After a candid chat with poet, lyricist and screenwriter, Javed Akhtar, one can only become wiser. In an exclusive interview with Outlook, Akhtar talks about how art can bring about a social change, his rights as an artiste, on ‘shayari’ going digital, the time that he spent with his wife, actor Shabana Azmi, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
How do you see art as an instrument of change?
One takes it for granted that an artiste who is sensitive, observant and one who has a certain quota of empathy, would react to the environment and the circumstances. That will be their privilege, not their duty. Poetry is not [like an] aspirin but [ like a] vitamin [tablet]. If you keep on consuming poetry, it develops your sense of aesthetics. And with time aesthetics becomes sharper. To me, anything which is indecent, is ugly and anything which is decent, wonderful, positive and humane is beautiful. So, if you have a developed sense of beauty and aesthetic, you will rather not accept ideas which are ugly. But it takes a little time, it can’t happen overnight. It slowly develops your intellectual muscles, it slowly increases your empathy, your sense of decency and your sense of justice. It happens in a very serious manner, you can’t get it when it happens, but it does.
Do you think the youngsters today are not that fond of reading poetry and shayari?
In different times you know, different forms of communication develop (smiles). Now this is a time when perhaps people don’t depend on written word or a page of paper and get a lot of information from electronic media. They listen to poetry on YouTube, Instagram and so on. As long as the communication is there, let’s not be so worried about the form or the style of the communication. As long as the message is going through that would be enough.
Do you think ‘shaayri’ going digital will give it an additional reach?
I think it has already happened and platforms like ‘India Shayari Project’ which is an initiative of Zee Live is further adding to its overall reach. Such initiatives inspire young people and enable them to look forward to poetry, poetry that they can connect on different channels of electronic media, and you see there are so many hits and appreciation.
Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
I don’t think there was a single influence. There were many and it was very difficult for me to decide which was the bigger one. Because influence doesn't happen on a very conscious level. They happen to you, and you don’t even realize that it is happening. So, I think in my childhood, my adolescence, there were so many people whom I appreciated. Influence is a very interesting thing; it doesn’t only happen when you agree. If you disagree with somebody, that is also an influence. You have given or received a suggestion, that is either accepted or rejected. So, your personality develops with its outcome.
I have been fortunate that I was born in a family which was overtly secular, rationalistic and there was a national consciousness in the family. And then there was so much poetry and literature because my mother, my father, my uncle and my grandfather [as well], whom I’ve not seen but I know that he was also a big poet. So, there was a lot of emphasis on literature and poetry. I used to hear names of esteemed writers, whose work I had read much later, but by then I had developed some kind of an awe because the people whom I was impressed with were talking about them with great reverence. This is exactly why it’s difficult to say who the actual influence is. [My] Mother, father, aunts, uncles and then some professors, some teachers. You meet a lot of teachers in your life, a lot of professors when you go from your school to university and so on. But throughout your career, when you think about your childhood, college, then you think of three or four names who inspired you.
There are so many sources and it’s like every person is like a cuisine. Ab us cuisine mein kya kya hai, kitna hai, kab use aanch di gayi thi, kab usse garam kiya gaya tha aur kab kya cheez mix ki, (what are the ingredients of the cuisine, when was it cooled or heated, what was mixed and when was it done) it it’s very difficult to understand, you will eat and say whether it is good or bad. This is how people around us are. They have so many elements in them and we don’t even know half of them as it happens subconsciously.
What are the lessons that you learnt from the pandemic?
A major drawback of the pandemic was that we could not meet a lot of people. But the good part was that we got to spend lots of time with our loved ones, our family members. Look at Shabana and I, we have been married for 35 years and never in our entire married life have we spent as much time together as we did in the last two years.