Rock on, Farhan

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By Top-notch director Farhan Akhtar is making a splashy debut in front of the camera, says Aarti Dua
  • Published 3.08.08

It’s the ultimate fantasy come true. Farhan Akhtar is living out his dream of being a rock star and of making it as a movie star — all at the same time. He makes the double debut as an actor and singer in Rock On, scheduled to release on August 29. In the movie, he plays Aditya, the lead singer of a rock band — he also sings five songs in it.

For Akhtar, it’s a nail-biting time as the countdown for the movie’s release begins. True, he shot into the big league as a director with the phenomenally successful Dil Chahta Hai in 2001. But now the critics will be watching him in action in front of the camera. “I was never averse to acting. I always felt that given the right script, I’d do it,” he says.

Certainly, Akhtar’s finding all those “right” roles now — and not just in Rock On. He’s also juggling his other roles as director and producer. So he’s preparing for his next venture as a director even as he scales up Excel Entertainment, the production house he owns with Ritesh Sidhwani.

First though, there’s Rock On. The film is about four band members — Akhtar, Arjun Rampal, Luke Kenny and Purab Kohli — who have moved down different paths, but get a chance to come back together and rediscover themselves.

Director Abhishek Kapoor, who has known Akhtar for years, says, “I’d written the part with him in mind. He was all I expected him to be.”

Kapoor though only wanted actors who could sing. He wasn’t aware then that Akhtar had been learning the guitar for eight years. But he liked Akhtar’s voice quality. “He has this unique grainy voice that I felt would be perfect for rock,” says Kapoor.

Shah Rukh Khan stepped into the shoes of Amitabh Bachchan in Akhtar’s remake of the ’70s classic Don

Once Akhtar heard the story, he was “completely hooked” and wanted to produce it regardless of whether he acted in it or not.

“It’s a deeply moving story about life. I think almost everybody is going to identify with it,” he says.

For Akhtar himself, the film has been a catalyst. For he says, “I have this desire to create music. For me, Rock On, on some level, is a surreal fulfilment of that. It’s an important part in this journey towards my musical goals.”

So Akhtar even trained with the film’s composers, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Although Shankar says: “Farhan has always been a musician. It’s only that people are hearing him sing now.”

What about Akhtar’s move from behind to in front of the camera? He says, “It’s a very different process to go from an environment where you’re constantly involved in everything to be just responsible for one aspect of the film. Here you’re propagating the emotion. What people will take away from it on screen is all flowing through you. That’s quite unnerving initially.”

Actually, Akhtar first faced the camera for Anand Surapur’s black comedy, The Fakir of Venice, though it releases later. “I had a lot of fun doing it,” he says. And he learnt a lot from his co-star Annu Kapoor. Says Akhtar: “He has tremendous knowledge about acting.”

As a director Akhtar has also seen top Bollywood actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan in action. “You see how they approach their role and build this entire performance around these little hooks that they’ve attached to this screenplay. So that’s what I’ve done,” he says.

Now, more acting roles are scrolling up for Akhtar. Up next is Luck by Chance, directed by his sister Zoya and produced by Excel, which releases early next year. In it he plays a struggling actor hungry for success.

You’d think that’s familiar terrain. But Akhtar asserts it’s completely out of his comfort zone.

“The personality of this character is very different to mine. Also, his dilemmas are very different. He’s single-mindedly focused on being successful and nothing else. But that’s not what drives me,” explains Akhtar.

What does drive him then? Akhtar says it’s “being able to give my 100 per cent to my work and to the things that I really enjoy whether it’s films or even skydiving.”

His mother, the former child artiste and scriptwriter Honey Irani, agrees. She says: “Farhan is very committed. Whatever he does, he gives it his 100 per cent.”

Writer-director Anurag Kashyap, admires his integrity. “He’s one of the few people who vocally took a stand for me when Paanch [Kashyap’s directorial debut that never released] came out, even though he didn’t know me,” reveals Kashyap.

Childhood friends like Kapoor say Akhtar was always gifted, even if it was at telling stories. And his whacky sense of humour is also well-known. Irani too recalls that he was a daredevil: “He was very naughty and imaginative and also scary. If he saw Superman, he’d try to jump walls. Not a single week went by without him getting stitches.”

And yes, he has inherited her ‘Parsi-ness’ too, she admits. So he’s a perfectionist, who insists on punctuality and orderliness, and makes sure there’s never a scratch on his cars.

As for acting, Irani isn’t surprised. “He was great at acting and making up stories as a kid,” she says. In fact, she was surprised that he took up direction first but now feels that’s “his first love”.

Father Javed Akhtar believes “a common thread” runs through Akhtar’s varied work as writer, director and actor. “It’s a desire for a certain understatement, a certain reserve against melo-drama,” he says.

Ask Akhtar about acting under his sister, Zoya, and he kids: “It feels like an extension of our relationship — she tells me what to do and I do it.” But then admits: “She’s very clear about how she visually sees her film so it’s very easy for me to build off that.”

It’s hardly surprising that Akhtar is in films — he grew up with them after all. He’d even wake up early just to watch a little bit of a film before leaving for school. And since he was “quite a storyteller”, “the seed of telling stories was always there”, he admits.

Stars like Bachchan — his father scripted hits like Sholay and Zanjeer — too influenced him. “When I was growing up, Amit uncle was the biggest possible thing film-wise. I was so fortunate that I could meet him that my happiness knew no bounds. Seeing his work was a crucial factor in my decision to do films,” he recalls.

His first foray came as assistant cameraman on Lamhe and at 20, he assisted director Pankaj Parashar. “It was like an apprenticeship,” he says. He then worked with ad filmmaker Adi Pocha.

Even so, for a while, Akhtar wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. So he just watched films. “I call those my film appreciation course years,” he laughs now.

Till he scripted Dil Chahta Hai, that is. “It just told me this is it. That decision to say that I will direct this movie was a turning point. Till then, I’d never felt I have to do something,” says Akhtar.

The film, says Kashyap, “brought out many younger filmmakers” because it showed them it was possible to make such films. Kashyap feels Akhtar, who is very “balanced and approachable” and never gets agitated, is a very “new age” filmmaker. “He keeps rediscovering himself, and tries something outside his familiar zone each time,” he says.

For instance, Akhtar’s second film, Lakshya, about the armed forces, was a departure from the first. As was his next, the Don remake.

Composer Shankar says, “He’s among the top directors with just three films. That requires a certain talent and discipline.”

For now, Akhtar’s penning dialogues for his next film, A Voice from the Sky, which he’ll start filming in November. It’s a period film set around the time when telephones were new. Then, there’s Don 2, which he hopes to shoot next year.

Meanwhile, his production house Excel is scaling up to doing three films a year. It has tied up with Anil Ambani’s Big Films for a six-film deal.

Big Films will finance and market Excel’s films while the studio will exercise creative control. But he’s not looking at a large studio model. “Ritesh and I like to be personally involved in every project. So I don’t foresee us doing more than three films a year because that’s what I feel is possible for me in terms of creative input,” he says.

Instead, he wants to promote fresh talent — he produced his assistant Reema Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd. Now there’s Kapoor’s Rock On, and next year, a film with ad filmmaker Abhinav Deo.

“It’s important that we create this base where directors whose sensibilities match can work together in this highly creative environment,” says Akhtar.

That’s also how he measures success — as the freedom to do projects only when they excite him creatively. “If you can understand creatively what is the right thing for you to do and be in a position [to do only that], that would mean success,” he says.

Does he expect to become a star now? “It’s too early to say,” he states. But his close friends and family have seen Rock On and said they like his performance. Father Javed Akhtar says: “I knew he wouldn’t make a fool of himself but I had no idea he’d be so good. And Shabana [Azmi] felt it was a pitch- perfect performance.”

That’s not to say Akhtar isn’t anxious. He says, “I’m sure closer to the date my nerves will start jangling like they do every time.” Fans will also be keeping an eye out for Rock On and so will the entire movie world.