I’m sitting in the grand ballroom of a swanky central London hotel listening to some of India’s top industrialists and marketing experts speak on the subject of ‘Indian Powerbrands’. Listening to how and why successful corporations are preparing to go global seems diametrically opposite to the sorry state of affairs the Brits and Europeans have got themselves into during the economic crisis.
At the same time, two floors below in a boardroom sits Farhan Akhtar, one of contemporary Hindi cinema’s leading lights. As a one man directing, producing, writing, acting and singing machine, he has been responsible for creating some of the most imaginative screenplays, songs and performances to come out of India of late.
As I move from the ballroom to the boardroom to take up my interview slot with Akhtar, I realise the transition Indian businesses have made over the past two decades is reflective of the kind of movies he is making. Confident, commercially successful and globally aware, everything about Akhtar screams ‘Incredible India’.
The fact that Akhtar is in London to collect an award as one of twenty leading icons to be inducted into the ‘PowerBrands Hall of Fame’ is no surprise. He may be an artiste, but he’s also one of Bollywood’s most financially flourishing filmmakers. Taking time out to talk about his latest project, Don 2, it’s clear to see how media savvy Akhtar, and his fellow Indians upstairs, have become.
So what’s it like being handed the ‘Rock Star of Bollywood’ award I ask Akhtar? He seems a little embarrassed by the title but grateful for the recognition. “Its nice that people appreciate the work I’m doing, so everything that comes along with that and as a result of that is always appreciated,” he answers modestly.
Bollywood has come a long way in the past couple of decades since India’s rise in economic power. However, there is still a big section of the world outside India who holds onto the kitsch stereotype of handsome heroes and dainty heroines running around trees in the rain. I ask Akhtar if the Hindi film industry could brand itself better in the west.
“There are people who are interested in the films only their countries make and those who are interested in films in general. The latter have a general understanding of what our films are like. To a certain extent that’s an old fashioned notion of what our films are like, but there is a growing awareness that things are changing. By changing I don’t mean that songs will no longer happen in Hindi movies etc.,” he says.
What does he mean then? “We’re talking about different subjects a little more maturely maybe. Also the way we are telling our stories has changed. The melodrama has been cut out, which is a great thing. Compared to the 70s when Salim-Javed were writing films, the language they used wasn’t very flowery. They were doing contemporary stuff back then but they were an exception to the rule.
Now the rule is that you don’t write flowery language – you write everyday language. If you are writing a film in Mumbai you’ll write it in a different way than you would for a film set in Bihar for example. You write it true to a certain region and strata of people.”
With Don 2 as about as contemporary in look as it is in storyline, there is no doubt Akhtar is about modern films for a modern audience. By the looks of his slick trailers, Don 2 could easily fit into the Hollywood mould had it been made in English language. But where does Akhtar himself see Don 2 fitting in – within Indian or international cinema? “It’s an Indian film made for a primarily Indian audience or people who speak Hindi. Whoever else, by seeing the trailer, hearing the film or being excited that Shah Rukh khan is in it, wants to go and see it I’m sure they will enjoy it,” he replies. “It’s difficult to narrow down your options to say these are the people who should watch it. Any filmmaker in the world over would tell you that they would want everyone to watch their movie.”
Many Indian directors are in search of the elusive crossover hit but Akhtar doesn’t come across as one who is motivated by non-Indians admiring his films, as he explains. “I think that happens a lot more from filmmakers telling stories that they feel appeal more to a sensibility or an aesthetic of someone who’s not the so called mainstream Indian viewer. On some level there is some truth in it. There is a segment of society that would one hundred per cent watch those movies, but it wont be the kind of numbers that will go in to see a Don 2. If you feel that a movie requires people to shed some inhibitions about sexuality or caste or something else, it’s a different thing. There are many issues in India and you come up against resistance at times.”
So is Don 2, the sequel to his 2006 hit remake of the cult classic originally penned by his father Javed Akhtar, issue free? “Don 2 is an entertainer. A through and through action thriller flick. The closest we’ve come to a controversy is why Don is smoking,” he laughs. “We are allowed to smoke on screen again, but now the only thing we have been requested to do is add a disclaimer before the film starts, which essentially says that smoking is bad for health. I don’t have a problem with that, so long as I don’t have to change scenes in my film because of it.”
With his lead actor a self proclaimed smoker, I ask Akhtar how one would stop Shah Rukh from smoking? “You don’t need to stop Shah Rukh smoking. He knows what he’s doing. He is an adult as well as a chain smoker,” he jokes.
Akhtar is not wrong about Khan. He does know what he is doing. Having produced and starred in Ra.One, India’s first 3D Bollywood feature, he was the first to realise the commercial and cultural importance of the new format and bring it to Indian audiences. Akhtar is about to follow suit by releasing his sequel in 3D. I wonder what kind of challenges that bought to him as a director and producer.
“When I was making the film I didn’t really think about 3D or doing a conversion into 3D. It’s only when I saw a test of a trailer being converted into 3D where I was like wow, this could actually really work. The challenge really lies in post production when you’ve done the edit, where you feel on some level as a director that your work is over. Then 3D opens up a whole new can of worms and requires you to get involved again from the creative process from the very beginning.”
Does that mean Akhtar would do it differently next time round? “I think if I wrote a script that I wanted to be in 3D I’d probably shoot it in 3D instead of converting it. The technology now to shoot in 3D is available and is working really well. It’s just expensive. It also depends on the nature of the film is. If it’s a small, private film about individuals you may not need to go down the 3D route, but if the visual aspect of your film offers you the scope and scale to make the experience a lot larger that is exactly what it does. With Don 2 we’ve shot in such amazing locations in India, Germany and Malaysia that we felt it would work.”
One thing that has always worked in Akhtar’s productions is the music. From Dil Chahta Hai and Rock On to Don and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, the soundtracks have always been well received and stood out for their catchy numbers. Unfortunately, Don 2 hasn’t enthused Indian music fans as much as expected. Akhtar defends his soundtrack. “The soundtrack to me is true to the film. It’s not the kind of film that has too many frills in it. It’s very direct about what it wasn’t to achieve. That is the biggest difference in this one and the Don that went before. There was a romantic angle and family aspect with the kid there. This one is about Don who wishes to get from Point A to Point B and the people in his way who want to stop him. It’s focused on that one point. The background score, the music and everything else that fall into this film has to support that. I didn’t want to take any detours just to create a song.”
The high light for many people will be seeing Khan reprise a villainous role in Don 2. Akhtar agrees. “He’s a cool character but ultimately the bad guy. It’s probably the first time any kind of sequel has been made for a villain. I feel it’s a good change for an actor like Shah Rukh to get the chance to play someone who is not clean cut and good all the time. Villains are interesting people and always make for great viewing and performances. I’d love to play one.”
Was he tempted to put in a cameo, Alfred Hitchcock style? “No, not at all.” What about a Don tattoo like the one supported by Khan in the film? “No I didn’t actually. Once in a while we wanted that while we were filming, but not permanently,” he laughs.
Don 2 opens in the UK Dec 21st and worldwide Dec 23rd. http://don2thefilm.com