The jadoo around janaab Javed!
Limiting as it sounds for such a multi-faceted writer; but no better way to describe Akhtar than India's sharpest conversationalist
The bit about the screenwriting pair Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar, hiring a drunk painter one night, handing over colour, brush, and stencil, so the fellow could place their names — 'Written by Salim-Javed' — on every poster of Zanjeer (1973) that he could find in the 25-kilometre stretch from Juhu to Opera House in Mumbai, I suspect, is rather well known. This is how India's best known screenwriters first got credited in a film poster.
How did they become India's most commercially successful screenwriters, ever? By setting their rate at '2 lakh, per screenplay. And finding no takers for nine months straight. This, despite hits Andaz (1971), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973), and of course
their breakout film, Zanjeer (1973).
To give you a sense of what '2 lakh meant in '73 (and for the film industry in general), star-writers Salim-Javed used to then draw a monthly salary of '750 ('9,000 per annum), being on the payroll of Sippy Films Story Department. At a party, Akhtar met a prominent producer, who was keen to hear a script. At his office later, Akhtar made the price known just so he doesn't come across as an extortionist, once the producer had already liked the narration.
The producer heard '2 lakh. They sat facing each other. No words exchanged. The producer waited for his partner. Soon as the partner was there, he asked Akhtar to repeat his price, "Phir se bolna, zara?" And they laughed. Of course that meeting didn't go anywhere!
Almost exactly after 55 years this week since he moved to Mumbai as a 19-year-old, with '27 in his pocket, Akhtar, 74, in conversation with me at a cinema convention, brought the house full of younglings down — sounding no older, but sharper, than someone in his late 20s. By when, he recalls, he'd already scripted Sholay (1975) — arguably the "greatest (Bollywood) story ever told!"
Limiting as it may seem to describe a top script-writer, heavyweight dialogue-writer, incredibly prolific lyricist, a people's poet, part-time humourist, occasional pop-psychologist, an atheist-rationalist — it may not be unfair to bundle all of Akhtar's writerly talents into that of him being India's finest conversationalist.
Even more so in the context of popular Hindi cinema. There is still nothing first person on the subject that compares to his super-slim volume, Talking Films (1999, with Nasreen Munni Kabir), where he so lucidly illustrates the difference between script, story, and screenplay (an Indian phenomenon); describes the idea of stardom (and of course, Amitabh Bachchan); or delves into measuring the weight of words (ending in consonants or vowels) — whether that be for an adjective ('mulayam' in the song Yeh Kahaan Aa Gaye Hum), or proper noun (the villain 'Davar', in Deewaar!).
As screenwriter he strongly credits his partner Salim Khan for introducing him to the larger canvas of 70 mm, scaled-up cinema — especially the sophisticated material from Hollywood. The specificities of characters, and one-liners, it appears to me, were more of Akhtar's department.
The topic I was particularly chatting with Akhtar on was, 'Cardinal sins of cinema'. And he's very clear on what makes a bad film — when you're looking up, that is trying to make something "mahaan, great". Or looking down — trying to make something not coming from you, but meant for the "masses". Either way you're more likely to fail. Because manipulative craft seems to be trumping intimate, eye-level art.
In my early 20s, I'd spent considerable time discussing politics with the progressive-humanist Akhtar at his sea-facing home in Juhu, where he'd talk for hours, that I would then turn into pieces authored/approved by him — whether on Triple Talaq, or the Ayodhya dispute. Watching him passionately declaim with the evening shadow from his window forming a silhouette on his face, there was no doubt in my head that Bachchan's on-screen 'angry young man' was quite strongly modeled on Akhtar!
Akhtar, being his father's pen-name (like Bachchan for Amitabh), is the seventh- generation writer from a family with such strong Left leanings that the first words ever whispered into his ears, soon as he was born (named Jadoo), were from the Communist Manifesto. And he grew up believing that the portrait of Stalin in his home was his grandfather's!
And yet you scour through his works, you hardly ever find direct agitation-propaganda (agit-prop), party-line, or political-agenda — that as art, inevitably fails the test of time. There is simple humanism, universal and basic emotions, and a touch of refinement and class within the popular/front-row mainstream that his contemporaries simply couldn't match up to.
They probably didn't have it in them. Quite unsurprisingly a producer (Premji) eventually did show up with '2 lakh to pay Salim-Javed for a script. The film was Majboor (1974). The dream-run continued for around a decade.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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