooting his films, from Goa and Ladakh to Spain and Germany, it was being in Ladakh for months during that film that taught him a lot about himself, his endurance capacity, interests and everything the Indian soldiers go through to protect the nation. He went back there to shoot a key sequence in Bhaag… too.
Who then are his inspirations as directors? Farhan quips, “I was asked this question first after Dil Chahta Hai released, and told the journalist who asked this that I would send him the list through a fax that was many feet long! Basically, I am inspired more by certain schools of filmmaking. I prefer to make films with characters resembling real people, like Manoj Kumar, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Akira Kurosawa did. Don was an exception, as I wanted to rework the older film in my own way.”
By nature, Farhan has always preferred to understate. His father, who wrote the dialogues for Lakshya, had once mentioned that his son was against playing to the gallery to get the claps and whistles that punch-lines usually elicit from the audience. “Yes, I prefer more close-to-life writing,” agrees Farhan. “It is better suited to my style of cinema. I have written Rock On!! and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara that way too. However, I admire the Salim-Javed style as well.”
Farhan also admires his parents for bringing up Zoya and him impeccably, despite the fact that they separated when both of them were small kids. “I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t affected, but dad and mom became friends and the initial hurt actually rejuvenated their relationship,” he says. “And though we lived with mom, dad was always there for us and we did not miss anything by way of parenting.”
And when it came to the children deciding to follow the parental profession, Farhan adds, “They exposed Zoya and me to the best of world cinema — Italian, Japanese, Chinese, you name it. Though this was a self-education process and gave us good technical know-how, we would be foolish if we do not consult them on our movies even now. They are very good sounding boards. My father also writes lyrics for all my productions, and he is a very easy, fun man to work with!” he smiles.
So, why did his father not write lyrics for his production Fukrey, like he has done for all 11 productions of Excel? “Mrighdeep Singh Lamba brought a project that was ready on paper, complete with lyrics by his writers and him. Ritesh Sidhwani, my partner, and I decided to back the film.”
Ritesh, his childhood buddy and now business partner, and Farhan have been in amazing sync throughout their association. “We have a common vision for cinema, besides agreeing on almost all aspects of it,” says the actor-writer-director.