‘I don’t think we must lose optimism’

Your 75th birthday has come at a special time for the Azmi-Akhtar families.

You are right! January 14 saw the hugely celebrated Kaifi Azmi centenary draw to a close. Baba Azmi’s first directorial effort — Mee Raqsam (I Dance) — a Hindi feature film — shot entirely in Mijwan, Kaifi saab’s village in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh is being shown at a private screening. An exhibition of photographs, posters and paintings curated by Pradeep Chandra and SMM Ausaja — The World of Javed Akhtar — was inaugurated by Zoya and Farhan on January 15. I honestly found the name quite pompous but I respect their regard for me. The same duo had done something similar celebrating Amitabh Bachchan in the past.

The occasion also saw the launch of a specially crafted limited edition  Javed  Akhtar pen.

Just like people, I get very sentimentally attached to small everyday objects of use. In the past when I smoked, I’ve even gone back 200 km and more to retrieve an old cigarette lighter costing Rs 50 or less. I'm quite attached to my pens too. There is a Montblanc inseparably with me for over five years. I get restless without it. It is not because there are no more Montblancs around. Though I’ve never bought one, most people think of them as the perfect gift for me. Now I've lost count of the number of Montblancs and other expensive pens, some are still lying packed for four-five years.

As someone who (along with Salim Khan) created the cult of the angry young man in films, what do you make of the current anger and protests by youth? Is this only the failing economy and loss of jobs?

The anger erupting among the youth is not only to do with economic setbacks. In the hatred, bigotry and exclusion they have seen the danger of what is coming their way. The resistance which is growing by the day stems from that. What Salim and I did while creating the angry young man was not part of any conscious intellectualisation of the socio-political angst of that era. Far from it. That was our own lived reality when we couldn't think beyond the present day. When you are located within it is not possible to have that kind of a larger vision. Those were stories we genuinely wanted to tell and they just happened to be at the right time and place. In fact, I’m glad we weren't even aware of the larger context of what we were doing because if we were to become too conscious what finally emerged wouldn’t have been as organic. 

You have always been very vocal and unabashed in your criticism of rabid extremism. Many in the film fraternity are now coming forward to support the protesting students.

I welcome the fact that many in the film fraternity are coming forward to support the protesting student community. As creative people and also as people closer to that demographic and its aspirations it is natural that they’ll want to come forward.

There are still many veteran respected voices who've chosen to be quiet...

They may have their compulsions. You should ask them about it. 

You have also been trolled...

Yes, I’ve been trolled for my views by people who say the vilest, offensive and vulgar stuff. I often choose not to respond as it shows up their own upbringing and culture. But the levels of misinformation or the complete and total lack of information baffles me. Worse, this feeds into social biases and prejudices. Muslim fundamentalists tell me I must change my name while Hindu fundamentalists want me to change my citizenship. As long as both sides abuse me I’m sure I’m doing something right!

But doesn’t it get to you sometimes?

I'm not going to let these two crazy sets of extreme people affect me. Because in comparison, there are lakhs and lakhs who love, understand and stand by me.

There is an air of sombre despondency in the country. What would your message to people be?

I don’t think we must lose optimism. Let us not forget that the night is at its darkest before dawn. So we must keep hopeful. Life is not one linear progression but a bunch of them moving in myriad directions. These protests will gather momentum and go on just like everything else. Nothing happens in isolation.

You come from a rich lineage of poetry and valour...

n My father Jan Nisar Akhtar, the Urdu poet was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Both my grandfather Muztar Khairabadi and his grandfather’s elder brother, Bismil Khairabadi were known poets. My great great grandfather, Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi — an Islamic studies scholar and theologian — played a significant role in the 1857 War of Indian Independence.

But both your children Zoya and Farhan have not taken up poetry...

They are both good at poetry. But they write in English not Urdu. But I don't think parents should go beyond facilitating what a child wants. The only tradition in my family has been not to follow any. Even if you look at my work, my father's poetry is very different. And his work is markedly different from what his father wrote. The only common thing in all our poetry is the use of Awadhi as opposed to the Lucknowi poets who wrote in chaste Urdu. But both Zoya and Farhan have taken immense risks and uncompromisingly stuck to creating their own course. They are working in the mainstream and yet bring a level of realism to their work not seen before. It is very fulfilling to see that this commitment is being respected and received so well by audiences. 

Why haven’t you ever directed a film?

I think I’m just too lethargic. Besides, I’m happy scripting and writing lyrics, so I never thought of doing other things. Also as a writer, one already has a big say in the cast, location, costumes, etc. Such interaction and brainstorming with directors is already quite satisfying.

You are scripting after a long time...

Yes I am scripting. But it's still too early to talk about it in any great detail. All I can say is that its unusual premise and freshness drew me to it.

Scriptwriter, poet-lyricist, activist, presenter, and opinion leader. You wear so many hats. Which is your favourite?

None of these roles happens in isolation from others. It is like trying to decide if the hands or legs or torso or head are more important. Each has its own function and works together only when it is a composite whole. This is true about my work too. People might see it as different but I see it as coming from the same creative urge.

Any regrets when you look back at life?

I will be lying if I say I don’t have any. I have had to go hungry, face a lot of struggle and hardship. But when I tally the debit and credit sides of my life and look at the larger picture I feel it’s all overall been good..

You are right! January 14 saw the hugely celebrated Kaifi Azmi centenary draw to a close. Baba Azmi’s first directorial effort — Mee Raqsam (I Dance) — a Hindi feature film — shot entirely in Mijwan, Kaifi saab’s village in Uttar Pradesh’s Azamgarh is being shown at a private screening. An exhibition of photographs, posters and paintings curated by Pradeep Chandra and SMM Ausaja — The World of Javed Akhtar — was inaugurated by Zoya and Farhan on January 15. I honestly found the name quite pompous but I respect their regard for me. The same duo had done something similar celebrating Amitabh Bachchan in the past.

The occasion also saw the launch of a specially crafted limited edition  Javed  Akhtar pen.

Just like people, I get very sentimentally attached to small everyday objects of use. In the past when I smoked, I’ve even gone back 200 km and more to retrieve an old cigarette lighter costing Rs 50 or less. I'm quite attached to my pens too. There is a Montblanc inseparably with me for over five years. I get restless without it. It is not because there are no more Montblancs around. Though I’ve never bought one, most people think of them as the perfect gift for me. Now I've lost count of the number of Montblancs and other expensive pens, some are still lying packed for four-five years.

As someone who (along with Salim Khan) created the cult of the angry young man in films, what do you make of the current anger and protests by youth? Is this only the failing economy and loss of jobs?

The anger erupting among the youth is not only to do with economic setbacks. In the hatred, bigotry and exclusion they have seen the danger of what is coming their way. The resistance which is growing by the day stems from that. What Salim and I did while creating the angry young man was not part of any conscious intellectualisation of the socio-political angst of that era. Far from it.

That was our own lived reality when we couldn't think beyond the present day. When you are located within it is not possible to have that kind of a larger vision. Those were stories we genuinely wanted to tell and they just happened to be at the right time and place. In fact, I’m glad we weren't even aware of the larger context of what we were doing because if we were to become too conscious what finally emerged wouldn’t have been as organic. 

You have always been very vocal and unabashed in your criticism of rabid extremism. Many in the film fraternity are now coming forward to support the protesting students.

I welcome the fact that many in the film fraternity are coming forward to support the protesting student community. As creative people and also as people closer to that demographic and its aspirations it is natural that they’ll want to come forward.

There are still many veteran respected voices who've chosen to be quiet...

They may have their compulsions. You should ask them about it. 

You have also been trolled...

Yes, I’ve been trolled for my views by people who say the vilest, offensive and vulgar stuff. I often choose not to respond as it shows up their own upbringing and culture. But the levels of misinformation or the complete and total lack of information baffles me. Worse, this feeds into social biases and prejudices. Muslim fundamentalists tell me I must change my name while Hindu fundamentalists want me to change my citizenship. As long as both sides abuse me I’m sure I’m doing something right!

But doesn’t it get to you sometimes?

I'm not going to let these two crazy sets of extreme people affect me. Because in comparison, there are lakhs and lakhs who love, understand and stand by me.

There is an air of sombre despondency in the country. What would your message to people be?

I don’t think we must lose optimism. Let us not forget that the night is at its darkest before dawn. So we must keep hopeful. Life is not one linear progression but a bunch of them moving in myriad directions. These protests will gather momentum and go on just like everything else. Nothing happens in isolation.

You come from a rich lineage of poetry and valour...

My father Jan Nisar Akhtar, the Urdu poet was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Both my grandfather Muztar Khairabadi and his grandfather’s elder brother, Bismil Khairabadi were known poets. My great great grandfather, Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi — an Islamic studies scholar and theologian — played a significant role in the 1857 War of IndianIndependence.

But both your children Zoya and Farhan have not taken up poetry...

n They are both good at poetry. But they write in English not Urdu. But I don't think parents should go beyond facilitating what a child wants. The only tradition in my family has been not to follow any. Even if you look at my work, my father's poetry is very different. And his work is markedly different from what his father wrote. The only common thing in all our poetry is the use of Awadhi as opposed to the Lucknowi poets who wrote in chaste Urdu. But both Zoya and Farhan have taken immense risks and uncompromisingly stuck to creating their own course. They are working in the mainstream and yet bring a level of realism to their work not seen before. It is very fulfilling to see that this commitment is being respected and received so well by audiences. 

Why haven’t you ever directed a film?

I think I’m just too lethargic. Besides, I’m happy scripting and writing lyrics, so I never thought of doing other things. Also as a writer, one already has a big say in the cast, location, costumes, etc. Such interaction and brainstorming with directors is already quite satisfying.

You are scripting after a long time...

Yes I am scripting. But it's still too early to talk about it in any great detail. All I can say is that its unusual premise and freshness drew me to it.

Scriptwriter, poet-lyricist, activist, presenter, and opinion leader. You wear so many hats. Which is your favourite?

n None of these roles happens in isolation from others. It is like trying to decide if the hands or legs or torso or head are more important. Each has its own function and works together only when it is a composite whole. This is true about my work too. People might see it as different but I see it as coming from the same creative urge.

Any regrets when you look back at life?

n I will be lying if I say I don’t have any. I have had to go hungry, face a lot of struggle and hardship. But when I tally the debit and credit sides of my life and look at the larger picture I feel it’s all overall been good.