Eavesdropping on the Akhtars

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How the hilarious father-son gag on radio came to be

In August 2009, Shatrughan Sinha, Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Sunny Deol went silent on radio. FM stations across the city had stopped getting mimics on air. A popular station, Big FM, had run afoul of the Deols over a show caricaturing them, and been threatened with a Rs 200 crore lawsuit. The radio station apologised and pulled off not just the capsules that had caused offence, but all other acts of voice impersonation—involving the likes of Bachchan, Sinha and the Deols. Other radio channels, having seen what almost befell their competitor, followed suit.

But listeners are listeners and radio is radio, so such spoofs slowly but surely made their way back on air. One of them, however, stands out. Titled Actor Calling Actor, this little segment of just over two minutes is aired once every hour. Again a father-son duo on the same radio station, Big FM, it features two voices unusual to the repertoire of mimics on most radio stations—those of Javed Akhtar and his son Farhan Akhtar. And unlike the spoof on the Deols, which featured a perennially drunk Dharmendra suffering severe bouts of flatulence, this act is kept ‘clean’.

Each segment, according to its creators, is essentially a humorous addressal of a topical issue. It has a set template. It starts with Farhan calling Javed, lost in the process of penning a song, with a query. The question is always topical, about, say, the latest fuel price hike or meaning of ‘kolaveri di. Javed’s answer, delivered with the panache of a seasoned poet in the form of two panktiyaans (lines), never has any relevance to Farhan’s question. The otherwise calm writer then hurriedly hangs up, saying that (Shabana) Azmi is on the other line.

The show, having been on air every day since its inception in 2010, has been a stupendous success. Last year, it also picked up a Golden Mike, a prestigious award for the Indian radio industry, for the Most Unique Programming Idea/Concept.

The contributors of the show are an unusual duo. One is a doctor who has just completed his MBBS at a college in Sangli, Maharashtra, and the other a former engineering student and call centre executive who now works in radio. The doctor, Sanket Bhosale, travels to a nearby recording studio in Sangli thrice a week to dub the voice of Farhan Akhtar. Then he emails the file to the radio station in Mumbai. The other artiste, Kettan Singh, then does the Javed Akhtar bit.

The show was conceptualised on a whim. Rochak Kohli, assistant vice-president of programming at Big FM, once heard Singh on air during a morning show. The dark clouds of the Deol episode hadn’t yet lifted, but Singh’s one-off mimicry of Javed Akhtar was too funny to resist. Impressed, Kohli had a word with Singh, and they came up with a script for Actor Calling Actor. “However, the bosses weren’t keen, afraid that they might have another lawsuit threat at hand,” says Singh, who had co-written some of the stuff that upset the Deols.

Six months went by as the duo tweaked and altered the idea to get their bosses on board. They took care, for example, not to mention either Farhan or Javed by name. Although titled Actor Calling Actor, it sounds a lot like ‘Akhtar calling Akhtar’. Farhan is referred to as Karthik, after the character in the film Karthik Calling Karthik. And when the character of Javed Akhtar refers to ‘Azmi’, it is said in such a way that he could very well be referring to ‘aadmi’ (person). “We also kept it clean, with no personal or insulting remarks. However, the bosses continued to be iffy,” says Kohli, who sometimes contributes to the script. Eventually, Javed and Shabana Azmi were invited to the station and asked if they found any of it offensive. “Both of them thought otherwise. They found it funny, although Javed stressed that I did not sound like him. Shabana Azmi, however, laughed and said I sound exactly like him,” says the 29-year-old Singh. This was the show cleared for airing.

The other contributor was discovered only a few months before it hit airwaves. Sanket Bhosale was home in Mumbai for his vacations when he happened to participate in ‘Asli Number 1’, a day-long talent show where mimics compete with each other. Bhosale’s uncle, Sumit Shinde, a dentist, won the competition, with Sanket as runner-up. According to Bhosale, actor John Abraham was among the judges and was so struck by his Farhan voice that he just couldn’t distinguish it from the real thing. Kohli heard his performance too, and grabbed him as a voice for the Akhtar show.

Bhosale prides himself in his wide repertoire. He can imitate a number of personalities, and is currently competing as a standup comedian in the TV show Laugh India Laugh. “Like every other mimic, I started off copying my friends and relatives’ mannerisms. But over the years, I realised that mimicry isn’t just stupid antics and blind copying. To perform well, one has to be the person in question. In moments when I imitate Farhan, I am Farhan,” he says.

Bhosale also pulls off a flawless Salman Khan. In fact, he dubbed for the actor for promotions of the 2010 Iffa awards in Sri Lanka. “Salman wasn’t available to dub his line. No one told me why, but I was brought in to dub it,” he says, referring to Salman’s supposed ‘Ab Lanka mein bajega danka’.

Singh says Actor Calling Actor works because Farhan and Javed “share distinct worlds”. “One is a writer and poet, [a man of] an older generation. The other is a [contemporary] individual, who appears a curious sort of [youngsters]. The interaction between the two and the possibilities of humour in it is what makes this segment interesting.”

However, coming up with fresh content every day isn’t easy. “There are times when we are unable to think of any topic. We just sit there and go through the papers. Invariably, something strikes us,” says Singh. And sometimes it has to be tweaked at the last minute. “Once I had a cold and just wasn’t able to do Farhan’s voice,” says Bhosale, “So we altered the show. My question to Javed was, ‘How do I alleviate this cold?’ And the rest of the segment was changed accordingly.”

The segment hasn’t just been popular with mass listenership but also with some famous entertainers. Bhosale has received complimentary calls from comedians Johnny Lever and Raju Srivastava, whom he is acquainted with. Director Ken Ghosh has tweeted his appreciation. Singh’s favourite response, however, came from within the station’s studios. Address Deepika Padukone was at the radio station to promote a film. “She was in a meeting with all of us [producers and RJs],” he recounts, “and in the middle of the conversation, she randomly asked, ‘By the way, who does Actor Calling Actor?’ I raised my hand, and she smiled. ‘Wow,’ I thought.”