One superstar – Rajesh Khanna – asked Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar for a script that brought them together as Salim–Javed. A script that Salim–Javed wrote for another superstar – Amitabh Bachchan – separated them into Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar once again.

The seeds of a rift were probably sown over a longish period of time as both writers became major stars in their own right and found their own circles of friends. The age difference between the two (Salim was ten years older than Javed), was also partly responsible for this split, for they had completely different family cycles (Salim’s eldest child was eight years old when Javed got married) and wholly different sets of friends. While they worked together and spent long hours ideating and writing, and in business meetings, their personal lives did not coincide. Their different lives also brought hangers-on who individually convinced each that his talent was the driving force in the partnership, while the other one was just along for the ride. This was the likely psychological background to a series of events that acted as the final trigger for their separation.

In her Marathi book Yahi Rang, Yahi Roop journalist Anita Padhye, who did a long interview with Salim, describes the sequence of events from his point of view.

Salim–Javed approached Amitabh Bachchan with the script of a film that would eventually become Mr India. Bachchan declined, citing the invisible-man concept as a deterrent since – he believed – the audience came to see him in a film and not merely to hear him. Salim–Javed’s conviction that Amitabh’s voice would bring a lot of value to the role was not something the superstar shared. According to the book, Javed felt that the duo shouldn’t work with Amitabh any more after this "insult", but Salim was not in complete agreement with this suggestion. A few days after this, Javed was at Amitabh’s Holi party and told the star that Salim wasn’t keen on working with Amitabh any longer. This misunderstanding caused a consider considerable strain in the duo’s working relationship.

Meanwhile, Javed had also started penning lyrics for films (Yash Chopra’s Silsila being his first) and he proposed to Salim that they write lyrics under their joint name as well. His plan was to offer a complete script and the song lyrics as a package from Salim–Javed but Salim refused. Salim says, "I don’t consider it right to take credit for something I didn’t do. Javed would write lyrics, have meetings with music directors and I would sit there contributing nothing. This was not acceptable to me." Besides, he explained further, if there was one aspect of their job to which he made no contribution, outsiders might assume that was the case with the other aspect as well.

According to him, it was Javed who proposed that they split. Salim remembers that day vividly. They were at Javed’s residence, discussing and brainstorming on projects. After a full day’s work, when it was time for Salim to leave, Javed said, "I was thinking that maybe we should work separately." Salim took a few moments to digest this and replied, "I am sure you have said this after considerable thought and nothing I say will change your mind," and began walking towards his car. When Javed, as was his habit, joined him, Salim turned to him and said, "I am old enough to take care of myself," and sent him back.

That was the exact point in time when the split happened. Over the next few weeks, gossip columns speculated about the reasons and trade magazines announced solo projects, but the moment they shook hands in front of Javed’s Juhu home on the evening of 21 June 1981, Salim–Javed once again became Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar.

The date is so easily identifiable because it was the same day that Salim Khan got news that Helen’s mother was seriously unwell and had to leave Bombay. She passed away later that evening and he became busy with her funeral, remaining away from Bombay and unreachable for a few days. When he returned, he started getting calls enquiring about the split, as Javed had already talked about it to some people in the industry.

Javed seemed to manage the post-split period much better as several directors announced  prestigious projects with him immediately afterwards. This was possibly because he was already actively soliciting work as a lyricist and was in talks with directors. In the two years after the split, he had writing projects with Ramesh Sippy, Rahul Rawail, Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai. Most of these films also had lyrics by him, thus making him the single-point writer he had proposed Salim–Javed become. In a November 1981 interview, Javed said, "I really don’t know how I will fare on my own. I have signed four films which, considering my past record, is a lot for me!"

Salim, on the other hand, was less prepared for the split and did not go around asking for work. In fact, he was quite frustrated with the entire episode and took a long sabbatical in London. He felt at peace in his new surroundings till someone referred to him as ‘Helen’s husband’. That was when he decided to return to Bombay and seek work. He expected his past reputation would precede him and imagined producers would be lining up like before to work with him. However, the industry where heroes changed every Friday had moved on. As many past stars have found out – to their dismay – the industry can be extremely generous to those in favour and just as ruthless to those out of circulation.

Salim speaks very bitterly about this phase. "When I returned, it was the telephone that reminded me how easily people forget. There was a time when I’d make my drink, and then keep the phone off the hook. And here I was, checking the phone every now and then to see if it was working."

After Shakti – where he had shared credit with Javed-Salim’s next release came nearly four years later. Naam turned out to be Salim’s super comeback, putting him firmly back on the radar of all major producers. He established a successful working relationship with Mahesh Bhatt and soon enough, all the well-known directors of the time – Ramesh Sippy, Rahul Rawail, Manmohan Desai – were working with him as well.

Post-split, Salim and Javed’s relationship went from bitter to neutral to cordial. In October 1981, Salim said in an interview, "If we have split today, it is only because we, without the interference of a third party, have decided to call it a day. I too don’t know the real reason for this break-up. One day, Javed came to me and told me he wanted to operate separately. Since I respect his decisions, I did not even ask him why he wanted us to split! It’s sad we had to break up our team, but I’m very happy that we are still friends!" A few months later (in February 1982), he was more abrasive – "I don’t ever want to make up with Javed even if Javed were to apologise or suggest a patch-up."

This continued through the 1980s. A gossip column in Hindustan Times (in 1987, after the release of Naam) reported, "Salim exudes a new confidence now. Till the release of Naam, the uncertainty would show on his face, though he says it did not affect him at all. The man does not mince words, especially when it comes to his feelings about Javed. When asked what he thinks of Javed, he said bluntly: 'I dislike him. I won’t say I hate him, because it is not good to hate anybody.' He not only dislikes Javed but everything that has anything to do with him. He thinks all Javed’s films – Saagar, Arjun, etc., were bogus, with the exception of Betaab."

Both their individual careers saw a fair degree of success in the 1980s, which is considered to be the most derivative of all the decades of Hindi cinema. This led to considerable speculation about an alternate time in which Salim–Javed did not split. One of the proponents of this line of speculation has been Amitabh Bachchan, who has been known to wonder if his career would have seen a different trajectory had the split not happened. Bachchan openly admitted the vacuum in his career due to the split: "It’s a shame that they parted ways, they were truly unbeatable. Quite often, the media would conjecture – what will happen to Amitabh Bachchan without Salim–Javed? Really, once they separated I couldn’t ever get that kind of intensity again, that power was missing."

Excerpted with permission from Written by Salim-Javed The Story of Hindi Cinema’s Greatest Screenwriters, Diptakirti Chaudhuri, Penguin Books India.