Poetry is the salve and the weapon to fight back against tyrannical regimes in bleak times. As countless citizens around the world take to the streets, armed only with grit and words, the role of a wordsmith to interpret the surrounding chaos, lend voice to the oppressed or to simply bear witness becomes even more important. Poet, screenwriter, lyricist, unflinching rationalist and half of the Salim-Javed combine – Javed Akhtar brought dialogue and poetry out of the arcane and elitist corridors of art, blurring the line between the eloquent and accessible. He made his way into public consciousness with his couplets that could be memorised and mouthed by the lowest common denominator.
Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar – the duo's name appeared before the director's in the opening credits, before they parted ways in the early 80s. They carved out the mould of the angry young man with dialogue that was steeped in social commentary. Today the angry young man may be quiet but Akhtar continues to voice his opinion, unfazed by fundamentalists and trolls.
As he celebrates his 75th birthday, we steer clear of the usual suspects from Don, Deewar and Sholay and look back at some lyrics and lines that seem prescient today.
Most of Akhtar's lines serve as probes into timeless questions. At one of his album launches he left audiences dumbstruck with the revelation that his father, poet and lyricist Jan Nisar Akhtar read the Communist Manifesto in his ears instead of pronouncing the Azaan, at his birth. This compassion for the unemployed and discernment of workers rights is a testament to his sensibilities.
An Indian adaptation of the 1941 Frank Capra film, Meet John Doe, this movie won the Filmfare Award for Best Dialogue. The latent thought that being loud is more effective than being right, is resonant even today. Akhtar's proficiency lies in crafting lines that are simple but never facile or uncreative. In the book, Talking Films and Songs: Javed Akhtar in Conversation With Nasreen Munni Kabir, the writer spoke about how his dialogue relied on 'making an art of understatement. Saying less than you want to and leaving the rest to imagination – like iceberg tips'. He wrote for the masses but believed in their intelligence in reading between the lines.
In internet speak, this is a 'burn' for fence-sitters. Around the 70s when Salim-Javed shot to fame, they were dealing with the challenge of capturing on reel, a newly independent India – free of colonialism but grappling with crime and corruption. Borrowing from a real-life coal mine tragedy, this film was like the third instalment in Yash Chopra's 'Angry Young Man' trifecta of sorts, preceded by Trishul.
Sholay is remembered for lines like 'Kitne Aadmi The' and 'Holi Kab Hai' because the quotes evoke the plot points of the film. Akhtar's magic lied in his punches with context. Taken out of context, these gems sound asinine but the drama emerged with the buildup – making way for the 'dialogue-baazi'. Many lines precede the crisp one-liner landing the final blow. Ravi's 'Mere Paas Maa Hai' in Deewar would not work if it were not for Vijay's extended proclamations about his bank balance. Akhtar's assiduous attention to detail is evident in the fact that even the supporting cast's dialogue was unforgettable.
Straddling his ironic sensibilities and a sense of tenderness, his dialogue written for Pluto Mehra – a pet dog, (dubbed by Aamir Khan) displays a sharp eye for absurdities and anguishes of contemporary, dysfunctional families. The discourse carved out by Akhtar is fraught with sarcasm, defining the tug and torment of the caustic tongue.
These lines work as a compelling critique of capital punishment in a film about wrongful prosecution. They ring true in a narrative, otherwise heaving with implausible and dramatic twists. It was Javed Akhtar who suggested Anil Kapoor's name for the film's lead role, that set his career in motion.
Javed Akhtar's words from Luck by Chance are like a universal message of hope in dismal times – an alignment that disillusioned citizens hanker in many places across the globe. In this film about the labour and lure of celebrity, Akhtar's razor-sharp wit permeates phrases like "a crocodile in a chiffon sari" (mouthed by Rishi Kapoor, an outmoded Punjabi filmmaker and used to describe an erstwhile superstar played by Dimple Kapadia).
Weaving together the strands of the political and the personal, Javed Akthar's lines offer a sliver of optimism with a side of impish humour.