He wears multiple hats — that of a director, actor, musician, producer, writer and singer. So, it’s not surprising that Farhan Akhtar is busy round the clock. As we catch up with him at his sea-facing home in Bandra, the multifaceted personality talks about his directorial journey, how he made his first film, Dil Chahta Hai (DCH; 2001), and more.
Did you always dream of being a director?
Not really. When I started out, I was adamant that I wanted to make DCH because that story was very close to me. I was working as an assistant director initially, so I knew that I wanted to do something related to this field. But whether I would continue to direct films was a big question. I realised that I enjoyed direction while making DCH. The process of putting a film together, and working with the cast and crew, felt good. That’s when I realised that I wanted to take this further.
When did you write DCH?
I guess that happened when I was working in the ad world for three years as an assistant director. The experience of working as an assistant director, and the whole discipline of writing got instilled in my system. That’s when I started thinking about the story of DCH, and making it into a film.
Both your parents, Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani, are writers. Was writing never your first choice?
In all honesty, direction happened due to a selfish need to not give away my DCH script. Initially, it started off more as a writing exercise for me. I worked with Adi Pocha (writer-filmmaker), and he put the concept of writing in my head. It was interesting to write ad films and scripts for TV shows before I moved on to writing a feature film. That helped me grow as a writer, and I also found out how long I could sit in front of a computer and see something through. As part of that exercise, I started writing DCH. So, it wasn’t like I wanted to write it and give it to someone. While I was writing it, I realised that it should be turned into a film, since it’s an enjoyable story. I also realised that I can’t give it to anyone else [to direct] because no one will understand the characters the way I do.
You grew up watching and discussing films with Zoya Akhtar (sister-director), Farah Khan (cousin-director) and Sajid Khan (cousin-director). But your style of filmmaking is completely different…
Although we have shared many things in life, somewhere, your way of telling a story becomes different. You give the same scene to Zoya, Sajid, Farah and me, and we will all make it differently. No two people will tell a story the same way.
You grew up among creative people at home. Was that helpful?
Since we (Farhan and his sister, Zoya) were very young [at that time], I was unaware of what exactly my dad and Salim uncle (Khan) did. We knew they were writers, but we didn’t know what exactly writers did. We didn’t know the details, like how they wrote the scenes and the flow of a story. Our association was more with the dialogues, because we knew that they had written lines like, ‘Mere paas maa hai’ or ‘Kitne aadmi the’. So, we had an idea of what they did. But the most exciting thing for us kids was the group of people who would come home; to see people who we’d watch on screen in flesh and blood.... For us, I think that [aspect] kept the excitement about the film world alive.
Your cousins, Farah Khan and Sajid Khan, have told us that the four of you (including Zoya) would watch Hindi films, mimic the actors and discuss them…
Do you think that helped you all, maybe subconsciously, shape your craft in some way?
Hundred per cent. Doing that would always challenge our creativity on some level, even when we would re-enact certain scenes. It was almost like an exercise. When you remember moments and dialogues from films, there’s a certain kind of education happening even within that kind of space. It was playful and fun, but I still remember everything from that time. It was always childish — role playing and other crazy stuff. I guess it must have helped all of us. If nothing else, because of that, the four of us went on to become directors. It maintained our love for movies from a very young age. Since everyone was onto it, if you were the only kid who was not into films, then maybe, you’d start feeling a bit insecure. But here, everyone was encouraging each other. It was great.
What’s your filmmaking process like?
I need to be alone, for sure. At least during the writing process. I don’t like distractions. But beyond that, I feel it also depends a lot on the nature of the movie. So, how you approach a film becomes really important.
Is the process different once you begin shooting?
At times, there are certain external factors that play a role. For example, when we were shooting Lakshya (2004), we weren’t only following the deadlines set by the production team or the first assistant director (AD), you are also working along the deadlines set by the Armed Forces. So, a certain kind of discipline is required. If the Armed Forces said, ‘We are coming at 1pm and will leave by 4pm’, then they would stick to it. That means that you have to drive and motivate your crew in a different way. But if you are doing a film that allows you to have a certain kind of flexibility, your demeanour changes. So, it depends on what you are dealing with. And sets are always chaotic. I wish that wasn’t the case. I have always felt this. It’s with every director that I have worked with in recent years. It amazes me how much noise there is on a set while people are trying to focus and do their jobs. But there’s some kind of order within that chaos. So you should just put your headphones on and go for it. I don’t know if there’s any fixed process.
You have attempted to direct completely different kinds of films in your career…
After Dil Chahta Hai (DCH; 2001), I didn’t come with a plan about the kind of movies I wanted to make, because when I started working on it, I didn’t think of direction as a career. But I enjoyed the process. So when DCH released, I started thinking of reliving the experience, and doing more films. I heard the story for Lakshya from dad. He had just come back from Kargil Vijay Divas, where they honoured the martyrs of Operation Vijay. He met an officer there, who told him that there is so much respect for what they do, but at the same time, there are people who are no longer looking at it as a career option. That’s when dad decided that he wanted to write something on the topic. When I heard the story from him, I was very excited.
What inspired you to remake Don 2 (2011)?
While filming Lakshya, I travelled to Dehradun by train on multiple occasions. I had the soundtrack of Don (1978) on my iPad. One time, I was listening to its background score, and maybe, the train journey, along with the great background score by Kalyanji-Anandji just came together. And I remembered the chase sequence when Don is running away from the cops, and trying to catch a train. I was like, “It’s such a great film. Someone should remake it.” I told Zoya and Ritesh (Sidhwani; producer and business partner) that we should try and get the rights to [remake] Don. So they told me, “If you love it so much, why you don’t direct it?” And I was like, “Yes, that’s also a great idea (laughs).”
Who were the other film personalities whose works you discovered early in your life?
I would watch many Hindi films, and my love for cinema was apparent to everyone. My father’s brother told me, ‘You should revisit the people who influenced your favourite actors and filmmakers. So, as Mr Amitabh Bachchan has said that he was very inspired by Dilip Kumar, you should watch Dilip saab’s works.’ That’s when another door opened in my head. I watched Naya Daur (1957), Ganga Jumna (1961) and Ram Aur Shyam (1967), and through Dilip Kumar, I discovered other directors. When I watched Guru Dutt’s films, they just blew my mind. In the midst all of that, I remember, Zoya was a huge Woody Allen fan. So, with her, I discovered Allen, and started watching Hollywood films. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were very popular because they would make films for kids.