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Verse, unfettered

Versatility is his middle name. Meet poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar



Poet Javed Akhtar. Pic. by K. Pichumani

"I STARTED my career as the clapper boy for "Aaj Ki Baat" in Vikram Studio, Kodambakkam," he chuckles. "At 19, it was thrilling to be in showbiz, fetching the hero's jacket, or the heroine's sandals."

Javed Akhtar's arrival in Madras in 1964 proved a lucky launching pad. Years of struggle prepared the boy to become Bollywood's best known scriptwriter. In tandem with the then equally unknown Salim, he transformed lanky Amitabh Bachchan into the sensational "Angry Young Man" of blockbusters such as "Zanjeer," "Deewar" and "Sholay." His electrifying dialogues were recited by rapt fans across India. The Salim-Javed label became box office mantra.

Their split, its reasons still a mystery, stunned the industry, but did not stop Akhtar's string of hits.

He also discovered a new voice as lyricist. His songs ("1942-A Love Story", "Sardari Begum", "Saaz", "Godmother", "Lagaan", "Kal Ho Na Ho") won as many awards as his scripts. "Sangam" with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a landmark, "Tum Yaad Aye" and "Breathless" confirmed his success beyond cinema.

"Tarkash," a collection of verse — India's first audio book — established Javed Akhtar as a poet, inspiring a series of M. F. Husain paintings. Tongue-in-cheek acclaim as "the architect of Indian pop and yuppy culture" was balanced by poet Sardar Jafri identifying him as the "first poet of city life in Urdu."

Javed Akhtar was in Chennai on National Flag Day (Aug 31) to participate in `Tiranga,' along with classical musicians Pandit Jasraj, Shivkumar Sharma, L. Subramaniam and Mandolin Srinivas. That the poet's voice mesmerised listeners as much as the music of the masters did tell you something about Akhtar's charisma.

Hours before the show, the artiste-activist talked about his concerns with the same seriousness and savoir faire. "India has not lost its tolerance and capacity to co-exist with diversities. Global exposure and market forces have made fascism outdated."

But yes, he is worried about the new kind of censorship, not imposed by the State, but by the people who burn books, films and paintings to `uphold' Indian culture. Hadn't wife Shabana Azmi been involved in Deepa Mehta's "Earth" and "Water" controversies?

Akhtar doesn't blame the people. "We've made many blunders in the name of secularism," he said. "How can secular parties have the moral courage to confront fundamentalism in the majority community, when they turn a blind eye to fundamentalism in minority groups for the sake of appeasement?"

Terrorism is a major problem. To exterminate the germ, we must discover why and where it breeds. "But if you talk about the causes of ethnic strife, you are accused of rationalising, even supporting violence!"

In his mainstream film scripts at best he could slip in a few liberal ideas.

"My poetry is not commissioned. There I'm free to say what I want. I do." But doesn't he write in Urdu, a language nudged out of existence in free India by Hindi? "Urdu was not the language of Muslims, but of urban culture in U.P., M.P. and Bihar," he explained ruefully. It belonged to a highly sophisticated, aesthetic and courteous way of life.

"Cut the language and you destroy the culture." He pointed out the irony in Bangla-speaking East Pakistan breaking away from the imposition of Urdu, while regions in north India were deprived of their mother tongue. Urdu survives in the Devanagari script, and in the entertainment world.

With a poet ancestor who was Mirza Ghalib's friend, and poet/film lyricist Jaan Nissar Akhtar and writer Safia for parents, Javed Akhtar belongs to the seventh generation of writers in his family.

With this overwhelming legacy, did he have an option not to be a poet? "I resisted for a long time as I wanted to become a director," he laughed. "I never wrote poetry till my father died."

Son Farhan Akhtar has fulfilled the father's dream by breaking fresh ground in "Dil Chahta Hai" and "Lakshya." The father could not hide his pride when he disclosed that Farhan and daughter Zoya (named after a Leningrad Underground Resistance leader) have written five songs in English for Gurinder Chaddha's "Bride and Prejudice."

Finally, you want to know how his marriage to the outspoken, causes-championing actress Shabana Azmi influenced him.

"Spouses are bound to influence each other, in both dos and don'ts. I'm lucky to have someone with whom I can share so much. (Mischievously) She feels the same, hopefully, hanh...?

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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