“I’m not sure he will keep his video on,” actor Farhan Akhtar’s publicist warns me on the Zoom call this Saturday afternoon.
I nod an acknowledgment but secretly hope he does; for what an expression communicates, words often cannot.
Farhan turns up a few minutes later; his camera is on!
Let’s start with something positive, I say, and venture into my warm-up question: We’ve been locked down by a pandemic for longer than we had anticipated. Can you think of any positives that have come out of it?
“The situation we are in has given us the time to reflect on our priorities in life, to focus on the emotional and intellectual as opposed to the material, and has allowed people to reconnect with themselves, with people they love, their families, and their closest friends,” says Farhan.
Farhan says the lockdown has allowed him time to get back to his writing
He is seated at a desk, wearing glasses and a bandana to keep back his hair, but he looks every bit the movie star at home on his day off.
“We’re all work horses in terms of career and ambition, and we make a lot of conscious sacrifices,” Farhan continues. “Apart from the time we sacrifice with our family and friends, we also give up time we need for ourselves. I think this has given us the opportunity to centre ourselves again.”
“The situation we are in has given us the time to reflect on our priorities in life: to focus on the emotional and the intellectual as opposed to the material”
“More importantly,” Farhan adds after a pause for a thought, “It has made us realise that we don’t need so much to survive and get along. The focus on helping and giving to others has been another big thing!”
What about you personally, Farhan: has this lockdown allowed you to do something that you’d probably ignored before?
“Actually, it has,” Farhan replies. “The time has allowed me to get back to my writing, which I wasn’t being able to do in as disciplined a way as I would have liked. So hopefully, at the end of this, there may be a couple of ideas or scripts that come out of it.”
Farhan says that fitness is truly the one gift one can keep giving oneself
Let’s turn our gaze towards the future: how does Farhan think cinema will survive the pandemic?
“Time will tell and it is difficult to have a very clear idea at this very moment,” Farhan says. “Will cinemas function at full capacity like they used to before the lockdown? I’m 100 per cent sure they will. When will this happen is the big question. I also feel there will probably have to be government assistance in some kind of way because the exhibitors have suffered tremendous losses.”
What about the distinction in peoples’ minds between the different platforms? Will a film star now be less different from a TV star, or an OTT star?
“[Under normal circumstances] we sacrifice time with our family, but we also give up time we need for ourselves. This lockdown has given us the opportunity to centre ourselves again.”
“I would actually like to believe that, that should be the case regardless,” says Farhan. “If you ask somebody who’s an actor ‘What do you do?’ nobody says, ‘I’m a film actor.’ You should be able to do your job well, regardless of medium. Eventually, of course, how you perform comes down to the aesthetic of the director and the writing. Those are the creative choices you have to make: do I want to do this kind of film? If you choose to not do it, it should be for reasons of not creatively agreeing, not because of where it’s going to be consumed!”
And finally, post the pandemic, will save-the-world movies lose flavour? Will this slowing down of our lives give way to more simple, human stories?
“Forget uncertain times like the pandemic,” Farhan begins. “It’s difficult at any given point of time to ever honestly say that you know what the audience wants or what they are thinking. What you can do as an artist is be true to who you are, and I feel that that is something that audiences do appreciate…when you don’t bullshit them…when you treat them with respect. And when they see that there’s passion in this project, that there’s effort that’s gone into it, that you’ve tried to create something that’s not just entertainment, but engagement. So whether it’s intimate human stories or larger-than-life save-the-world superhero films, I think there should be a healthy dose of everything. We should never narrow down the spectrum of this wonderful light of film to any one particular colour. There should be something for everyone to watch.”
Fit, super hit!
I now remind Farhan of his last HT Brunch cover in September 2017. The story was titled Fat-free at 43 and had Farhan wearing nothing but a towel around his waist, spanking six-pack in place, sipping coffee and making other 40-year-old men wonder what they had missed. Did Farhan know this story trended for three days non-stop?
Farhan Akhtar made a strong statement on fitness by appearing in a towel on the HT Brunch cover, in September 2017
He laughs. “Everybody seemed to like the cover, and also seemed to be surprised. So I don’t know which one I preferred.”
“Forget times like the pandemic, it’s difficult at any given point of time to say that you know what the audience wants…”
Then, referring to the picture where he’s nonchalantly sipping coffee and staring into space, he adds, “For me, that cover worked because it was about my fitness, it was not ‘Look at my body.’ I’ve been since then asked many times to remove my clothes and pose for many magazines… Fitness is truly the one gift you can keep giving yourself. Like they say, a healthy mind thrives inside a healthy body.”
Didn’t Farhan take to fitness fairly late in life? Well after Dil Chahta Hai (DCH) when he was in his late 20s?
“It wasn’t even after DCH, it was after Lakshya!” says Farhan. “After shooting in Ladakh for five months, when I came back, I felt supremely fit: my stamina and endurance were at an all-time high, and it was just such a wonderful feeling. It makes you feel positive, proactive and you feel like you can do anything. I didn’t want to lose that feeling, so I took to fitness and got myself a trainer.”
And after that you took the step of becoming an actor, so then you had to continue being fit?
“Honestly, I would have continued with that regardless,” Farhan says. “It was in 2006 when I was really fit, athletic and muscular for the first time in my life. But at no point in time then did I feel ‘Okay, let’s now go start acting in films.’”
But once you did become an actor, you went the whole hog: you transformed your body drastically for the role of Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (BMB).
“As an actor, being fit is important, but that doesn’t mean every single muscle has to be rippling at all times”
“I did it because it was really needed for the role,” says Farhan. “In all my movies before that, be it Rock On!!, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Karthik Calling Karthik, I am just a regular guy. I’m not muscular or have a rippling six-pack. That’s because that is not what fitness is to me. As an actor, being fit is important, but that doesn’t mean every single muscle has to be rippling at all times. That [rippling muscles and abs] is athlete-level fitness that has a whole different lifestyle attached to it. You look at it, and you know it’s a ‘Show Bod.’”
So you created a show bod for your role in BMB? Of all the demands made on an actor, would you say a body transformation is one of the most unhealthy things you put yourself through?
“BMB was the first time I experienced something so drastic. It was for the first time that I was in a zone that required me to be so fit and so strong. It also makes you very strong mentally because of the fact that you are so focused, and there’s nothing that can come along that can make you waver off your path that you set yourself on. The human mind is an amazing thing. The more challenging part for me is when you have to be unfit, or out of shape.”
In his next film Toofan, the screenplay jumps timelines, showing Farhan Akhtar as a super fit boxer as well as a guy in not-so-fit shape.
“After the HT Brunch cover [in 2017], I’ve been asked to shoot without clothes many times”
“My transformation for Toofan is very different because the character is so different from the one in BMB. The only thing similar is your drive to be the best that you can be. Apart from that, there is no similarity between how a boxer trains and how a 400m runner trains. For me, Toofan has been tougher, because I had been a runner when I was in school. So that wasn’t a new thing for me. Here, it was starting from scratch.”
Farhan’s passion is palpable, just like his honesty
The final word
Farhan’s passion is palpable, just like his honesty. At the start of this interview on Zoom, Farhan switching on his video reiterated to me the kind of person he is: open, always ready to answer a question, rarely running away from the most sensitive, sometimes politically-charged issues.
Being as vocal as he is, what does Farhan have to say to those who have the power to influence, but choose to keep quiet?
“Freedom of speech does not mean that you have to speak. It’s a personal call… And to judge someone for their silence is unfair as well!”
“Freedom of speech does not mean that you have to speak,” he says. “It’s a personal call. I don’t think we are anyone to tell somebody else that they have to do something. We can hope that they do it, we can wish that they do it, request them to do it, but if they don’t, we have to absolutely maintain their right to maintain their silence. And to judge them for that silence is absolutely unfair as well!”
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From HT Brunch, July 5, 2020
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