On Farhan Akhtar’s birthday, let’s look at his cinematic vision and dialect

With Dil Chahta Hai, the nation and its biggest critics celebrated the birth of a striking director. We were all bowled over by the freshness of Farhan Akhtar’s cinematic vision and dialect.

Subhash K Jha January 09, 2022 11:53:45 IST
On Farhan Akhtar’s birthday, let’s look at his cinematic vision and dialect

Farah Khan and Farhan Akhtar share not only similar-sounding names but also the same birthday which is a little ironic considering how different they are. Farhan is a friend I’ve known for 20 years, and a rare example of a Bollywood personality with whom I’ve never had any stress or conflict of interest. We share a relationship of mutual respect and we never cross the line of decorum.

When Farhan’s long-standing marriage with the very gentle Adhuna broke up we were all shocked. I never brought it up until he made a mention of it. It was a very rare moment of introspective confession shared between us. That apart we never discuss his life or mine and yet we are friends who know one another well enough to be comfortable in each other’s company.

What binds us together is our propensity to chuckle over the vagaries and double standards of life and politics. When I first got to know Farhan, he had just released his directorial debut As the nation fawned, Farhan remained calm. His equanimity remains unscathed over the years. Nothing ruffles Farhan. Not success, of which he has seen plenty since Dil Chahta Hai, nor failure, of which there has been no dearth either.

On Farhan Akhtars birthday lets look at his cinematic vision and dialect

Farhan Akhtar in Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Facebook

From among the many tirelessly tender sequences that spill willy nilly out of Dil Chahta Hai, the one that’s most representative of director Farhan Akhtar’s assumptions and motivations as a filmmaker occurs in the Sydney half of the film. We see the jaunty and roguish Akash (Aamir Khan) coming out of a theatre with Shalini (Preity Zinta) and her affable and rather embarrassingly young Uncle. They’ve presumably seen the Michelle Pfeiffer-Harrison Ford starrer What Lies Beneath. That’s what the banner at the movie theatre announces.

As the Uncle (model Rajat Kapur), looks on with amusement, Akash dismisses all love stories as humbug. Shalini loses her cool completely. "I’m sorry I brought you to see this serious film. I think only flippant films with lots of action are suitable for you."

Shalini could be speaking for a lot of non-metropolitan viewers in the country who rejected Dil Chahta Hai as elitist, escapist, and insulated. Believe it not, Dil Chahta Hai was a box-office failure that made tons of money in retrospect. Thanks to a script that doesn’t for a second flaunts its plumes, the characters acquire sharp shapes without trying to look like characters. For once, the camera doesn’t become an observer. It is part of the superbly written scenes, just sitting around being part of them, well, cool climate. The ‘coolth’, of course, has to do not just with how Farhan shoots his film, but where. Goa and Sydney are ideal holiday spots where the three friends let their hair down -- though two of them don’t have much of it to let down. Once they do there’s no fear of the ‘letting down’ anything else. Disappointments in the trajectory of existence are captured in such splendid loops and spirals that we feel we are part of a swathed and splendid ‘romantic tragedy’ rather than a straight and simple romantic comedy.

The ‘romantic tragedy’ spreads itself out into various unexpected articulate and extremely literate interpretations of art and culture. Art, is, of course, a fundamental part of Sid (Akshaye Khanna’s attachment to the ravishing and ravaged Tara (Dimple Kapadia). They become friends through his paintings. The sequence where he runs to his house to get his painting equipment when Tara agrees to be portrayed is symptomatic of that strange feeling inside when one loves a person so much, only his or her happiness matters.

Then, there’s the ‘arrestingly’ crafted sequence where Tara visits Sid’s home to examine his paintings. Arresting because the camera doesn’t move. Only Dimple does, ever so slightly. And gracefully. Her character is, in fact, as central to the astonishing script as Akash’s. It’s Tara's impending death that reunites the three friends in the corridor of the most unfilmi hospital I’ve seen since Chicago Hope.

If Akash goes from romantic flippancy and futility to sober self-consciousness, Tara represents the film’s only tragic dimension. Dimple's Tara Jaiswal, in Dil Chahta Hai, is very distant, though very deeply bonded, cousin of Meena Kumari’s choti maalkin in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Desolation shrouds both characters. An alcoholic haze endows their personality with a glazed grace. Like Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Dimple's character moves closer every minute to doom with such dignity that we almost welcome the tragedy as a counterpoint to the ongoing bacchanalia that characterises the central relationship among the three friends.

When the ‘romantic tragedy’ moves to Australia in the second half, we fear for the film’s rare and cherishable equilibrium. Miraculously, Farhan Akhtar just overwhelms us with his enrapturing equipoise, his amazing control over the narrative. Take the sequence at the opera where Akash’s dormant sensitivities as a romantic pounce awake while watching the tragedy of Troilus and Cressida unfold on stage. Farhan says he had no problem doing the sequence.

But imagine how many levels and layers this tricky sequence could have gone wrong! Imagine, if Akash’s cynicism hadn’t melted at that precise moment when the audience felt the tremors of change. There’s amazing timing at work in the film. Not since Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum… Dil De Chuke Sanam had I seen a film where the opulent shots seem to be conceived for the eyes, heart, and soul. Unlike Bhansali’s film, Dil Chahta Hai hasn’t been shot on elaborate sets. Many of our most gifted directors make the fatal blunder of erecting intricately done-up stagey sets for the drama to unfold. Do the Sooraj Barjatyas and Subhash Ghais of the show world realise how much of their intrinsic artistic vision is lost by projecting that vision on artificial sets?

On Farhan Akhtars birthday lets look at his cinematic vision and dialect

Dil Chahta Hai is a lesson in naturalism. The authentic locations, characters, performances, lighting, and, last but not the least, the sync sound favour the flavour of arcadian authenticity. This is a product of Feel Good Cinema with a depth that defies the genre. It entertains us immensely but also nourishes our senses beyond commonly accepted definitions of sophisticated entertainment.

But for me, the film ends when the three friends sit on the wall of Tara’s compound and watch her belongings being taken away. There’s so much silent finality in that sequence that you wonder why Farhan extended it into a Goan reunion sequence where the grieving Sid suddenly rediscovers love just six months after Tara’s death in the form of a strange calendar-art model-like woman.

Yes, life goes on. But we would rather remain frozen in the dreamscape of friendship, heartbreak, repentance, and reunion that Farhan Akhtar has created in Dil Chahta Hai.

 Farhan’s greatest moment of glory as an actor so far is Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milka Bhaag. I don't know how fast Milka ran. But Farhan's Milkha doesn't fake it for even a second. When he runs, he runs. When he stumbles and takes a fall we flinch and wince in our seats. Method acting? Farhan as Milkha takes us beyond that. His body language and emotional expression as Milkha are so pitch-perfect (pun intended) we forget this is not the real Milkha in front of our eyes. Not since Balraj Sahni in Garam Hawa have we seen an actor vanish so effortlessly into his character. This is as real as it gets.

Farhan doesn't 'play' Milkha. The actor occupies Milkha, mind-body, and soul. There are episodes in this astonishingly well-structured bio-pic where Farhan's oneness with Milkha equals Ben Kingsley's empathy with Mahatma Gandhi. In one sequence after a night of binging with a pretty Australian girl (Rebecca Breeds, pretty and amiable) Farhan stands in front of the mirror and slaps himself for messing up on the field. Each slap makes us flinch. These are not faked slaps. Farhan takes Milkha's pain embarrassment and self-abnegation on his chin.

Mehra's is not a simple sports-to-glory tale like Chariots Of Fire. This is not just a film about a sportsperson who brought untold glory to our country. As told by Mehra, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is the story of an individual's journey from nullity to pinnacles of success in a world where politics and violence are constant reminders of how little an individual's aspirations matter in the larger often murkier scheme of things.

On Farhan Akhtars birthday lets look at his cinematic vision and dialect

Farhan Akhtar in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Facebook

 Farhan isn’t afraid to fall and rise. I am not particularly fond of his Don series. And I don’t look forward to the next one. But I look forward to what Farhan will do next. He has already covered directing, acting, writing, and singing. Where does he go next? Is he more versatile than his sister Zoya? Or even his amazing father Javed Akhtar who after years of prodding, cajoling, threatening, and bullying by his family (wife Shabana included) and friends (you're truly included) have not been persuaded to turn director.

What galvanizes Farhan into exploring new cinematic avenues constantly. Is he just curious? Or hungry for new experiences? Farhan’s unique position in the Bollywood hierarchy affords him a view into a multitude of fascinating vocations associated with cinema. He is at once an auteur and a traditionalist. An insider and an outsider.

He is the lonely outsider forging his path in the chaotic creativity of our film industry. He is also a consummate star kid born and brought up in the film industry attending as a child the birthday parties of Abhishek Bachchan. Farhan would always envy Abhishek at these kiddie parties because he got to be every kid’s favourite super-hero Amitabh Bachchan.

How was Farhan to know that one day he would direct his childhood idol in the war film Lakshya and share screen space as co-actor in Wazir? Once upon a time, Farhan’s father wrote some of Mr. Bachchan’s most memorable lines. Farhan carried the legacy of his father ahead by remaking and renewing Don one of Javed Saab’s best-known Amitabh Bachchan starrers. It’s a formidable legacy to carry. But Farhan managed it with graceful nonchalance. As if success doesn’t matter because you know what waits at the end of that long winding road.

I’ve known Farhan Akhtar from the time he made Dil Chahta Hai. This was in 2001. I had known his father Javed Akhtar from before that. I expected to meet someone lurking in the shadows of his father’s greatness. But Farhan is not the least intimidated by his illustrious father’s reputation. Come to think of it, he is not awed by anyone. But he has respect for every kind of human being. Farhan is kind considerate thoughtful softspoken and one of the most sorted and sought-after people I know in this entertainment industry where people change overnight. I call it the Mallika Sherawat syndrome. She changed overnight the day Murder was released. Farhan hasn’t changed one bit over the years, at least not for me. I can’t recall one incident where we have altercated, or even argued over something I’ve written, except once when I reviewed Don and referred to it as an “arrogant” film.

“That was an arrogant observation,” he retorted. And we both fell off laughing.

I know of no other director who has turned into a screen heart-throb so fluently. Of course, Guru Dutt was a director turned actor. But never a matinee idol. Farhan’s acting career took off spectacularly in Rock On. The film also launched Farhan’s career as a singer.

Immediately after the release of Rock On Farhan’s proud stepmother Shabana Azmi had compared Farhan’s performance to Balraj Sahni in Garam Hawa. It took me a long time to figure out what she meant. Like the great Balraj Sahani Farhan doesn’t seem to act. He is just there on the screen for the same reason that Edmund Hillary went up Everest. Because it’s there.

In 2016’a Wazir  Farhan plays a man so obsessed with his grief that he would rather not come out of it. This is just the opposite of the real Farhan who would never allow pain to conquer his positivity. When the Rock On director Abhishek Kapoor took Farhan to court, Farhan refused to say a word against the backstabbing “friend”.

Farhan values relationships above professional allegiances. His best friend Ritesh Sidhwani is also his business partner. They’ve been friends for more than 20 years. But Farhan keeps his distance from all his friends, even Ritesh. It’s not that he doesn’t drop his guards. His wicked sense of humour is never far from the surface. At the drop of a note, he launches into a chuckle-filled fiesta of funny comments.

It’s wonderful to see Farhan's happy life. That he’s found love again after the amicable breakup with his wife Adhuna, is a rare blessing and one that only the chosen few are privy to. His life is filled with the laughter of family and friends.

So why then has he stopped doing what he is best at? No, not acting. I am talking about directing a film. When would he return to direction? It’s been ten years—yes, 10!!!—since he directed a film. Don 2, though underwhelming showed Farhan’s true calling card. I still believe he is first and foremost a film director, singing and acting come later.

Farhan’s directorial debut Dil Chahta Hai remains a milestone. For years Farhan has been toying with the idea of reuniting the three friends Akash, Sameer, and Siddharth. Getting Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, and Akshaye Khanna to re-unite should be no problem for Farhan. Even Dimple Kapadia from the original cast is game. So what’s the problem? Script? That, Farhan’s father will take care of in a jiffy. There must be some truly enviable advantages for a filmmaker to have Javed Akhtar as his father. Come to think of it, even Javed Saab is not doing much work lately. I’d love to see the two of them reunite for either a sequel to  Dil Chahta Hai or another  Don film.

Javed Saab once told me he had a germ of an idea for a third Don film. I suspect the idea didn’t fructify because Farhan was too busy acting. Between 2008(when he turned actor with Rock On) and 2019(when he played the grieving father in The Sky Is Pink), Farhan has faced the camera in 13 films but directed just one.

That’s fairly lopsided, don’t you think? I agree, Farhan makes an affable actor. But I insist his calling in life is neither singing nor acting. When do we see Farhan return to doing what he is born to? Imagine if Kishore Kumar had chosen to sing just one song in 11 years and instead faced the camera 13 times during that period! Imagine if Virat Kohli suddenly developed a passion for football. It may be what he would want to do. But it’s not what we would want him to do.

When you are a celebrity, you have a responsibility towards your fans that supersedes your desires. This is why an actor with a sweet tooth can never finish off a box of laddoos. It may do great things to his palate. But it won’t go down well with his fans. Self-indulgence is for ordinary people. Not for you, Farhan. Do surprise us by doing what your Lakshya is in life and not what your Dil Chahta Hai is.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.



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