Through a career that turns 15 years old this summer, Farhan Akhtar has left little room for regret. An actor, filmmaker, writer, gender activist, devoted husband and father, the multi-hyphenate carries both criticism and fame lightly. And that has made all the difference
Introducing Farhan Akhtar is a cumbersome task. Exhausting even. Try and say actor-director-producer-writer-singer-musician-TV host-activist all in one breath.You understand, then, why when he tells ForbesLife India that he won’t be adding yet another hyphen to his job description anytime soon, we aren’t terribly sympathetic.
“It was embarrassing,” he says, recounting his time at a ‘friendly’ game of cricket in his building. “I was hit for some four sixes and bowled seven wides in an over; one ball landed at my feet,” he says. “I was playing after 8-9 years. I thought it would be like cycling, which you never forget, but clearly not.” To make matters worse, his abysmal performance was witnessed by Gaurav Kapur, who is one of the anchors for the Indian Premier League (IPL). “He told everyone on the IPL circuit! So when I went to Kolkata to perform at the inauguration, some cricketers asked me if I play cricket well,” he laughs, adding, “so now I have to brush up on my cricketing skills. I sucked at it.”
The law of averages is catching up, perhaps. Because, since he entered Bollywood 15 years ago, he hasn’t particularly “sucked” at anything (although his singing has had its share of critics, but more on that later).
From India’s first urban coming-of-age film Dil Chahta Hai (2001), which he wrote, directed and produced, to singing-acting in Rock On!! (2008), Akhtar became the go-to for the urbane, upmarket male lead. Not many believed that he could convincingly pull off a more rustic role, that of Olympian athlete and Army man Milkha Singh in the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). But his changed appearance (the chiselled abdomen, for one) and authentic portrayal won him and the film various accolades, including the National Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment. That same year, Akhtar launched MARD(Men Against Rape and Discrimination), a social awareness campaign “to drive home the message that women need to be respected”. Then, in 2014, Akhtar set up FarOut Media, a ‘rights and artist management agency’ for independent musicians. It has been a busy 15 years for a college dropout who, in his 20s, didn’t know what he wanted to do. “I am glad Plan A worked,” says Akhtar, now 41. “Because I had no Plan B.”Not because he thinks that since he was born to Bollywood, he automatically belonged to it. Even though he is the son of legendary screenwriter and poet Javed Akhtar and child actor and screenwriter Honey Irani, he says, “At no point was I told that this was the thing that I was supposed to do. And at no point was I really sure about anything that I wanted to do”.
Image: Colston Julian
Passion play: A college dropout, Farhan Akhtar says he is glad that ‘Plan A’ worked for him because he had no ‘Plan B’. His friends and peers say he is always focussed on the job at hand
At the same time, much like the other “industry” kids, his orientation process began early. Akhtar grew up in Juhu, the heart of Bollywood in Mumbai, and this meant a childhood peppered with summer movie collaborations with Uday Chopra and Hrithik Roshan and special appearances in ‘films’ made by his cousins Sajid and Farah Khan. “At some level, the environment does decide certain things for you as a child. Films, of course, were spoken about a lot. And we interacted a lot with people from the industry,” he says. “But, somehow, music and writing were two things that I always enjoyed doing.” Maybe that was predestined too: After all, Akhtar can trace his ancestry back to poet and writer Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi (1797-1861), who was a contemporary of the legendary Mirza Ghalib. But destiny needs a hefty push. And it got that while Akhtar was working at Mumbai production house Script Shop, as an assistant to ad man and writer Adi Pocha. “Adi Pocha instilled the discipline of writing not just in me but in everyone who worked with him. He always said that if you want to do something in the creative field, it has to start with writing yourself or at least understanding what it takes to write. He would make us do an exercise where we’d take out an hour every day and write. You could write anything because you never know which thought could lead to something,” he says. One of those thoughts led to the screenplay of Dil Chahta Hai. “I credit him a lot. Not just with teaching me about writing but also about organisation, efficiency on set, streamlining process… I learnt a lot from him.” He, however, did not need any lessons in single-mindedness. “Whether he is acting, singing or cooking for his friends, Farhan is completely focussed on the job at hand. He doesn’t do anything that he is not passionate about and that, I think, is probably why he is successful in most things he does,” says Ritesh Sidhwani, Akhtar’s school friend and his partner in their production house Excel Entertainment
To essay the character of Olympian
Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Farhan Akhtar trained twice a day for seven months before shooting began
The trick to being a successful multi-hyphenate is delegation, points out Akhtar. “If I was to say that I need to make every single decision in everything I do, I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” he says. “You share a vision plan with the people you work with and once that’s done, everyone knows what needs to be done. Whether it is with Ritesh (Sidhwani) at Excel Entertainment, with my band or with FarOut Media, I trust the people I work with. You have to let go of control.” The division of functions helped at Excel, for instance. “Ritesh’s skills are organisational or in getting funding for a film and [in that] I am the bouncing board. Similarly, when it’s about the script, music or casting, I play a slightly more pivotal role.”
Though he appears to shift seamlessly between identities, multiple hats inevitably lead to work encroaching on family time. And that is his one regret. “There are times when you feel like you have taken on too much,” he says. “Especially in a day or in a week when everything seems to be happening all at once. Then you feel like you are not getting enough time with the kids.” The time he does get is well-spent, in part in the sun-drenched family room we are currently seated in. This space has a decidedly casual and lived-in look—there’s an oversized leather sofa, throw pillows on the floor and a Gibson acoustic guitar in the corner. This is where he writes, plucks on his guitar and hangs out with his family. Calm is the goal for his living area, an aspiration that is also reflected in the name of his sea-facing bungalow in Bandra—Vipassana. He and his wife of 15 years Adhuna have “wanted to go for Vipassana on many occasions”, Akhtar says. And though they haven’t yet found time for that, the significance of the word resonates with the couple. “Vipassana is all about finding that silence within you and getting your conscious thoughts to a place where it’s all about the now. Our home is our inner sanctuary. In this house, we are at peace.
In the past year, he has performed over 70 gigs in India and abroad; Akhtar with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women; presenting the MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination) band to Ban Ki-moon
Vipassana is also home to their daughters, Shakya and Akira. Like most working parents, they too split parenting duties. “We are both disciplinarian and indulgent as parents. We make all the decisions about the girls together. At no point does either of us have an independent discussion with them,” he says. But his daughters have discovered that he is a little more pliable than their mother. “I guess it’s a father-daughter thing. I find it a lot more difficult to say no. I look at those puppy dog eyes and I can’t refuse,” he confesses.
He is away from his family for long periods, and has to make the most of the time he does get with them. “When I am shooting, I could be gone for a month or two. Even when I am shooting in Mumbai, I tend to get so obsessed with the film that it’s all I can talk about at the end of a work day. But once a film is done, I could be free for the next two-three months,” he says. And after that, Adhuna adds, Akhtar is devoted to the children. “Whether it is on holidays or when they are playing board games together, Farhan is completely focussed on them.”
And clued into their interests as well. “Akira has recently started going to a music school,” he tells us. “She was learning to play the piano but she wants to sing a lot more. So recently, she came into the studio with me and played with a band.” His other daughter loves horses, “like Od (his nickname for Adhuna),” says Akhtar. “So, every weekend, she is off to a riding camp.”
Most of his own passions and careers intersect and where they don’t—say cooking (chicken rolls in puff pastry is his signature dish), skydiving (although he managed to factor that in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), volleyball—he finds it more difficult to keep up. “While we were shooting for Dil Dhadakne Do (slated for a June 5 release) last year, I went to a drop zone to skydive but the weather was bad so I had to return. And that was the only chance I got. As for cooking, it helps me relax. I started cooking about five years ago and I really enjoy it. But I haven’t stepped into a kitchen for a while,” he says. It is far easier to just play the guitar, he points out. “When I am at home, playing music is that time that you need for yourself. That time which is about nothing else but that moment.”
Making music and a difference: Farhan Akhtar performs at IIT-Roorkee with his band
Music might be Akhtar’s lifeblood but it is also that one aspect of his professional life that has been critiqued the most. Some have even called him “tone-deaf”. But Akhtar isn’t perturbed. “There are genres, bands and musicians whom I don’t like and I don’t listen to them,” he shrugs. “That power lies with me. So I am very okay with people not wanting to listen to me.”
Regret is not a motif of his 15-year-long career, be it his music or his movies. “Every film you make is a success in its own way because you started off trying to make something good. Regardless of what people might say, you’ve done all that you could. Of course, there is a whole other sweetness to the experience when the film is accepted. [But] there is a lot of learning when a film doesn’t do well,” he says. “Eventually everything does help you in some way or the other.” The lowest point of his career, says Akhtar, was the box-office failure of the Hrithik Roshan-starrer Lakshya (2004). “It affected me only because it was such a hard film to make,” he says. “But, in retrospect, it seems like the film worked because so many people have told me that they liked it.”
A thick skin and detachment from criticism helps in the age of social media. Along with the love comes the criticism by the tweetload. None of that is allowed to affect Akhtar’s work. “Creative decisions are always very instinctive. You have to base those decisions on what you think is right for you in that moment,” he says. “You want do something that will bring you some joy—some learnings and experiences that will enrich you.” Akhtar’s social media persona is neither overly personal nor is it mere information dissemination. “Apart from regular work-related updates, I share my views about things that are happening in our society,” he says. “There used to be a view that because actors belong in the public space and depend on adulation from people, they shouldn’t voice their opinions. What if someone gets pissed; they might not buy a ticket to your film, we were told. I don’t worry about that stuff. If someone likes the trailer of a film, they will watch it regardless of what they think of my tweet.” Akhtar doesn’t hold back from sharing his concerns that usually go beyond Bollywood with his five million-plus followers on Twitter. “You can’t be insulated from what is happening in the rest of the country or even the world. I get troubled by the fact that some people seem very disconnected with what is going on around them. I can never be like that.”
His initiative, MARD, was born out of a sense of anger and helplessness after an employee of his production company Excel Entertainment was sexually assaulted and murdered in her home in 2012. “It’s impossible to read a newspaper or watch the news and not feel angry, frustrated and helpless at the state of women. You want to do something to change things,” he says. “MARD is a behavioural initiative that compels you to think about gender inequality from a masculine point of view. What defines you as a man? If you think these impulses [of molestation or rape] define a man, then you are wrong.”
Last year, he was recognised by the United Nations (UN) for his commitment towards gender equality and towards ending violence against women, and appointed UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia. In March this year, Akhtar was invited to speak during the Commission on the Status of Women at the UN headquarters in New York. The most important learning for him from the three days he spent there, listening and talking about gender violence and discrimination, was that ‘we are not alone’. “There were people from all over the world there trying to tackle the issue. I saw a screening of India’s Daughter [the controversial BBC documentary on the 2012 Delhi gang rape] there. It was heartening to hear people say that they had never seen anything like the demonstrations that took place in response to the incident.”
His humanitarian hat is almost always in place but Akhtar, now with a hint of salt in his full beard, looks every inch like the movie star he is. When ForbesLife India met him, he was in between movies: Relaxed, funny yet slightly aloof. Much like his older sister Zoya, he chooses his words carefully. The siblings have gone from fighting over Zoya wanting a bigger room and Akhtar eating up her chocolates to becoming collaborators. Zoya has been a casting director (Dil Chahta Hai) and first assistant director (Lakshya) on his films while Akhtar has acted in all her three directorial ventures (Luck By Chance, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dil Dhadakne Do)..Father Javed Akhtar has written screenplays and songs for Akhtar’s films. Working with the family is “very comfortable”, he says. “Zoya and my influences are very similar. The films and filmmakers we enjoy are almost the same, so our sensibilities tend to match on most things.” It helps that the Akhtar family doesn’t feel the compulsion to “love” everything suggested by any one of them. For the ‘Making Of’ interview for the Dil Chahta Hai DVD, Javed Akhtar was asked if he had any suggestions after reading the script for the film. He said, “Yes, I gave him three-four suggestions to better the script and Farhan incorporated none of them. I thought that was fine because that’s exactly how I used to be with my father.” Akhtar laughs at the memory, adding, “Not listening to your elders is a family tradition.”
Irreverence, just a dash of it, has helped Akhtar navigate celebrity-hood on his own terms. He is unapologetically real. “I can’t pretend to be someone just because I want people to love me. I’ll start hating myself. I am the way I am.” He is aware that people think of him as a snob or call him cold. “Unfortunately, when you are in the public eye, regardless of what you are feeling, you are expected to be affable. I try my best at times, but you just can’t do it. No one can be constantly smiling and upbeat. If you want to criticise me, it’s your call.”
Experience has made him almost Zen in his response to the pressures of living a public life. “It used to trouble me a lot earlier. I’d want to go out and fight all the wrong that people were writing or saying about me but over time, I have learnt it’s not worth it. You choose your battles.” After all, being a celebrity is a by-product of a career that has brought Akhtar much happiness. And he wouldn’t want it any other way. “To tell stories… to think of something and then put it there for everyone to hopefully enjoy is very special. And you get to collaborate with amazing people,” he says. That’s all he could have asked for 15 years ago, when he started on this journey.Let’s call Plan A a success.