NMK: You have been working in Hindi films for over fifty years and the Hindi film industry has gone through many changes. What are the key changes you have observed?
JA: You could say we have come out of the feudal era and entered the corporate and industrial one. If you look at the directors and producers of the 1960s and 1970s, and before that era too, they were far more rooted in Indian culture and language. I’m talking about the black and white classics of the 1950s and the early 1960s where the films had a certain authenticity. The film directors were ‘desi’ in the way they looked at the world, while the upside today is that the current generation has a wider world vision and the downside is their roots are no longer that deep.
Let us not talk of an average Hindi film, it was bad then and is bad now. But if you see some recent films, we have improved on the form though lost out on the context.
NMK: What about the change in dialogue? It is definitely less melodramatic and closer to spoken language.
JA: You can see that flowery dialogue has mostly disappeared from Hindi cinema. Meaningful cinema is being made like Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15 and Thappad. I think Thappad is a brilliant film. There’s not a single false line in the whole script. They’ve conveyed every emotion without indulging in rhetoric.
When it comes to good dialogue, it depends on strong characters speaking those lines. Take a film by Zoya. Her characters are not two-dimensional and very often she breaks with convention. For example, her stories don’t have a villain. The father in Dil Dhadakne Do, played by Anil Kapoor, could have been a negative character because that’s how a father in the old days was shown. He was a strict and rigid man wearing a dressing gown, standing at the top of a staircase, declaring pompously:
Ye shaadi nahin ho sakti. [This marriage cannot take place.]
The characters in old Hindi cinema rarely had grey shades and I find the characterisation is more nuanced today. That’s a big step towards maturity.
NMK: Is it not regrettable how the use of the song has changed? It has almost disappeared. In earlier times, we had philosophical songs too.
JA: This is something I don’t understand either – the undermining of the song. You’re right, it often ends up playing in the background of a scene. Lip-sync songs are rare now.
I’m not saying every film should have songs, but some could. Sometimes, the song tells you far more than a scene. A song like ‘Wo subah kabhi toh aayegi’ cannot be replaced by dialogue. Impossible. It’ll sound boring. But songs like these are needed by society. What about the intimate romantic song like ‘Abhi na jao chhod kar’? or a melancholic song like ‘Jaane vo kaise log the jinke pyaar ko pyaar mila’?
Praising nature is out. You don’t often hear words like baadal, aasmaan, nadi, hawaayen, sitaare and suraj. I think the imagery of the moon has become a total no-no. I don’t know why. The moon and moonlight were reoccurring images in the old songs. Also gone from the song are phool, kaliyaan, bhanware, titli, panchi. Urban life has separated us from nature.
NMK: We used to say the song was an expression of the character’s inner emotions. Now, it’s the voice-over that’s doing that job. I think there’s a link between the increased use of the voice-over and the decreased use of the song in Hindi films today.
JA: That’s a good analysis. The voice-over can be an easy way out, but it does help create bridges in the narrative by informing the audience about, for example, the hero’s character – this man has this kind of temperament, this is his background, etc. Instead of engaging us through scenes, which take more time – bearing in mind the audience is impatient today – the voice-over fills you in quickly. It’s a narrative shortcut.
NMK: Did things start changing in India of the 1970s or was it later?
JA: The middle class of the 1970s had remnants of the mindset dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. There was a kind of ‘we’ back then. With the expansion of the global market and corporatisation, this ‘we’ has become further diluted. People are more likely to think in terms of ‘I, me, myself’. Individualism might have been there earlier, but it was not something to be proud of.
NMK: What comes first, the way society thinks or the theme of a film?
JA: Oh ho! It’s like asking which mirror at a barber’s shop reflects the other mirror on the opposite wall [both laugh].
Personally, I feel society has a bigger role to play. To me, the first mirror is society, then films. At the end of the day cinema is only a reflection of society’s preoccupations.
NMK: You have written many songs for films. What is the worst advice anybody has given you about songwriting?
JA: [smiles] Quite often, I have been asked to write a song in everyday language. For goodness’ sake, there’s a difference between prose and poetry, and however basic and simplified the poetry may be, it’s still poetry. It’s not spoken language.
NMK: When someone gave you that advice, what did you say?
JA: I told them: In your vocabulary a song cannot be written, only a telegram, but now even that’s not possible because the era of the telegram is over.
NMK: Did they get the joke?
JA: Well, they got it, but I don’t think they found it funny because the joke was at their expense. No one gives me wise advice anymore because I think people have reconciled with the idea they cannot get away with nonsense when dealing with me!
Excerpted with permission from Talking Life : Javed Akthar in Conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir, Westland Books.