Javed Akhtar and Rachel Dwyer
Apekshita Varshney, ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Official Blogger
Whereas many Bollywood celebrities could be accused of a diluted conscience, Javed Akhtar, the respected poet, lyricist, and screenwriter is a dignified exception. He has spent over 40 years in the film industry, which by itself is no mean feat. Yet he also stands up for victims of harassment and abuse, or dismisses the Hindu-Muslim divide, pointing out that India has always been ‘tolerant.’ When he speaks, people sit up and listen.
Although he is a public intellectual with an eye on socio-political issues, ultimately it is cinema that is closest to his heart. The Bollywood legend Javed Akhtar took the packed audience on a journey through cinematic history, examining some of the most famed film protagonists in Indian consciousness: iconic figures who personified the social morals and themes of their time,
Akhtar looked at the history of the heroes, heroines and villains in film, and how their definition as role-models has changed over time. In the fifties, ‘the hero refrained from admitting his love life to his parents’ and the story centred on how they found out, and what ensued. The heroine portrayed an ideal Indian woman who, no matter what, said ‘main chup rahungi’ (I’ll be quiet). The villain was the landlord, businessman, capitalist-type.
In the 60s, the hero began confiding in his mother. “Traditionally, father-son relationship is very tense in India. Devdas never told his father that he wanted to marry Paro. It’s a triangle where the son tells the mother and then the mother tells the father,’ he observed. The heroine remained traditional but as stories increasingly moved to the cities, the villain evolved into a shopkeeper, and we saw the introduction of a fiery, exciting female villain. ‘We would call her a vamp but make her do everything we wanted to see a heroine do,’ he noted. The vamp typically had brown hair, blue eyes, and sipped alcohol to portray her as a westernised, immoral person.
The 70s launched the first superstar of romance and charm ‘in the form of Rajesh Khanna.’ Akhtar noted that the pre-emergency and emergency period had shattered peoples’ dreams, which opened up a space for ‘the angry young man’ in films: actors like Amitabh Bachchan, who were ‘on the rocks, flavoured and diluted.’ He elaborated that the angry man was portrayed as ‘illegal but not immoral,’ since ultimately it was society he was frustrated with. Later in the 70s, the portrayal of women started to change too, and we met actresses like Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman, who were ‘westernised and modern’ in a sophisticated way.
The romantic hero made a comeback in the 90s, and post-liberalisation, ‘the hero could be illegal and immoral,’ as personified by actors like Shahrukh Khan in Darr and Baazigar. The image of women evolved as well: ‘How long could we play this tolerant, accepting adarsh nari? Ultimately, this fraud was called a fraud,’ Akhtar observed.
Thus Javed Akhtar, with the élan and precision of a film historian, covered several decades of cinema in a matter of 30 minutes. He moved onto the modern day, noting, ‘we don’t have villains, and how can we have clear-cut heroes if we don’t have clear-cut villains? There was a time when rich people were bad, and poor were good. Today, people want to be rich, how can that be bad?’ Akhtar compared the portrayal of men and women in earlier times with today, observing that these days, ‘society doesn’t know what a man must be, while women mustn’t indulge in smoking, or promiscuity, to show that they are empowered.’
Hindi commercial cinema is known to be larger-than-life, and Akhtar regards it as ‘a collective dream of society based on their reality.’ In the perennial debate of whether society influences film, or vice versa, a crucial observation rings true: it is because the film industry has not followed a linear model but rather, embraced the complexities and ambiguities of society as it has evolved, that directors can now portray homosexuality in Kapoor and Sons, strong woman characters in Piku and Dil Dhadakne Do, and give an undeniable insight into women’s sexuality and the right to say no in PINK. If Hindi cinema really is the genesis of role-models who have a profound influence on their audience, then it is – finally – making the efforts to do it right.
Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor