The Akhtar Family Legacy

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A way with words is almost a family hand-me-down for Javed and his children Farhan and Zoya, descended as they are from a long line of poets. But what each of them values, above all, is an original voice

The Akhtars today are the seventh and eighth generation of writers in a direct line of ancestry beginning with Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, who was a contemporary of the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. Javed Akhtar’s father Jan Nisar Akhtar was a great poet of his time. So was his maternal uncle Asrar ul-Haq Majaz, who infused his Urdu writing with revolutionary and progressive ideas. Javed’s grandfather Muztar and his brother Bismil were poets too, and so were their parents. And yet, Javed argues against artistic legacies. “This legacy, I am afraid, is slightly different from legacies in business families,” he says, “I can’t will my ideas to my children, can I? And I wonder if they will accept that legacy.”

Javed’s daughter Zoya, director of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, says that while growing up, the artistic milieu of erudition made its presence felt only lightly. Artistes and thinkers would drop in all the time at their residence, but to her it was just like any regular family. “There would be mushairas (poetry recitals). My mother (Honey Irani) had a film projector; so we used to watch movies. At the time, that was family and that was home. It’s much later that you realise how influenced you are by what you grow up around and how it shapes you.”  

It was an intellectually stimulating environment, and Zoya and her brother Farhan took to books and cinema early in childhood. The film influence came from their mother’s side too, since Honey had started off as a child artiste before she turned to scriptwriting. While on one hand Zoya and Farhan were exposed to the ideas of creative guests staying at their house, on the other, they would gang up with maternal cousins Sajid and Farah Khan (both renowned directors today) to indulge in their favourite pastime—movies.

 “We were brought up on a diet of popular Hindi cinema. My parents had a huge collection of movies and we would freak out on films by Manmohan Desai, Prakash Mehra, Vijay Anand and Subhash Ghai,” says Farhan, who straddles the roles of an actor, producer, director, writer and singer.

Each of the Akhtars is highly independent-minded. Javed is clear that what runs in the family is not individuality but originality. “The only influence in us is that we don’t get influenced,” he smiles. “Although my kids have grown up watching my films, when they make their own, they have nothing to do with my films. Similarly, I love and respect my father and uncle’s poetry, but when I write, it doesn’t resemble theirs. Each one of us is different. I would say we are not mere echoes of our ancestors, but have original voices.”

One thing that distinguishes their family from other clans in the Hindi film industry is that they have a set of values by virtue of their lineage. The family has long rejected the concept of organised religion. For them, secularism is not just a word. They also treat each other as equals. Their ideas of life often seem existentialist, but they reject such labels. Javed says, “Let’s just say what is common between us is our desire for a just and fair society, freedom of choice, total rejection of superstition and of any parochial, regional or linguistic prejudice, no gender biases, and love for the country—not in a jingoistic manner but a genuine concern and respect for people, not only for the powerful, but for everyone. That’s what our collective identity is.”

It’s a family that bonds over ideas—exchanged, discussed, refined. Farhan and Zoya, both writers and filmmakers in their own right, always seek Javed’s opinion. Though they live separately, they always send their scripts over to their father for approval. Once one-half of the Salim-Javed scriptwriter duo (best known for Sholay), Javed has been largely a solo lyricist after splitting with his partner. But he hasn’t lost touch with that aspect of filmmaking. “My dad can look at a script and tell you what’s right about it and what’s wrong,” says Farhan. “When I first showed him my script of Dil Chahta Hai, he was really glad. He thought it was original, something he had not heard before.”

While scripting a film, Zoya too draws on Javed’s experience. “Dad is very strong on structure. I get a lot of inputs from him on that front—in terms of what is lacking, ‘This is boring’, ‘Clip this’, ‘Don’t do this’, ‘You are wasting time here’, ‘This needs a little more weight’… so dad’s advice is always valid,” says Zoya. Her mother, who is also involved, is often the more critical one. “She’s brutally honest. So, when you show her the first 15 pages, you’re dead. She will watch the rough cut, and say, ‘This is unbearable. Please edit it.’ And you are like, ‘Ah, really!’ All said and done, she’s a very good editor.”

Javed says that his offering advice is not to be confused with mentoring: “I am not their intellectual mentor, mind you. I am thankful to my father and uncle for being brought up in that kind of environment, but they were not my mentors. What happens is that the people you admire and get to see from close quarters unintentionally give you something, and you unintentionally take something, and that is the basic value system. It is not that you make your kids sit down and give them tuitions… in intellectualism. You tend to imbibe the values of people you respect.” For creativity to emerge, he insists, you must let your own uniqueness out, feel like your very own self.

The Akhtars often collaborate professionally as well. If Farhan or Zoya are directing a film, for example, Javed writes the songs. It was Javed who first established the Akhtar takhallus (a pen name acquired by his father) in Bollywood. Though Jan Nisar also worked as a lyricist for cinema, Javed has been a smashing success as one since at least the 1970s.

Yet, success to him is not about the record books, but about being able to do fearlessly what one wants to. Would it amuse him if, like Brand Bachchan, he and his children come to be called Brand Akhtar? “I don’t think anybody will call us that. So, it would be pompous to start worrying about a status that we are yet to achieve,” he laughs. “Seriously speaking, I don’t think it will happen because the Bachchans are a family of filmstars and they are in the limelight all the time. That’s different.”

Javed may wear his takhallus lightly, but the fact is that the Akhtar credibility is expanding in no small measure. Most of Farhan’s productions are a success, and so was Zoya’s last film, Luck By Chance. They have no trouble getting the biggest of stars, from Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan, on board for their projects. Farhan’s production company, Excel Entertainment, is currently making Don 2 with Shah Rukh and another film with Aamir Khan.

Zoya and Farhan seem to have found that rare formula that combines commercial success with art. Their films often score well both at the box-office and with critics. Are they under-rated? “I don’t know about that,” says Javed, “We are just doing our job, like how doctors or engineers do theirs.” 

Javed came to Bombay to become a director, but ironically it is his son and daughter who achieved that ambition. He rebuffs any suggestion that he’s living that dream through his kids. “As a matter of fact, direction is an idea that still excites me, but sometimes I think it’s a bit late in the day and I should have done it 25 years ago. Maybe…”

Zoya thinks it’s still possible. “You never know, he might,” she says.

For those wondering why Zoya and Farhan aren’t really following in the family tradition of writing poetry, Javed shares a secret: “I am saying this for the first time. They both write poetry in English. They write really well. I don’t know why they don’t get their works published. In fact, do you know Farhan’s 11-year-old daughter Shakya is a bookworm? You will always see her reading. Did we ask her to pick up the book?” No, it was just the vibes in the household, as gentle a nudge if ever there was.