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Verve Man
January 14, 2012

Bad Boy Good!

Text by Shashi Baliga. Illustration by Kunal Kundu.

Writer, director, producer, actor, singer and chat-show host…Farhan Akhtar plays out all his roles with equal panache. Formerly scrappy and lazy – by his own admission – his creative energies over the years have made him the darling of the masses. Verve interacts with the uber-cool heartthrob on the eve of his next release, Don 2

An actor in a Marlon Brando tee? Pretentious, you might think – if the said tee wasn’t stretched tight over the multi-talented and, importantly here, sharply worked-out Farhan Akhtar.

Pretentious is not a word anyone might use to describe this actor-writer-director who likes to play it uber-cool. When I ask, ‘So what’s with the Brando tee?” his response is: “Well, it was actually a gift. But I like it. So you can see my influences all over me!”

Brando was, of course, not just one of the world’s great actors, but also famously, a recklessly bad boy off screen. Not quite the image you’d associate with the Farhan Akhtar of today. But there was a time, he admits, when the bad boy label might have fit. “When I was young,” he grins, “I went through a phase when I would lie a lot.” Lie just for the fun of it or for any particular reason? “I used to just lie,” he says, with that trademark laugh that is half-guffaw, half-chuckle. “I used to make up stories – elaborate stories – all the time, because they were more interesting than real life. If I didn’t want to go to school or get out of a class, for instance, I would pretend to be very ill and then faint. Believe me, I could faint very well. And I could hold that fainted position for a very long time!”

Clearly, the beginnings of his writing and acting skills. But key question: Was he good enough to get away with it? “Most of the time, yes, because I was really good at making up stories,” he claims. “Unfortunately it was my sister Zoya (also a successful writer-director now), who used to be the one to expose me and squeal on me to my parents (writers Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani). Zoya used to be the purdah phaadnewali because she could always make out when I was faking it.”

He eventually grew out of the lying habit, but then came another phase: the scrappy one.  “The thing with men is that, when you go through a stage when you’re discovering or trying to figure out what it is to be a ‘man’, you tend to get into a lot of fights, especially about girls. You think you’ve got to be possessive about your girl: that ‘You will not talk to anyone else’ attitude. And you get attracted to girls who don’t like you at all. I think most boys go through that phase,” he muses.

And then there was the lazy phase. “There was a time in my life when I had dropped out of college; I wasn’t interested in working or doing anything. I just used to sit at home and watch movies all day,” he recalls (perhaps that’s when the director was born). Till one day, he laughs, “My mother threatened to throw me out.  ‘You have to get out of the house!’ she told me.” He survived that scare. And, as we all know, he outgrew that phase as well – and how.

Farhan’s creative energies seem to have been building up over those seemingly dormant years and the bad boy has proved to be both immensely successful and incredibly diverse in his talent. No one in B-Town can quite match his graph: writer, director, producer, actor, singer and chat-show host…so far.

And he is much married to celebrity hairstylist Adhuna Akhtar, with few whiffs of scandal surrounding their marriage.

“So now that you’re super-busy, doing so many things so successfully, married and a father, your mother must be very happy and proud,” I remark.

“More relieved than proud, I think! Relief would be her first emotion. She must be thinking, ‘Looks like the worst is over and I can relax now; he’s not going back to that phase again,’” he grins.

That’s the kind of candour that makes his family his best critics, he says. And what a panel he has. Mother Honey Irani, who was herself a child star, has directed one film and seen the movie business through various lenses. Father Javed Akhtar is a legend with an amazing depth of erudition and a delightfully incisive sense of humour. And his father’s wife Shabana Azmi, actress and activist, is of course, a legend in her own right. Sister Zoya’s directorial debut, Luck By Chance, most will agree, is the best-ever movie about Bollywood, even if it crashed at the box-office. Her second film, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara may not have been that good a movie but was a big hit. (There’s also his wife Adhuna, but we’ll come to her later.) With that kind of line-up, why look elsewhere?

“I think they are the people from whom I can always expect honest criticism. Sometimes, others may not be completely honest because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Or I may not be sure of my relationship with them. But there are no such issues with your family. I know that whatever feedback I get from them comes from a place of concern,” he explains.

Does he act on their feedback? “Yes, whenever I can,” he says and proceeds to give me an example. “For instance, when they saw Lakshya, they felt that there was not enough depth in the Hrithik Roshan-Preity Zinta relationship to justify his getting so hurt by her rejection that he takes a completely different course in his life and joins the army. So I added a bedroom scene between the two after the movie was completed,” he reveals. He adds, “I did it because I could manage it. If it were a scene in Ladakh, I’d have to say, okay, I’ll correct it next time I’m shooting there!”

Now to return to his wife Adhuna, a celebrity hairstylist. The couple seem to have one of the more stable marriages in B-Town even if the odd rumour about Farhan has done the rounds.

How does your wife deal with all the attention, I ask, “Well, it’s a question best answered by my wife. But it’s not something that’s an important part of our conversations. She knows this is what my job entails,” he clarifies. And adds an unexpected note: “You know I could get concerned and say, ‘Why are you touching other men’s hair, why are you standing so close to that guy?’ There has to be trust.”

It’s never easy for an actor’s wife, though, with the world and its nosy aunt peeking gleefully into the smallest indiscretion. And ever since he started acting, Farhan’s fan base has exploded. Did you get hit on much more after you became an actor, I ask. Farhan puts it oh-so-politely and elegantly: “There was a huge difference in the way people reacted to me after I started acting.” Generally speaking, or are you referring to just the women, is my spontaneous next query. “In general, but that includes the girls as well,” he says. And continues, “But then, I’ve been equally guilty of that kind of behaviour myself. When you’re watching a film, it’s the actors you’re relating to, not the director. It’s the actors you’re reacting strongly to. So it didn’t come as a big surprise to me, and I wasn’t wondering: ‘Oh, why am I getting so much attention, why are so many girls saying they like me?’” he says wryly.

Since he’s one of the (lucky) few actors who could write a role for himself, what would it be like, I wonder. First, could he do that, write a role for himself? “I guess I could if I had to,” he replies. “I would have to hand it over to someone else to make the movie. Right now, I don’t feel compelled to direct myself.”

So what would the role be like… something dark? “Yes, it would be dark, for sure; I wouldn’t write myself a happy-go-lucky role,” he laughs. Then thinks for a while before he says, “I think it would be something on the lines of Max Cady in Cape Fear. He’s out for justice because he thinks he’s been wronged. In the process, he ends up hurting a lot of people. I find that very fascinating.”

My eyes catch Marlon Brando looking out at us intensely. “Or maybe something like one of Mr Brando’s roles?” I remark. “Yes, of course… A Streetcar Named Desire,” muses Farhan Akhtar. Now that would really be something for his fans to think about.

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