The offices of Excel Entertainment, the production company Farhan Akhtar runs along with Ritesh Sidhwani, have expanded; so have his noticeable biceps, and the bulk of his once-lanky frame. His hair was always a work in progress. The sofa still annoyingly sinks too low. But tell Akhtar that he has changed since you saw him last, and he drops his gaze, gets way too serious for the question and asks abruptly, “Is that a good thing?” You finally get the sneaky suspicion there’s more of Don to Akhtar than to Shah Rukh Khan.
Split in sensibility between his father Javed Akhtar’s dramatic aesthetic as an actor and his own urban cool as a director, the two Farhans manage to coexist. Edited excerpts from an interview:
In your personal journey as a director, where does ‘Don’ stand?
With every film I’ve done, I feel like I’ve become a bit braver as a director. Whether in Dil Chahta Hai or in Lakshya, you do sometimes feel this “responsibility” of saying “I must have six songs in the movie because that is what people expect”. So you end up creating situations that allow you to have a song. When you look back you feel “I have just not done it”. I feel on this one, Don 2, I’ve been stubborn about the way I want the film to be. To me, that sings of feeling a little bit brave, and that’s a bravery that only comes with experience.
Acting demands: Farhan Akhtar is going through athletic training to play the role of Milkha Singh in the athlete’s biopic to be directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra.
Does returning to direction after an acting sabbatical make a difference?
It does make a difference. As an actor you understand a lot more about a film than as a director. The finer nuances of camera, lighting, mark, position are worked out between the cinematographer and the actor. You also learn the insecurities an actor has getting into a film. Because you are so familiar with the material of the film as a director; by the time it comes to shooting, you know every scene inside out. But in the first few days, actors are still finding their way into the script. As a director, I didn’t think about that. I was expecting every actor to... you’ve got the script, you’ve read the dialogues, so come on now, what else do you need to know? I’ve realized as a director you have got to pay more attention to your cast to help them break into the part.
A lot of personal references crept into ‘Don’; like Edvard Munch’s stolen masterpiece, ‘The Scream’, in the corner of Don’s locker. Has that palette of reference expanded for ‘Don 2’?
Everyone’s does. Your points of reference are constantly expanding. Because of the kind of story that Don 2 is, there is not much space, but there are a few subtle touches: The concept of Tom and Jerry cartoons recurs in Don 2. That’s a personal reference for me. The number of evil ideas you can get from watching Tom and Jerry is unbelievable, especially how to trick somebody and how to get out of a sticky situation. The football stadium in Berlin is also a big deal for me.
Your cinematic signature is highly stylized; it’s ‘urban cool’. Any chance of grit and earth, less glossed over work there?
I personally didn’t find Lakshya to be a sophisticated-looking film. Zindagi (Na Milegi Dobara) to me is an interestingly shot film. Zoya (his sister) kept it simple. The frames were unobtrusive. A film like Don gives you the opportunity to do all that stuff; where you need it to look kind of “teched out”. So it depends on what kind of film it is. I don’t see Karthik (Karthik Calling Karthik) as a polished character. I see him as a lifelike guy who is no different from anybody else. I think Milkha (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) is that kind of film as well: The setting is such. You have a guy from the village who lived in poor surroundings, went into the army. You have to be true to the nature of the film.
So why act—do you have an urge for stardom?
I got into the industry to be an actor. My first film was The Fakir of Venice (which did not receive a theatrical release in India). Weirdly enough, my first love for film came from acting. When I was a child, I never voiced it externally out of a strange embarrassment, that I want to act...
That strange embarrassment, is it what makes your acting inhibited?
I want to act in the kind of movie in which I feel comfortable. There are a lot more options today, which is why for the longest time I couldn’t get into it. To a certain degree, I am not even now comfortable with certain things a “Hindi movie actor” has to do. They are not part of my sensibility. As an actor, I am drawn to drama; I am simply drawn to it. It is simply the most exciting moment of the film.
What’s with all the ‘self-discovery’ films from ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ to ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’?
Weirdly enough, when both Zoya and I were growing up, our biggest support structure was our friends, because of the kind of family set-up that we were in. We would speak to Farah and Sajid (Khan), who are our cousins, who we are really close to, or are our best friends. Our friends were the world we knew as “there for us” and at that point, our mum. That has stayed with me maybe. If a script leaves you with some thought about your life, about friendship, it’s always a good topic. I do feel it’s important.
Even in ‘Don’, if I were to pick a leitmotif for your films it would be the identity crisis...
Possibly. It also reflects in some level on the choice of roles; whether it’s Rock On!!; on an extreme level in Karthik Calling Karthik, in Luck By Chance as well—a guy who wants identity, wants fame; so I guess, yeah.
Is this from a sense of burden of lineage?
Only your parents can put these kinds of burdens on you. I am really thankful to all three of them for not putting that on me.
When you say ‘all three of them’, one is familiar with the lineage of your father’s and Shabana’s films, but one hears little of Honey’s (Irani) influence on you...
She’s a huge influence on me. Understanding that you have to be dependent on yourself for emotional stability is what I got from her. Life will throw you many curve balls.
You can’t let yourself get affected every time things don’t go your way. If your basic emotional make-up is affected by your expectations from people around you, you’re going to end up in a corner you don’t want to be in. Because the way she took her marriage, the ending of her marriage, moved on, making a career again out of her life—because she had stopped working for a long time—I understand that. How it will apply to me, time will tell.
Don 2 releases in theatres on 23 December.