The Javed Akhtar interview | 'If you say you are apolitical, you are, wittingly or unwittingly, accepting the status quo'
Javed Akhtar talks about his Richard Dawkins Award win, the demerits of 'good and bad bigotry', and why there is a difference between 'inheritance' and 'nepotism'.
It was in March last year that I, along with a few others, first encountered Javed Akhtar's stirring clarion call to writers, imploring them to exert the might of their pens through his new poem, Likh.
"Jo baat kehte darte hain sab, tu woh baat likh
Itni andheri thhi na kabhi pehle raat, likh
Jin se qaseede likkhey thhay woh phenk de qalam
Phir khoon-e-dil se sachche qalam ki sifaat likh
Jo roznamon mein kahin paati nahin jagah
Jo roz har jagah ki hai, woh waardaat likh
Jitne bhi tang daire hain saarey torh de
Ab aa khuli fizaon mein ab kainat likh
Jo waqeyaat ho gaye unka to zikr hai
Lekin jo hone chaahiye, woh waqeyaat likh
Iss bagh mein jo dekhni hai tujh ko phir bahaar
Tu daal-daal de sada, tu paat-paat likh"
The occasion was the 53rd Shankar-Shad Mushaira held annually in Delhi, a much-awaited affair that takes stock of and celebrates the decadent richness of Urdu shayari in the subcontinent, with poets from Pakistan also in attendance...except that they were not last year. Amid escalating cross-border tensions with Pakistan, the organisers chose to give their neighbours a miss.
A little over a year later, as news broke that Akhtar has been commemorated with the coveted Richard Dawkins Award for being a public figure who endorses "the values of secularism, rationalism, upholding scientific truth", I was rather unsurprised to learn that he was the sole Indian recipient of the honour. In that moment, I was transported back to my seat in the audience at the poets' congress, clinging onto each lafz and iltija in his verses that beseeched society to be fearless in their pursuit of truth.
In a telephonic interview with Firstpost, the 75-year-old poet and screenwriter — who is spending time away from the 'Maximum City's' din at his Khandala home — discusses the merits of rationalism, the debate on nepotism, and why he writes for those who suffer.
What does winning the Richard Dawkins Award mean to you personally, considering you have been on the receiving end of a lot of hate and trolling for the very same views which have been acknowledged by this award.
Ah, you see, this is unique because this is an honour that has been given to me for my thinking, my beliefs — or shall I say lack of beliefs — and my point-of-view about rationality and religion. It is the first time that I have been awarded such a recognition, so I am very thankful. Remember one thing, if you have views, you will be challenged. Whatever views you have, there will be some people who will disagree with you, while some will totally understand you. I can see that there is a great attempt on Twitter and on other social media platforms to destroy my credibility and reputation as a secularist and rationalist, but that does not matter. It's totally expected. And more often than not, I keep getting hate mails from different communities — some Hindu, some Muslim — both of them troll me. That's alright, really. It does not matter to me.
We are not alien to the fact that critical thinking spaces are shrinking in India and across the world, and they have largely been divided into various binaries. In such times, for a person of words like you, how do you hold on to nuanced dialogue?
I don't think critical thinking is shrinking, but spaces for it — yes, maybe. However, there are people who think consistently, rationally, logically, scientifically — in a more progressive, liberal and secular manner. Their voices, at the moment, are not heard, and sometimes they are suppressed. Sometimes they feel that perhaps this is not the time to be louder and clearer than is necessary, because a lot of frenemies and enemies who are powerful can harm them. But, even if the other point of view is silent, or in the closet, it is not non-existent. And I am sure that at the right time, we will feel their presence.
And as for nuance, well, there are certain holds barred if you want to be decent and cultured. You just cannot use any language, or say everything in the crudest manner — there is a difference between frankness and crudity and rudeness; let's not confuse the two. I think whatever you want to say, you can say it decently and in a cultured way.
In a recent interview, you've mentioned that principally, a rationalist should be an atheist. How easy or difficult is it to stand by such statements at a time when one can be persecuted for their beliefs?
It's not just a matter of 'should be'. If you are not an atheist, you are not a rationalist. Rationalists and atheists aren't two different things, as a matter of fact. Rational thinking essentially means not depending on faith, because faith is something which you start believing in without any logic, reason or evidence. On the other hand, rationality means looking at things and finding reason, logic, witness and evidence behind them. Only then when you accept something, is when you practise rationality. So it is inherently the opposite of faith.
In any kind of social crisis — whether it's the pandemic or the CAA-NRC-NPR in recent times — the minorities and the poor are the ones who are the most oppressed systemically, irrespective of who is in power. However, under the current regime, the communal divides have become visibly more pronounced. What is the emotional and social cost of this crisis? How do you, personally, hold on to hope when you know that actively or tacitly your friends and colleagues are, perhaps, supporting these disruptive forces?
Even today, when we are complaining about the things that you mentioned, majority of Indians do not approve of the things happening. But the fact is, those people are fragmented into different parties and different groups. Today, the situation is such that it is enough to be in power if one gets 31 or 32 percent votes. This means that almost 67 to 68 percent of the people did not vote for you. But since the opposition is fragmented, it becomes ineffective. That is what is happening. So, I suppose that all those people who think that what is being done is not right, and the ideology that is gradually taking over society and the nation is not the right ideology, they will have to find some common platform and come together. They have to say this in a unified voice, because as long as they are divided, they will remain ineffective like they are today.
This brings me to the question of the 'apolitical artist' — a term we hear a lot today, especially in the Hindi film industry. What do you think the term means? Is there any space to appreciate an 'apolitical artist' today?
I think, if you dissect anybody's mind or intelligence, you will know that nobody is apolitical. But perhaps, it is their expediency that makes them look apolitical, and keeps them distant from all controversies, or subjects that can cause any kind of backlash or trouble to them. That is about it. But I don't think in India anybody is totally apolitical. They have their beliefs, their conditions and thoughts; they may or may not express them, but they of course have their ideas.
But when it comes to an artist and their art, can an artist, who claims to be apolitical, also say that their art has to be seen in the same 'apolitical' light, especially during such intensely polarised times?
It is not possible to do that. Artists look around, imbibe, and through some process of osmosis, learn what is happening in society, and then express their comments on the happenings through some form of art — like a painting, a film, a play, a story or a novel. All of this is nothing but what is happening around the artist, which the artist styles from his/her point of view, and irrespective of how nuanced their comments may be, they cannot exist in a totally water-tight compartment from the artist; because the artist's point of view, morality, likes and dislikes, terms and conditions will seep into that story, that painting, that poem. So, I don't see how an artist can be totally neutral — it is not possible.
As a matter of fact, if the artist is insisting that he/she is totally neutral, then the artist is with the powers at play. Because, in a situation where some people are very strong while some are very weak, if you say you are "neutral", you are obviously siding with the ones in power. By not saying anything, or by saying that you are indifferent, you are saying something. If you say you are 'apolitical' or neutral, you are, wittingly or unwittingly, condoning, or at least accepting the status quo. That is also a comment and a political stand.
You have said that critique cannot be limited to others and other communities, and one has to be critical of themselves and their own communities as well in order to progress...
First of all, you have to look around and set your home right, and accept what is wrong within your own home, society and community, and then talk about others.
...But we've often seen that when people adopt such an approach, there are sections that tag them as highbrow 'intellectuals', whose ideas are said to be inaccessible to the common person. What do you have to say about that?
That depends on the way you express yourself. But the fact remains that if somebody, say a Muslim, refuses to see what is wrong within their own community, and starts criticising and lecturing others, that will not be helpful. This is true for a Hindu also. The words of such people will not matter. There are some people — certain Hindu names — who only criticise Hindu communalism, but don't say a word about Muslim communalism. Similarly, there are also some Muslim names on Twitter, who only criticise Muslim communalism, and don't say anything about Hindu communalists. I think both are wrong. You see, you make a mistake by choosing your good communalism and bad communalism, good bigotry and bad bigotry. There is nothing like that. A bigot is a bigot, whether he/she is from your community or any other community. However, if you want to take a rational and objective stand, you have to criticise fundamentalism, regressive thoughts, anti-women and anti-other thoughts, or any thought that, directly or indirectly, propagates hate or schism in society. And this is irrespective of whether they are expressed by someone from your community or someone else's. You get the right to criticise another community only if you are just and willing to criticise your own community as well.
While we are on this subject, I remember a statement that you made in a public speech earlier this year, while addressing a crowd in Ghaziabad on the CAA-NRC issue. You said, "Ameer Musalmaan ke paas (identity proof) hai...tum fikar na karo uski. Sirf gareeb Musalmaan ke paas nahi hai, gareeb Hindu ke paas nahi hai, gareeb Dalit ke paas nahi hai. Yeh problem gareeb ka hai. Koi mere bacchon ko thodi nikaalne waala hai? Mere paas paisa hai. Usse tum poochhoge? Usse tum maalum karoge, jiske vote se tum power mein aaye ho?" These are some powerful words coming from a person who belongs to a fraternity that chooses to remain largely reticent on political matters.
However, being an influential figure from the Muslim community in India, do you think it's fair to always expect the 'Muslim celebrities' and actors — who arguably belong to a persecuted and vulnerable community in the country, even if influential — to make statements on communal tensions in India? Should one not expect more celebrities from Hindu and other communities to speak in support of their Muslim counterparts?
You may belong to a vulnerable section, but irrespective of that, you have to give your honest opinion and not pull any punches. You have to.
You see, what I was trying to say (in the speech) is that some people with vested interests have always wanted to divide the society vertically. Their religious communities or religious identities become their only identity. But the fact is that society is not divided vertically — it is really divided horizontally. There are very poor people and there are very rich people, and in between the two, there exists a whole spectrum, which is religion and community-blind. Some people belong to the middle class in every community, some are very poor in every community, there are also the poorest of poor in every community, much like the upper-middle classes in every community. The percentages may be different, but the fact remains that instead of dividing people according to their religions, if you look at it through the lens of economics and finances, you will know how the society is doing.
Some people don't want to establish that people from every community are in dire conditions. If this happens, the ones with vested interests will be proven guilty. They would prefer that these situations not come into focus, and instead of that, talk about communities and divide the society in some other way that will help them in not getting exposed.
But this again brings me back to the question of whether you think more people belonging to a visible majority should speak up increasingly for the disenfranchised and persecuted communities...
Actually, communities are not at fault. The average person from any community wants their children to go to a good school, and wants a good hospital for their family, and so on and so forth. People just wish for a decent life, and these are the ambitions they have — that's about all. But there are certain segments in every community who are troublemakers. Therefore, we should never accuse an entire community. So we need to differentiate between the community and its Right wing and extreme fringes, which exist everywhere and in every community.
The recent and unfortunate death of Sushant Singh Rajput has, once again, opened up debates on nepotism and privilege in the Hindi film industry. I ask you this question because your children too have successfully ventured into films, even though they have not been charged with nepotism as much as some others from the industry have been. Most 'film families' have responded defensively to these charges. What are your thoughts on this debate?
You see, first of all, one must differentiate between nepotism and inheritance. If you take a big industrialist dealing in major projects, factories, investments, bank balances and properties, when he/she dies — or even during his/her life — the person will give all of it to his/her children, right? If there is a shopkeeper, that shopkeeper will give his shop to his children, or maybe to his mother, or son, or daughter, or whoever else he wants to give it to. So even in the film industry, if a man wants to give his property to his children, is that nepotism? There is definitely a difference between inheritance and nepotism.
Mr Yash Chopra has made a huge business and a studio. So to whom should he have given his studio? Obviously to his wife and his children. So would you say that the fact that he gave his studio to his children is nepotism? He is a producer, and now his son wants to become a director. So if he gives him his own money and takes a personal risk for his children, and makes a film for his son who is the director, is it nepotism? How can it be nepotism? Everybody works for their children and their following generations, and strives to give them as many facilities and opportunities as possible. So how do you call this nepotism?
Besides that, if you look at the list of actors in the industry, they are not there because of nepotism. They might have one foot in the door because they probably have a parent in the film industry, or perhaps belong to a film family. There was one foot in the door, accepted. But that's about all.
The maximum that you can do for a child is give him a break. Ultimately, you cannot rig the results of your child's efforts. At the end of the day, he or she will become successful only if the public has approved and appreciated the person. There is no rigging possible here — it is a totally fair election.
You can give them a chance, that is all. There are many people who have been successful, but their children have not found much success. Conversely, there are also successful children whose parents did not do well in the industry. So, you can give both kind of examples. There are also people who came from outside and are doing extremely well, like Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar, who are huge stars today. They do not come from film families; they were complete outsiders who have now made a place for themselves. Look at the heroines — Katrina Kaif, Anushka Sharma, Deepika Padukone. They don't come from film families either, but have become huge stars.
When it comes to Alia Bhatt — whose father Mahesh Bhatt is a successful director — she became a star from a film that was produced and directed by someone who is not related to her. So what kind of nepotism is that? She is an extremely talented girl. Alia has become popular not because she is Mahesh's daughter, or because someone gave her a break, she is successful because she is a very fine actor.
There is no 'us' or 'them'. In the rolling credits that are shown in the beginning or at the end of a film, you'll see that every film and its unit has people from every part of India, belonging to every community, caste, region, language. The sets have people from every segment of society. The producer cannot afford this kind of nepotism. If someone has not made a place for himself or herself, the producer will not back that person or give that person a break; he cannot. Ultimately, it is your talent, your popularity and acceptance by the audience that will sustain you, and not because somebody is backing you. Someone can give you a break, yes.
You can say that this person is his/her child, but then their parents at one point were outsiders, who came and worked in the industry, made a place for themselves and were successful. Now today, if they put their money to bet on their children, who are we to raise objections? They are not using public money, or taking government aid to make the film. They are using their own hard-earned money. If they want to use their money for their own children, we cannot object to that, can we?
When it comes to the media in India, you have been a fierce advocate for a free press in the country. Over the past couple of years, have you noticed any difference in your interactions with journalists?
Well, today I can see that television channels do not have any room for a Barkha Dutt, or Karan Thapar, or Punya Prasun Bajpai, or even a Nidhi Razdan. These are exceptionally well-known and competent journalists, so I sometimes wonder as to why no channel is interested in choosing them for a programme? I don't know, but I would like to find out more about this.
What do you have to say about how the governments have been handling the coronavirus outbreak across the country?
It is not an ideal situation, and it is very easy to criticise the government. However, the fact remains that there was not much that they could have done anyway, except for maybe announcing the lockdown with a warning four days or a week prior to imposing it. Because, you know, the economically vulnerable sections really suffered due to the short notice given, allowing people only four hours, between 8 pm and 12 am. Indians, whom we now call the 'migrant labourers', were the worst sufferers.
When it comes to handling the coronavirus outbreak, the medical fraternity and the bureaucracy are trying their best. However, it is out of control in many countries; they are in a no-win situation. If they continue with the lockdown, it will reflect very badly on our economy, which in any case was not very healthy. And if they relax the lockdown, the coronavirus outbreak will start spiralling. So it's a no-win situation for the government also, and I won't like to criticise them. Imagine yourself in their shoes, what would you have done?
For us to come out wiser from this situation, there should be a greater budget allocated for healthcare in the country, with more hospitals built. There should be some kind of a hospital in every locality that has at least the basic equipment and medicine. Oftentimes, there are hospitals without proper facilities and medication, or even machines that are required today. We will have to prepare for such eventualities and increase healthcare budgets at state and central levels.
So would you say that a situation like this has revealed the cracks in the way the society has been run all these years?
Firstly, this is an extreme situation — nobody in the world was prepared for it. Even a country like the USA is totally helpless. Comparatively, we seem a little better. But the fact remains that we could have been, and we should have been, and at least in future we should be more well-equipped to face such a situation. Health has not been prioritised so far; now we have to allocate more national and state budgets to healthcare, and infrastructure should be made much better. You cannot depend completely on private hospitals — it is the responsibility of the government, which it cannot shrug off. All the governments have to look into this, so that in the future we are not so unprepared.
Finally, is there anything you have written during the lockdown that you could share with us? Has your writing helped you cope with the crisis?
What is more important is, does my poetry help others who are suffering?
Of course, somewhere you appeal to the conscience of the nation and the people who are listening to and reading your poetry, but the situation is more difficult than this. Most of the times I write for those who suffer, expressing his or her feelings through words.
दोनों जलती तप्ति सड़क पर
सूरज की गर्मी से पिघलते
भूख और प्यास की गठरी उठाए
बड़े नगर से
अपने छोटे गाँवों को
अपने छोटे घरों को लौट रहे हैं
जो पैरों की ताकत
दिल की हिम्मत से भी आगे
बहुत ही आगे
जाने कितनी दूरी पर है
सूखे होंठ है
पाँव में छाले
पर चलते रहने के सिवाय
रास्ता भी क्या है
फैक्ट्री के दरवाज़े
जब इन दोनों के मुँह पर बंद हुए थे
ठेकेदार ने जब था इन्हे
एक आधी बनी बिल्डिंग से निकाला
कौन था इनका पूछने वाला
कोई भी उम्मीद किसी रस्ते में नहीं थी
सब नगरी सुनसान पड़ी थी
हर बिल्डिंग अनजान खड़ी थी
सारे मकान और सारी दुकाने
अपनी आँखे बंद किए थे
उसी नगर में अब ये दोनों थे परदेसी
जहाँ ये बरसों मरे जिए थे
सारे खुदाओं के भी घरों पर
लगा था ताला
किससे मांगता मांगने वाला
कोई नहीं था
चारों तरफ बस एक सन्नाटा गूंज रहा था
वो लाउड स्पीकर भी अब चुप थे
कल जो दोनों को थे बताते
कौन हो तुम और क्या है
पूरी और सच्ची पहचान तुम्हारी
सुनो और समझो बात हमारी
वो है बाबर की औलाद
और तुम हो महराणा के बेटे
दोनों का इतिहास अलग है
दोनों के संस्कार अलग हैं
दोनों का विश्वास अलग है
वो लाउड स्पीकर भी चुप थे
जो थे बताते
वो है भूतों को पूजने वाले
और तुम हो ग़ज़नी के सिपाही
सच्ची राह के सच्चे राही
दोनों का ईमान अलग है
दोनों का अरमान अलग है
दोनों की मंज़िल ही अलग
रस्ते ही अलग है
ऐसे ज्ञान और इल्म बाँटते
सारे लाउड स्पीकर चुप हैं
और दोनों ये देख रहे हैं
दोनों का एक ही रस्ता है
दोनों जलती तप्ति सड़क पर
सूरज की गर्मी से पिघलते
अपने कंधों पर
अपनी भूख और प्यास की गठरी लेकर
जाने कितनी सदियों से यूँ ही चलते हैं
पेट की आग में दोनों ही जलते हैं
अब दोनों ने ये है जाना
एक अमीरी एक गरीबी
दुनिया में दो ही ज़ातें हैं
बाकी सब झूठी बातें हैं|
(Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil)
On the scorching-searing road
Melting in the heat of the sun
Carrying their bundle of hunger and thirst
Both have set out from the Big City
To return to their small house in their small village
That is far, far beyond
The strength of their feet
And the resolve in their heart
Who knows how far away?
When the gates of the factory
Were shut in their faces
When the contractor
Threw them out of a half-built factory
Who was there to look after them?
There was no hope on any path
The city was deserted
Every building seemed as though a stranger
All the houses and shops
Had their eyes closed
And in that city
Where they had toiled for years
Even the Houses of all the Gods were locked
Only a silence echoed all around
Where could the beggar go to beg?
Even those loudspeakers were silent now
That would tell them till yesterday
Who they were
And what their true and complete identity was
Listen to us, they would say, and understand:
They are the sons of Babur
And you are the son of a Maharana
Your history is different from theirs
Your values are different from theirs
Your faith is different from theirs
And those loudspeakers too were silent now
That used to say:
They are the worshippers of idols
And you are the soldiers of Ghazni
You are the steadfast walkers on the true path
Your belief is different from theirs
Your hopes are different from theirs
Even your destination is different from theirs
Your paths, too, are different
All the loudspeakers dispensing such wisdom and knowledge
Are silent now
And the two of them can see
Their path is the same
On the scorching-searing road
Melting in the heat of the sun
Carrying their bundle of hunger and thirst
They have been walking like this for centuries
Both burning alike from the fire in their bellies
Now, both have realised
There are only two castes in the world:
Rich and poor
All else are lies.
All images via Facebook, except where indicated otherwise
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