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Javed Akhtar: ‘I was known for my narrations’

In this excerpt from ‘Talking Life’, Javed Akhtar tells Nasreen Munni Kabir how he went about writing his classic films

Dev Anand and (right) Javed Akhtar in conversation
Dev Anand and (right) Javed Akhtar in conversation

Nasreen Munni Kabir: Writing a screenplay together is like clapping with both hands. One cannot exist without the other.

Javed Akhtar: That’s right. We were the two hands. Sometimes, people tend to undermine Salim Sahib in private conversations. I’ve heard it many times and I’ve always corrected them. This is something that must be made clear beyond any doubt that he was the major contributor in our partnership. To say it was all Javed is utter rubbish! The fact is that most storylines were his. The screenplays were written together, while I wrote the dialogue.

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NMK: All the dialogue?

JA: Yes. That was my department.

NMK: What do you need to write good dialogue?

JA: You need a huge vocabulary to write different characters who belong to different social milieus and age groups. You must be obsessed with language. You should have an ear for dialects, unusual expressions and metaphors. And if you hear an interesting phrase, you must be able to recall it later without any effort. The same approach applies to songwriting. I wrote a song for Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum, which was a realistic film, and the vocabulary had to match the language spoken seventy to eighty years ago. A thumri had to sound like a traditional thumri. The same for a kajari or a ghazal. When I wrote the songs for Lagaan, they had a rural fragrance, while the Silsila songs needed a sophisticated, educated touch and had to sound like the language of a poet. And the songs of Rock On!! had to sound like tracks on an album by a young band and not like film songs.

NMK: Writing an exchange between hero and villain in the same scene requires lines that get the psychologies of both hero and villain right. How do you make sure you’re doing that?

JA: You must identify with the characters and understand their psyche. Your words are mirrors of their morality and aesthetics. How could anyone with a grain of compassion look at a man writhing in agony and say: Kaisa phadphada raha hai.

By using this verb, Gabbar is dehumanising Thakur. For him, Thakur is a creature, not a human being. The verb ‘phadphadana’ usually describes a bird.

NMK: You could translate ‘phadphadana’ as fluttering or flapping about. A cruel word to describe a human being’s agony. Is finding an appropriate vocabulary for a character intuitive in your case?

JA: There’s no other way. With experience writers choose words instinctively, we don’t always have to overthink.

Talking Life by Nasreen Munni Kabir in conversation with Javed Akhtar, published by Westland
Talking Life by Nasreen Munni Kabir in conversation with Javed Akhtar, published by Westland

NMK: Many of your screenplays are considered lessons in film writing. Did you narrate the screenplay as per the usual practice in Indian cinema? Or did Salim–Javed give the directors a bound script to read?

JA: Although we gave the director and his team bound scripts, narration was the tradition. We did have to narrate our screenplays to the heads of department and the actors. Sometimes, we were obliged to give several narrations as someone from the unit may have been absent at the first reading. Narrating the screenplay usually took around two-and-a-half hours and in between we sat around talking with the film unit. I thoroughly enjoyed narrating scripts.

NMK: Did you and Salim Sahib suggest camera positions in your screenplays? For example, did you say such and such dialogue should be filmed in mid-shot or close-up?

JA: We wrote in minute detail and even listed the props. There should be a cupboard here and a table there. Some directors followed our suggestions and others didn’t. I don’t see how you can write appropriate dialogue without visualising a scene in its entirety. There were people who said, somewhat exaggeratingly, that Salim–Javed write in such detail that anybody can take a camera and shoot the film. That wasn’t quite true.

NMK: Were you good at narrating?

JA: I was known for my narrations. People said I was a great narrator and had everyone gripped. I am not sure I’d like to name the producer, though he was someone for whom we had written many hit films. His connection with the universe, I’m afraid, was through his own voice. The minute he stopped talking, he switched off. It became an obsession for me to hold his attention beyond scene twelve. And I invariably failed. By scene twelve, he was fast asleep. It finally stopped bothering me and I continued the narration to the cast and crew regardless of his loud snoring. [both laugh]

NMK: What was the first narration you ever gave?

JA: Oh, that was tragic. Remember Parvez, the young publicist with whom I shared a room? Well, he was working for Mr Mahipatray Shah, the producer who made the 1965 film Purnima with Meena Kumari and Dharmendra. The film had some songs by Gulzar and the music was composed by Kalyanji–Anandji. Once the film had been completed, they were looking for another story, so Parvez recommended that I go and narrate a story to them. This was before Salim Sahib and I became writing partners. At the appointed time I arrived at their office and was told that Mr Shah and his accountant would listen to the story. Within ten minutes of my starting, Mr Shah yawned. One minute later, his accountant yawned. I kept narrating, pretending I hadn’t noticed. Shah Sahib yawned again and then the accountant yawned. Yawn followed yawn. Very soon there was a jugalbandi of yawns! I was only twenty-one years old and got so nervous that I started sweating and asked them if I should stop. They said: ‘Why are you stopping? Go on.’ I continued narrating and they continued yawning. During the whole session, narration and yawning ran in parallel. When I finished, Mr Shah smiled and said: ‘We’ll let you know.’ I never heard from him again. That was my first experience of narrating a film story. By the way, it was the same story that got us our job at Sippy Films. So, one producer’s meat can be another producer’s poison!

Excerpted with permission from Talking Life by Nasreen Munni Kabir in conversation with Javed Akhtar, published by Westland Books.

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