Farhan Akhtar: A Bollywood star who stepped out from behind the camera


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The Independent Online

Farhan Akhtar has been the Bollywood star of 2011, both as actor and director.

He played a carefree soul on a friend's Spanish bachelor party in the summer hit Zindegi Na Milegi Dobara. His latest film, Don 2, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra, sees the 37-year-old return to the director's chair, it was as a director that Akhtar first came to prominence in 2001 when he made Dil Chatha Hai.

Akhtar is in relaxed mood when we meet in a hotel in London. He's wearing a pair of blue jeans, yellow trainers and a black T-shirt decorated with an archer's target and there is little about him that suggests megastar. His most noticeable feature is a scar under his right eye, which he says is the result of an incident as a toddler when he walked into a table. But what has made Akhtar such a star of Hindi cinema is not his looks, or sense of fashion, but his ability to combine a career behind the camera making blockbuster films, with an uncanny ability to pick endearing roles when asked to appear in front of the camera.

It was not until 2008's Rock On!! that Akhtar surprised fans of his directorial efforts Dil Chahta Hai, Lakshya and Don with his skills in front of the camera. He says, "For me I wanted to explore the creative side of what I can do and it so happened that the first one that I got a chance to do it on Rock On!! was an amazing film. Then people start offering you work based on what they thing you're capable of doing."

Not since La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz wowed in Amelie has a director made such a stunning leap between jobs. Akhtar has spent the years since playing a rock musician who rebels against his well to do family in Rock On!! improving his acting skills. He played a young actor trying to make it in Mumbai in Luck by Chance , a film favourable compared by critics to Slumdog Millionaire. Then he began to show his range, in Karthik calling Karthik he played the eponymous lead, a construction worker who receives mysterious phone calls giving him instructions on how to lead life. Then Akhtar stole the show from Abhay Deol and Hrithik Roshan in Zindegi Na Milegi Dobara, which means you don't get a second chance at life.

Now that he's returned to the big chair on set, he says being an actor, "does help with directing in as much as everything in life. The ultimate objective when directing an actor is to make them seem as lifelike as possible, and whatever experiences you have can help you. So acting in films is just as useful as being a parent of two kids, it taught me about insecurities of actors, taught me about cushioning actors for the first couple of days until they find their feet and a rhythm."

It's taken 5 years to get a sequel to Don off the ground, in what Akhtar calls a gradual build up. There were no thoughts on doing a sequel initially, but the box-office success of the movie, the action genre, and the star names attached ensured that the sequel was inevitable, especially as in the last five years Bollywood has increasingly followed the Hollywood model in terms of marketing films.

Yet the director feels there is a long way to go before Bollywood can be compared to its American namesake: "As far as sequels and Indian films, there are still only a small number of Indian films that get made into sequels. Because we don't have a legacy to make franchise movies, we still approach every film like it's the first, because that is what we are used to doing."

Creatively, he did look to Hollywood for examples in creating his franchise: "I've watched every film that has a sequel. For me the big example was the Bourne films where in every film the story evolved more and more and there was a goal working towards something that might not even be fulfilled until the next film. There was an excitement about those films that each and every thread didn't end in that movie itself."

His love of cinema was fostered at an early age. "I was a huge fan of 70s Bollywood. Steady diet of [Amitabh] Bachchan films, they are my big influences. We didn't' have the option of watching too many Hollywood films back then. By 85 and 86 we could watch videos, but we were only getting very popular movies, in those pirated VCR libraries the thing that was most popular were TV shows, Three's Company and The Cosby Show.  My parents collected films and what they collected were more drama based films such as The Godfather and A Streetcar Named Desire. "

His father is screenwriter Javed Akhtar and mother actress turned screenwriter Honey Irani. His sister is the actor Zoya Akhtar. His parents are now divorced. The diet of drama they were feeding him was broken one day in 1988. "I discovered action really with Die Hard . I was completely blown away by that film and I think I watched it every day for 30 or 35 days backwards and forwards."

As cinema becomes globalised, there is an added pressure to break new markets, and of course that raises the question of America. Yet the director says, "I'm not consciously trying to break into America. The audience I'm trying to speak to is the Hindi speaking audience. No matter where they are in the world. Obviously it's important that it should keep changing. It's important for movies and language of cinema that it keeps evolving and to get stuck in one kind of space there is nothing to look forward to. If you just look at Bollywood films of the last 5 or 6 years I think there has been a sea change.

"The way people are making films, the language they are using and how they are putting them together it's become a lot more about real people and that is something a non-Hindi speaking audience can eventually start identifying with. Before there was a certain divide and thee was a lot more melodrama and it was theatrical and stage like. That doesn't appeal to everyone and you can understand why people of the longest time said Hindi films are just song and dance, now they can see the story is there and that will make it easier to appeal."

Fame has made things easier for Akhtar. He has a lot more choices, but says the downside is that he has to thing far more carefully about the choices and decisions he makes. Conscious that eyes are watching him, "I'm more conscious of what I say yes to."

He's also careful not to confuse his acting and directing career: "I try to draw a line between acting and directing that I don't want to cross. If someone sends me a script as an actor, I don't try to think about how I would direct the scenes and vice versa, if I am working as a director I don't fantasise about how I would play a role."

Next, he's due back in front of the screens for Bhang Milkha Bhaag (Run Milkha Run) in which he will star as Milkha Singh the Indian runner known as The Flying Sikh who became the golden boy of Indian track and field in the 1960s. It would take someone as fast as Milkha to keep apace of Akhtar's rocketing career.

Don 2 is out now