"Discussing religion was like discussing which cave will be better to live. If you want to follow a religion, follow any religion. It does not matter. If you have decided to commit suicide, does it matter how you do it?" he said, triggering applause.
To this, a fuming Ilaiah, one of the speakers, said: "Real life is not like cinema, certainly not Hindi cinema.... the crores of Buddhists in India have more knowledge than the intellectuals."
As the mood in the gathering got tense, the moderator wound up the session despite protests from audience.
Akhtar, who was to address the next session, then took to the stage and said: "All religious values should be based on justice and equality."
"What he said was bad. He can be an atheist but the rest of world cannot be atheist," Ilaiah told IANS soon after.
"All (Bollywood) superstars are superstitious!"
Akhtar also countered Ilaiah's views on cinema. "If you watch cinema, it tells you a lot about life. Indians worship films. If you make a list of Hindi film villains, you can write the socio-political history of India."