Years ago when Bandra’s Bandstand was relatively virgin territory, a barefoot little boy would race down the long stretch every day — blissfully enjoying his fun-filled freedom despite being arrested each day by his family doctor — disapproving his barefooted act — and handing him over to his worried parents.
Who then would have predicted that more than three decades later, the thin and short little boy, who has now positioned himself as the pioneering voice in contemporary Indian films, would be picked up to front a very ambitious project about the famous sprinter Milkha Singh? But director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s decision to cast Farhan Akhtar is already yielding good response from the trade, as well as the public, who are eagerly waiting for Farhan’s next, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The film apparently has a strong emotional connect for the actor.
As Farhan readies for its release, we meet him at his plush Bandra bungalow, done up by his lovely wife Adhuna Akhtar, for a candid chat. Here are some excerpts:
What makes Bhaag Milkha Bhaag more special than the other films you’ve done so far?
All the movies I choose to do are very special to me. But this film is a rare opportunity. Usually when you create characters for a certain film, it’s about interpreting the characters on your own, as there are no reference points. But in this case, there is a very strong reference point and you cannot go wrong in any way. You’ve got to adapt to it as precisely as you can and that requires tremendous focus. Such opportunities do not come often.
Before you became an actor, did you also have to go through the usual grind of perfecting yourself to face the camera by taking stunt/dancing/acting and horse riding lessons?
I think the time where one has to be groomed perfectly to face the camera is slowly passing. And we should be very thankful for it. Acting should be beyond physical traits and personal stunts. Having said this, I remember being bitten by a fitness bug at the end of my film Lakshya (2004). I credit Hrithik (Roshan) for guiding me on this. I felt incredibly fit when I came back from Ladakh after the shoot and thought that I must maintain that rhythm.
As for the horse riding bit, I’m not comfortable sitting on a horse, unless I’m playing a daku (dacoit) from Chambal. Then I’ll have to learn how to ride a horse. I remember I had to sit on a horse for my film Luck By Chance (2009) and Adhuna, my wife, who is an ace rider, gave me tips. People liked the shot and complimented me saying I looked like a professional rider, but I knew my heart was beating faster.
We’ve heard that Don 3 is in the pipeline.
Shah Rukh (Khan), Ritesh (Sidhwani, co-founder of Farhan’s production house Excel Entertainment) and I meet very frequently. We discuss ideas all the time about movies that we can do together. So, which film we end up doing remains to be seen, but we will be doing another film together that’s for sure. I really had a wonderful time working with Shah Rukh. So if we can share the same experience again, it would be wonderful. We approach films with the same kind of love.
Have you ever given in to a commercial diktat?
Yes. It was in Luck By Chance when we did that circus song (‘Baware’). There was a small portion that I shot even though it was mostly picturised on Hrithik (Roshan). I was told that it was appreciated in the theatres. But I remember I had to struggle a lot staring at the camera and dancing. That was the first time I had to perform looking into the camera and that to me was a very strange experience. When you are dancing with your friends, like in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), I find that very organic as we look at each other and react to what the other one is doing. When such situations are there in the script I can let go and do things more easily. If my mind is comfortable, then my body will follow.
You’re an acclaimed director, writer, singer and a much-admired actor. Do you have aspirations of stardom?
It’s not crucial for fans to gather outside your house — that doesn’t endorse stardom.
Did playing the role of Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB) leave an impact on your life?
It’s too early to tell. Right now, I’m in the thick of things. One day, I will have to sit back and see how it (the role) has affected me. If things go into my sub-conscious mind and start reflecting in my behaviour, then I will be able to say, ‘yes, it has affected me’.
When you were approached with this biopic, did you feel connected to the story, or was signing it a calculated decision?
Your instinct has to tell you whether you want to be part of a project or not; because you also realise the kind of commitment a film like this will require. It’s not a fictional piece of work — I have a huge responsibility towards the character and the film.
When I first heard the story, I was moved. While growing up, I remember being asked a question about the ‘Flying Sikh’ in the general knowledge section. We all know Milkha Singh’s achievements, but we don’t know anything beyond that. This film will unravel the trials, tribulations, triumphs and many more layers of the legend’s life.
What is your take on industry marriages?
I think people should respect other people’s privacy. That’s all I have to say. Fans want to know everything about their idols. And as it is, most of that information is shared by the media. The rest, I guess, is dug out and scripted. Nowadays, you are exposed to so much unadulterated news about your idols’ lives through social media. But with the media, nuances also change. For instance, what is said and what becomes of it — the headlines, for instance — are two different things. The context, at times, changes.
Are industry marriages more fragile?
Human beings are human beings, regardless of their professions. When something has to happen, it happens.
Don’t mind me asking, but your marriage also went through its share of ups and downs, as reported in the media.
I knew it was coming. I don’t know what to say. Someone was speculating that I was leaving my wife. Those people eventually realised that nothing was coming out of that, so they got tired.
How did Adhuna handle that rough phase?
She’s one of the most important people in my life, and is someone I can trust blindly. Romance is important, but before that you have to be friends. And we’re very good friends.
You’re settled as a director, but do you feel settled as an actor?
I find myself at a place where I have the freedom to choose the kind of work I want to do and that, according to me, is satisfying. As for being settled, I don’t know… but there’s an area in acting, that I’m still not comfortable with.
After BMB, will direction take a backseat for some time?
At this point, I want to see the release of BMB. I need some breathing space. And with all honesty, I must tell you that there has been no break, since Rock On!! began in January 2008. It has been five years since I got time to myself. After this, my next film is Shaadi Ke Side Effects, which is almost complete. That will mark the end of all my commitments. After that, I want to start writing, but before that, I need some time to read and get inspired, which I think is important. So in short, my plan is just to step back.
Your films are different from the popular lot being made these days. Do you ever get tempted to, for instance, make a mass appealer like a Dabangg (2010)?
When Dabangg released, it cut through a lot of clutter. There was a hero and a villain. I loved the movie because we saw something like that after a long time. But I must tell you that films like these work before they’re discovered to be formula films. Will I make a film like this, or act in it? I can’t say because I don’t know that genre. I don’t subscribe to formulaic filmmaking.
What dictates your choice of films?
I haven’t heard of anyone saying that I must do a certain kind of films because the audience loves watching those types. I would never go by that diktat. I would do a film that instinctively tells me that I should do it and I will sincerely believe that the
audience will love it. Those who do such films genuinely enjoy doing it. And if you don’t enjoy your work, people won’t enjoy seeing you.
Whose work in cinema has inspired you the most?
There are many. But Robert De Niro remains my all-time favourite. I admire him a lot. In my pursuit to be more like him, I would mimic dialogues from his movies for my friends in college. I loved what he did in The Untouchables (1987) — shaving off his hairline, gaining all that weight for a film where he had only a few scenes. It was truly inspirational.
What’s happening with the sequel to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)?
We had a great time (making that movie). I hope it (the sequel) happens soon. I don’t know much about it. Zoya (sister-director Zoya Akhtar) can tell you.
What’s the status of the film that you and Zoya were working on; the one that is apparently based on your lives?
It isn’t based on our lives. It is a film about siblings and we’re producing it. There are many things universally common about siblings — love, concern, caring and dependency — but that doesn’t need to be our story.
There are fans who wait endlessly to catch a glimpse of their idols outside their homes — do you miss that fanfare?
No, not at all. People have different ways of expressing their love. I don’t think standing outside someone’s house expresses enough about someone’s work. Talking about them with respect is a great way of showing admiration. So I don’t miss it. I am very happy on that level; whatever will come, will come. I will be thankful for it, as and when it happens, but that cannot be my aim in life — to
have a hundred people always standing outside my house.
Enlist four films that, according to you, have been trend-setters.
I would like to list films and filmmakers. Yash Chopra was a trend setter. He created love stories that everyone started replicating. It reflected in Adi’s (producer-director Aditya Chopra) work. Adi himself is a trend-setter. His film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) brought about the trend of NRI romances. Rajesh Khanna set a trend. There were many phenomenal actors that came before him, but he set a unique bench mark. Next would be my own film Dil Chahta Hai (2001). In many ways, it has changed the spoken language in movies. Then, Satya (1998) is another film that was a trend-setter. It stripped away all that glamour and gave you this very naked movie.