Over the past decades, Javed Akhtar, one of India's most renowned lyricists and scriptwriters, has become an undeniable Bollywood icon. Not only has Akhtar created an unprecedented wealth of work for Indian cinema, and some of its most brilliant imagery, he is also a distinguished poet, a voice calling for freedom, goodwill and artists' rights.
In a discussion held on 12 April as part of the India by the Nile Festival, Akhtar spoke about his career, views on poetry and the Indian film industry.
The winner of numerous awards and recognitions, Akhtar's most celebrated works are screenplays he wrote with scriptwriter Salim Khan for the famed Indian movies of the 1970s and early 1980s, until the celebrated duo chose to split.
Going solo, Akhtar began writing lyrics, starting with Silsila (1980). He is credited today for the lyrics of over 80 films and the scripts of more than 20, many of which became among the most successful productions in India's cinematic history.
Presenting his beginnings, Akhtar pointed to the many 'random incidents' which transported him from writing dialogues for small movies to his first cooperation with Khan, the 1966 production Sarhadi Lutera -- a major breakthrough in both scriptwriters' careers.
"After that, many pictures followed and we gave 11 major hits in a row," Akhtar recalled, describing the changes in his life as he slowly moved from 100-rupee commissions to those amounting to 5000.
"Life offers you a package that you need to deal with. There is nothing exceptional about me. I left my parents' home to go to Mumbai where I was fortunate to find the support of some people. I was sleeping in a variety of places, I did not catch any fatal disease and I did not lose my sight," as Akhtar described his youth. "I'm not a person who believes in destiny. When you get a chance, it just happens and it's a completely random thing."
Today, it is obvious that the 'random events' life placed in Akhtar's path have helped him grow and gain recognition. "What is time?" Akhtar asks in one of his best known poems titled Waqt (Time):
What is time?
What is this thing that goes on without pause?
If it did not pass,
Then where could it have been?
It must have been somewhere.
One cannot overlook Akhtar's literary talent, coupled with determination, in his captivating life story. During the discussion in Cairo, Akhtar revealed that poetry had always been a fundamental part of his life. "My family has seven generations of poets, so it is not surprising that I started writing poetry. What is surprising is that I began doing it so late, probably at the time when other people stop writing and start doing better things," he noted with the characteristic sense of humour he inevitably injects in every comment.
"Being born to a family of poets, I knew what good poetry was -- and this fact was intimidating me. I didn’t want to write bad poetry, I wanted to rise up to the heritage that my ancestors had left," he continued.
In a book titled Progressive Urdu Poetry, authors Ali Hussein and Raza Mir quote Quarratulain Hyder, the famous Urdu novelist: "Urdu poetry flows like Niagara Falls and its spray produces countless spectra, in which Javed has now added his own little rainbow." The authors point to Akhtar's first poetry collection, Tarqash (Quiver), published in 1995, describing it as a "gift to Urdu poetry in the shape of Javed Akhtar," mentioning the great enthusiasm with which it was received from critics and readers alike.
Akhtar's poetry is as celebrated as the lyrics he writes for films. The master of both literary forms commented during the discussion: "When writing for film, there is a specific cultural background. I have to write the song for a specific situation, keeping character background in mind. When I write poetry, I choose the topic and metre. I write what I feel and this becomes the character of the poem."
His lyrics are hailed as most fitting for the setting while simultaneously reaching into the very depth of the character. "When you listen to any tune, it will talk to you," he said, "If you understand what music says, you can write what feeling music produces in you. It's not enough to write a verse as long as a musical line; music has curves and meanders. Lyrics and phonetics need to follow that."
To Akhtar, the emotional richness he infuses into poetry and lyrics is not produced by describing feelings. He insists on a relation with the reader who needs to be an insider, an active participant of the poem. Therefore, imagery must be offered to the listener's imagination. "This is when it becomes big," Akhtar explained, "Poetry happens between poet and reader. The poet gives suggestions and leaves many blanks; the reader fills them."
Akhtar's lyrics – as well as poetry – are characterised by striking simplicity. "Your language is naturally simple when you are clear about the idea. If you are not clear, then you need big words to create fog and the reader or listener needs to imagine meanings which are or are not there."
As he continues writing lyrics and poetry, Akhtar looks at the decades of changes that took place in India's cinema. Though he is not necessarily satisfied with all the transformations, he underscores that film only reflects the changes taking place in society. "Society's priorities are different now. Poetry became marginalised, and this loss reflects on everybody," he lamented.
Films, according to Akhtar, continue to portray the topics and characters expected by the viewer. He is convinced, however, that filmmakers need to stand against social influences as they possess the power to shape them.
Noticing a certain shift towards more profound values emerging in Indian cinema over recent years, Akhtar remains positive, however: "After a generation that was too busy making money to take from their parents' legacy, there is an obvious revival of values now. I'm not pessimistic, as long as people want to progress. They start asking questions about poetry and rhythms. This is good, though the sad part is that such questions are asked by people in their late 30s."