Farhan Akhtar is clearly a very busy man. Several of our telephone calls and emails went unanswered. Messages left on his phone didn’t elicit any response either. Then, on a Monday, two days after we had started our pursuit, we finally managed to contact Farhan, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, directors, producers and singers.
‘I’ve been extremely busy working on Rock On 2 [his upcoming movie] so I couldn’t take any calls,’ he says. ‘But yes, we can talk. How about now?’ Although it was late in the day, his voice was upbeat and excited. And with good reason.
Riding high with the recent blockbuster Dil Dhadakne Do (Let the Heart Beat), which he not only co-produced with Ritesh Sidhwani but also wrote the script for and sang and acted in, the 41-year-old is busy juggling several other projects too. ‘I was really tied up with the promotions of DDD. Then immediately after, I began working on the music for Rock On 2 and have been in and out of studios,’ he says. ‘In fact I’ve been working round the clock with music composers Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy and have barely had time to rest.’
Farhan has also just finished work on Wazir, a murder mystery in which he plays a police officer. The film, which those in the know say could go on to be a game changer in Bollywood, features legendary Amitabh Bachchan, and Farhan is excited about sharing screen space with the mega star who he directed more than a decade ago in Lakshya. ‘In this movie, Bachchan plays the role of a wheelchair-bound chess player,’ says Farhan. ‘We have several scenes together and let me tell you, we enjoyed telling this story. I’ve said this before but I want to repeat it – Amitabh Bachchan is the main reason for me to want to be in the world of movies. I have always idolised him and marvel at his sheer on-screen charisma.’
But even as Wazir’s post-production work is in progress, it’s DDD that’s the talk of the movie world. Directed by his sister, Zoya Akhtar, and featuring a stellar star cast such as Anil Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh, not to mention a dog named Pluto voiced by Aamir Khan, DDD tells the story of a dysfunctional family in which a brother-and sister invite family and friends on a cruise to celebrate their parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. The interplay of relationships on board makes it a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.
‘I’d worked with Zoya on her earlier films – Luck By Chance and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara – and we share a perfect chemistry,’ he says, denying any suggestion of sibling rivalry. In fact it was Farhan’s company – Excel Entertainment – that produced these films.
Farhan and his father, noted poet and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar, wrote the dialogues for DDD. In the film, Farhan plays a journalist who is on a vacation and slowly gets drawn into the lives of a few members of the family. He says, ‘It was great fun working on this movie.’ Apparently after the day’s shoot was over, the crew would unwind on the deck where Farhan would turn DJ and play fabulous music for the team.
‘On some level, Zoya’s and my sensibilities are similar,’ says Farhan. ‘But I think Zoya’s writing is different from mine, although our influences have been more or less the same. We grew up watching the same movies, reading similar books, hearing about the same directors... so the roots are the same.’
That said, the making of DDD was not without hiccups. Like most creative-minded people, the brother-sister duo did have disagreements. ‘Fortunately, we are very open to anything that is logical. As long as it is making sense, we are happy to listen and sort things out and move forward,’ says Farhan.
Moving forward is something that has been a constant in Farhan’s life. Growing up in a household where every member of the family is a star in their own right – in addition to his father and sister, his mother, Honey Irani, is a noted actor and scriptwriter; while stepmother Shabana Azmi is an actor – it was only natural for Farhan to lean towards a career in films.
‘As a kid I loved action films and I was quite often in a world of my own,’ he says. ‘I used to roam around the house with a toy gun convinced there were villains lurking behind doors and in dark rooms.’
One day, while tiptoeing around their house in Mumbai looking for villains, he heard some sounds coming from a room and threw open the door, punching wildly into the air as he entered. The villain turned out to be sister Zoya, who was, unfortunately, standing near the door. ‘She still remembers the punch on her nose,’ says Farhan.
‘I truly was a ‘filmy’ child imagining all kinds of things.’
A college dropout, Farhan laughs when he recalls how his mother threatened to throw him out of the house if he did not do something worthwhile with his life as he spent all of his time watching movies or listening to music. Since the only thing he knew was films, he decided to make one.
Taking her advice to heart, he wrote the script for Dil Chahta Hai (What the Heart Desires) – a coming-of-age story about three friends and how they deal with a period of major transition in their lives. Farhan pulled off a casting coup by signing up leading stars Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna and Preity Zinta, and he directed the movie, which was set in a urban Mumbai and Sydney. The film went on to become a runaway super hit and earned him a National Award for Best Feature Film.
He followed it with Lakshya, Don, Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd, Rock On and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, among others, each underscoring his phenomenal talent either in front of the camera or behind, or both. He says, ‘I do my best in everything that I attempt. I then leave it up to the people to decide if it is good. I only focus on what really excites me. That’s what is important. If I were to stop to analyse whether I’m good at it or not, it could bring about a sense of fear in me.
‘When you are in the creative world – acting, scripting or directing a film, for instance – you don’t want to think, “Oh! What if I am doing it wrong?” You want to do it with the belief that you are doing the best because that is the right thing to do. I focus on the task at hand and just put in my best.’
So would he consider making a sequel to Dil Chahta Hai?
‘No,’ says Farhan. ‘When I made the film in 2001, the story of friendship felt natural to me. People liked it but we don’t have to revisit it.’
However, there is one film he would like to revisit – his sister’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You Don’t Get a Second Chance in Life). ‘We had so much fun making it,’ he says. But he quickly adds that the movie was ‘her baby, so the decision to make [a sequel] would have to be hers.’
So does having a family of stars mean he has to field criticism from different quarters?
‘My mother is a lot less diplomatic than my dad,’ he says.
‘My dad will finally arrive at a point in a way where you don’t really feel shocked by his critique. My mother is a lot more direct. She can just turn around and say ‘I hate it’! That’s how she is…’
Farhan says that what makes him happiest is seeing a smile on his mother’s face. ‘It’s not just about me. Zoya is doing very well as a director and I just feel really happy that my mother is feeling good about what’s going on with her children. And that shows. After having worked most of her life, she is now doing her own thing, spending a lot more time with her friends and travelling.
The fact that Zoya and I are happy in our careers and our lives is the best gift we can give her.’
Farhan takes family very seriously. In 2000 he married Adhuna – a renowned hairstylist who owns a string of salons called b:blunt in Mumbai as well as in Dubai. They have two daughters, Shakya, 13, and Akira, 7.
Farhan claims he has figured out what makes for a happy marriage. ‘I’m convinced that the key to a happy relationship is not just the belief that the other person is always there for you but respecting your spouse’s personal space.
‘I feel there has to be a nice balance between displaying your love and affection to your loved one and giving them the space they need.’
Apart from making a mark in films, Farhan is also spearheading a campaign titled MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination) to raise social awareness against abuse towards women. Since it’s launch it has been getting support from prominent Bollywood celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Arjun Rampal and Hrithik Roshan.
As part of the campaign, Farhan travels across the country meeting and interacting with groups of youths, holding talks in colleges and schools and reinforcing gender equality and protecting women from rape and other abuses. ‘I get to learn a lot from these interactions,’ says Farhan. ‘I meet a lot of young kids across India. We have been to around 65 colleges, interacted with students, we’ve spoken to them about gender issues and the importance of them being a part of the solution. It’s a learning process because we realise the different troubles that exist in different pockets. Apart from that, it also makes me feel a lot more optimistic, because when you meet people who share similar concerns, it gives you a certain sense of belief and hope that things will be better.’
Farhan is optimistic that soon women will get to enjoy the same rights and privileges as men in India.
‘All of us have to collectively work towards the solution. When you meet people who feel like you do and hope things get better, and they are doing things in their own way, it fills you with hope,’ says the star.
So does he understand women a bit better now? Farhan laughs. ‘Like they say, one of the greatest mysteries in the world is a woman!’
So what are his dreams?
‘I think dreams keep changing depending on what stage of life you are in,’ he says.
‘As you go forward, things will keep happening: they will be exciting and you will feel like you want to achieve something more. That is life. I think the only thing that remains constant is the desire to achieve more.’
Said just like the dialogue from his sister’s film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: ‘Insaan ka kartavya hota hai koshish karna ... kaamyabi nakaamyabi sab uske haath mein hai’ (‘It is the duty of a human to try... success or failure is in the hands of destiny’).