Films: Rock Solid
(Left) Farhan Akhtar with Priyanka Chopra Jonas.
Actor, musician, and director Farhan Akhtar was absent from the big screen after his acting role in the slumberous Lucknow Central. But he’s back this year with The Sky Is Pink, which had its premiere at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Our Canada-based contributor caught up with him at the festival to talk about his TIFF debut, Hindi film actors playing misogynistic roles, and more.
There is a scene in Dil Dhadakne Do (DDD), the 2015 film directed by Zoya Akhtar, that perfectly captures Farhan Akhtar’s urbane, ultra-progressive, feminist persona—as it comes across in his interviews, his social media feed, his public stance on gender discrimination, and in most of the characters he’s played so far in films. In this scene from DDD, Rahul Bose’s character proclaims that he’s a forward-thinking man because he has “very graciously allowed” his wife, Ayesha (played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas), to run her own business. Cut to Sunny—Farhan Akhtar’s character—a journalist and Ayesha’s ex, who quite matter-of- factly calls him out on his outdated patriarchal soch (thinking) that seeks to wield authority over women by “allowing” them to do things. “Why did she need your permission at all?” he asks and a tween in the group, swooning over this beautiful, too-good-to-be-true man, exclaims, “I love you!”
(Left) Director Shonali Bose (center) with the stars of The Sky Is Pink.
That seems to be the general consensus about Farhan Akhtar—on and off-screen. He’s genuinely nice with lovely manners. “Why don’t you sit?” he earnestly asks my colleague and podcast producer, Aparita, as she gets ready to record our interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. Akhtar is here representing his film, The Sky Is Pink, directed by Shonali Bose, best known for Amu and most recently, Margarita with a Straw. The film is about the Chaudhary family, which is rallying together in the face of devastating tragedy. The daughter of the family is born with a serious immune deficiency (SCID) and goes through aggressive medical interventions as an infant, ultimately succumbing to the disease at the age of 18.
The film, hard-hitting in parts, was panned by critics for mining a story of death, loss, and grief, to rouse the audience. Akhtar’s performance though was lauded for his strong and stoic portrayal of Aisha’s father, Niren. “There were some very, very hard moments in the film. Being a parent myself, it is difficult to even think about losing a child, much less knowing that it could happen any day. It feels so against the natural order of things, yeah...” his voice trails off briefly, contemplative, sad, even. “We always want our kids to be safe, healthy, we want what’s best for them. With Aisha, the family knew that they couldn’t do anything more beyond a certain point to help her. It’s such a difficult position to be in. I am amazed at the dignity with which they lived their life, taught her to live her life, the grace they show, the joy they give her. It’s admirable and inspiring!” he says.
(Right) Farhan Akhtar and Priyanka Chopra Jonas share an easy camaraderie.
This film is Akhtar’s reunion with his DDD costar, Priyanka Chopra Jonas—he also directed her in Don and Don 2. The duo share an easy camaraderie as they field questions from Canadian journalists who gravitate, clearly, towards the bigger star in the room—Jonas. One Canadian critic even calls her an entertainment behemoth while her assistant brings forth Diana, her pet chihuahua mix, for a quick cuddle. All through this display of star power, Akhtar looks affable, detached, Zen-like, and professional, all at the same time.
The actor is used to sharing the spotlight—sister Zoya is just coming off a big critical and box office hit, Gully Boy, while dad Javed Akhtar is still one of Bollywood’s most sought-after wordsmiths. Akhtar himself is gearing up for his next role, that of a boxer, in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Toofan, his second project with the director after Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. And if his Insta pictures are anything to go by, Akhtar is all set to impress. Thanks to an intense training schedule that such a film invariably demands, the actor looks ripped and in good form. “We get along really well, we are co-conspirators rather than actor and director and we love collaborating with each other. It feels great to get up in the morning and getting to set. I need to keep reminding myself of why we do what we do. It’s the love of storytelling. The minute you feel it’s a job, it’s not a nice place to be. That is what I’m looking for when I read a script!” he says.
Speaking of compelling scripts and nuanced characters, Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai, his debut as a director, completes 18 years this year. It was a seminal moment in the history of Hindi commercial cinema. Among other gifts, the film gave audiences memorable male characters who came into their own during the course of the film, setting a standard for what the Hindi film hero could and should be. One does wonder, then, if the current popularity and success of films with misogynistic male characters bother the man who wrote Dil Chahta Hai.
“There’s a certain belief and value system that I have, and I will continue to make stories that empower people—stories that will open up more dialogue and debate about focusing on gender and equality and that kind of discourse. Having said that, I won’t ever begrudge people their success, it’s not a nice place to be.” I didn’t expect him to bob and weave for this one. Clearly sensing my disappointment, he hastens to add, “Yes, when such films are made, it does give you a hit. You do wonder, ‘Oh man!’ Of course that happens, especially when such issues matter to you. But ultimately they are exposing themselves for who they are. Hopefully, they will learn, but yes, I don’t begrudge anyone their success,” he repeats. A rock solid answer. And safe.
Baisakhi Roy is a Toronto-based writer and editor who loves to write about ordinary people and their extraordinary stories. A lifelong fan of Hindi movies, she cohosts KhabardaarPodcast, a weekly podcast on all things Bollywood.
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