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Javed Saab: Beyond Scripts and Poetry

Javed Akhtar birthday tribute
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Javed Akhtar, as we all know, wears many hats. He is an activist, poet, lyricist and a screenwriter who is the recipient of prestigious civilian awards like Padma Shri (1999), Padma Bhushan (2007) and Sahitya Akademi Award. For nearly half a century now, Javed Akhtar has been a powerful advocate for secularism, inclusivity and human rights, challenging superstition and intolerance through his work in poetry, screenwriting, and political activism.

To honor his decades of work on behalf of these crucial values, Akhtar became the 2020 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award.  “As India is being pulled between its secular foundations and convulsions of dangerous religious nationalism, Javed Akhtar’s voice is more necessary and more vital than ever,” said Richard Dawkins, founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science and a member of the Center for Inquiry Board of Directors. “Akhtar is a bright light for reason, freethought, and atheism in a dark time, and we are delighted to honor him with the Richard Dawkins Award” he added.  Akhtar, till date, is the only Indian ever to have been so  honoured. The award, named after the world-renowned biologist, is presented to those who publicly speak about secularism, rationalism and uphold scientific truth. So, there is much more to this white-haired man than poetry and film scripts and lyrics and dialogue, a kingdom he created and ruled over for many years with his friend and partner Salim though they parted ways later.

Deewar poster
Javed Akhtar was one of the writers of Deewar

As a poet and social commentator, Akhtar has inspired millions with calls to reject religious fundamentalism in favor of education and equal rights for all. In a recent interview, he said, “I am fortunate to be born in an overtly secular Family.” Born into a Muslim family, Akhtar came to embrace science and rationality over religious dogma. Responding to the question of why he considered himself an atheist, he said, “The answer is very simple: because I think.” Still, Akhtar maintains a connection to his community, as a founding member of the anti-fundamentalist organization Muslim Intelligentsia and founding president of Muslims for Secular Democracy. “When socio-political situations are created by the people who pretend to be religious and are using religion to get mileage or take some kind of control over a segment of our society, I will protest as I belong to that community,” said Akhtar in 2007. “I may be an atheist but I am an atheist Muslim.” Son of legendary poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, Javed Akhtar is from a family that actively participated in India’s independence struggle. Few are aware of the fact that his maternal uncle had worked with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Netaji had visited his home in Lucknow.

In the early part of his career he was a screenplay writer, creating movies like Deewar, Zanjeer and Sholay. Later, he left screenplay writing and became a lyricist and social-political activist. He was also a member of the Rajya Sabha from 2010 to 2016. Whenever Amitabh Bachchan is asked what made him the “angry young man of Hindi cinema” he says, “It was the creation of Salim-Javed. Javed won multiple National Awards, including Best Lyricist three years in a row – Saaz in 1997, Border in 1998 and Godmother in 1999.

When socio-political situations are created by the people who pretend to be religious and are using religion to get mileage or take some kind of control over a segment of our society, I will protest as I belong to that community

 

When Javed Saab stepped into the industry in the Seventies, the concept of having the same writer for the screenplay, story and dialogue was completely absent and writers’ names were not mentioned in the credits titles. It was actor Rajesh Khanna who gave Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar their first break to become screenplay writers by offering them work in Haathi Mere Saathi. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Javed Akhtar’s book of poetry, Tarkash, among many others, published both in Urdu and Hindi, has enjoyed enormous critical as well as commercial success. The songs he has written for the Hindi screen have also been trendsetters, and today Javed Akhtar is among the most respected names in the Indian film industry.

Nasreen Munni Kabir in her well-researched book, ‘Talking films’ published by OUP in 2002 talks with this hugely creative writer about his early influences, his relationship with his parents, his life and work in the film industry where he began as a clapper boy in the mid-sixties, and his successful partnership with Salim Khan.

Javed Akhtar and wife Shabana Azmi
A young Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi

An original thinker, Javed Akhtar in this series of long interviews with Kabir,  turns his analytical gaze to the conventions of Hindi cinema, its songs and its stories. He is illuminating about many aspects of screenplay, dialogue writing and lyric writing, bringing alive his understanding of these creative forms with his descriptions of the way well-known film dialogue and famous songs came to be written. Akhtar speaks with clarity and honesty about his development as a poet and his growth as a politically-aware person.

On Independence Day in 2021, Javed Akhtar headlined a special feature called India Shayari Project on a satellite channel. This feature began with the aim of celebrating poets and poetry, “I found it interesting because they have collected people across almost all generations available at the moment. It is not actually correct that people are losing interest in poetry. Maybe, the source of communication has changed. If you go on to YouTube or to any other channel, you will realize that there is a huge audience and following of poetry and poets. The younger generation has found what is missing in their lives, if I may say so and they are discovering poetry on their own; I am very happy telling you that young poets have developed a new metaphor, language, and style. I am very positive about poetry and its future, and the connection between the young generation and their poems” he said in a detailed interview on the eve of this featurette’s premiere[1].

Javed Akhtar with his father and brother
Javed Akhtar with his father and brother

Though he does use the computer for official and other writings that are not a part of his creative work and also has a twitter handle, Javed is very clear that for all his creative writing, he still uses pen and paper. “For both scripts and poetry or lyrics, I personally feel that it all happens between the point of the nib and the paper it touches and flows on” he insists. He goes on to add, “I genuinely respect young people and I am very impressed by their talent and caliber. I try to learn from them but I offer them a lot of learning. Quite often they don’t accept that gift. But that does not matter. It does not discourage me. I continue to give them that offer.”

The hottest piece of news on him is the recently launched book on him called Jadunama– Javed Akhtar’s Journey written by Arvind Mandloi and translated into English by noted historian and author Rakshanda Jalil. It is about a writer, poet, lyricist, and political activist. It is also about one man’s struggle since childhood to become what he is today and to create a hallmark of success in everything he does. Javed Saab was named Jadu at birth; it was Javed sahab’s father, Jan Nisar Akhtar’s poem, ‘Lamha, lamha kisi jadoo ka fasana hoga (every moment will be the story of a certain magic)’ that was the inspiration behind the name. But when the little boy was in kindergarten, everyone realized Jadu was not a serious name and to have a word as close to Jadu as possible, he was renamed Javed (meaning ‘eternal’), Akhtar (meaning ‘star’)—Eternal star!

This ‘star’ continues to shine brightly till date and shows no sign of dimming for a moment as he steps back to write scripts for films all over again.

 

Images used are from the author’s collection.

 

  1. Anupama Chopra: Javed Akhtar on Staying Relevant, Narrating Scripts to his Children, Film Companion, 12th August, 2021.

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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