(VIDEO) Farhan Akhtar’s jailhouse rock

Farhan Akhtar on how The Beatles ignited something special in him, a new and original solo album and why he didn’t sing in his latest film, ‘Lucknow Central’

Whenever Farhan Akhtar listens to a Beatles song, he immediately knows which track should follow. Strangely, the order doesn’t belong to any album. There’s a sequence of songs ingrained in his memory. He recalls obsessively listening to a compilation of The Beatles’ greatest hits from 1962 to 1965 on cassette, a gift from his mother, Honey Irani. “I remember it very clearly. It was 1985 and India was playing [Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket] in Australia,” he says, adding Ravi Shastri had won Player of the Series. The tournament was broadcasted at an ungodly hour, and young Akhtar watched it on the only television set in the house, in his father Javed Akhtar and second wife Shabana Azmi’s bedroom. “You couldn’t put the volume up, so we watched it with the sound off,” he shares. “I had my headphones on with the tape playing on loop so the entire tournament [played out to] the soundtrack of The Beatles.” The memory, one of the earliest, cemented his love for music.

Music matters

We’re talking ahead of the release of Lucknow Central and the conversation, predictably, shifts to music. As the 43-year-old actor, filmmaker and musician slips into his own thoughts about music, there’s a tangible shift in the atmosphere of the vanity van we’re sitting in. It’s an infernally hot afternoon with what seems like an endless series of interviews lined up. Naturally, he’s being reticent. Certainly, he’s apologetic about how long the wait has been. We’ve spent hours anticipating the chat hoping he will be free soon, and every time we’re told it’d be just another five minutes. When our conversation does begin, Akhtar continues to be restrained, giving the questions enough thought but not really having anything unexpected to say. However, once we talk about music, the man in front of me changes. His demeanour lightens, the smile reaches his eyes and you can see a twinkle that wasn’t there before. “My love for music started with The Beatles, they were the first major love that I had,” he grins.

He’s now talking about why and when he picked up the guitar. After three years of learning to play the harmonium and an unlikely non-Beatles catalyst in the form of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Akhtar would finally teach himself to play the instrument in the 90s. Music, for Akhtar, is all encompassing. “It’s truly what brings colour into your life,” he says wistfully. “If I tried to imagine a life without music it would be unbearable. It’s the shock absorbers of this journey. I’ve had a love and connection with music from a very young age and that still remains,” adds Akhtar.

It’s no wonder then that he made his acting début with Rock On!!, a film about a Mumbai grunge band called Magik. Hollywood has churned out several efforts about bands making it big: think Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, Val Kilmer’s The Doors, Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do!, Bandwagon, Garage Days, and more. But few Bollywood films have explored what Rock On!! did. The film, though mildly successful at the box office, also spawned a sequel in 2016.

Commercially independent

Four years after his Bollywood début, the actor founded Farhan Akhtar Live, touring the country and performing songs from his films. Eventually, his band would blur the lines between independent and film music, performing at the flag-bearer for indie music, NH7 Weekender, along with WindSong Fest, Enchanted Valley Carnival and the U/A festival. In light of promoting Rock On 2, he would grace the cover of Rolling Stone India for their playlist special. The move garnered a fair amount of backlash, mostly from independent musicians who still struggle to make a dent in the industry.

Yet, in spite of it all, Akhtar is currently working on a solo album that he remains tight-lipped about even though he’s bursting to tell all. The unnamed album, which should have about eight tracks, is currently being produced. “I have to redo some of the vocals in the studio with the producer,” he says, adding that he will reveal more soon, obviously hinting at the end of the subject. But I persist. “It’s in English and it’s just the thoughts and feelings that I’ve experienced over the last year-and-a-half,” he relents. Although, Akhtar tremendously enjoys performing live, singing tracks from his films wasn’t enough. “I feel it would be nice to talk about what’s happening inside of me and that’s really what compelled me to start writing this music,” he says. “[The album] is not electronic at all, I’d call it new-age folk rock.”

Role play
  • If Akhtar was ever a real-life prisoner:
  • What would see you behind bars in real life?
  • I wouldn’t mind going to jail for protesting for something I believe in, like repealing section 377.
  • What would you miss the most?
  • I’d miss my kids, my friends, home food and my dog.
  • Some creature comforts you could take to jail?
  • One thing I won’t miss is my phone (laughs). I’d miss my music, guitar and my cycle. And I’d miss my toiletries!

It’s strange then that Akhtar didn’t contribute to Lucknow Central’s soundtrack, despite feeling strongly about the role he plays. He admits that his voice was not what was required from his character, Kishen Mohan Girhotra. As the protagonist of the film, he plays an incarcerated man wrongly accused of murder. While in jail, he forms a band with his fellow inmates. “I liked the fact that, given everything that’s going on in his life, he still maintains a positive attitude,” says the actor, talking about what drew him to the part. “I liked his love for music and his sensitivity to other people’s problems. He’s a very simple guy and I liked the innocence of the character.”

Honest to goodness

Girhotra is a marked shift from Akhtar’s previous outings: from the urban wannabe rockstar, Aditya Shroff, in Rock On!!; the mentally unstable protagonist in Karthik Calling Karthik; the titular role in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and the man of action Daanish Ali in Wazir. After a hiatus from directing, it’s clear he is taking his time to sample genres and personalities in the selection of projects. He doesn’t attempt to be layered, like several of his counterparts from the industry. Instead, he shrugs and explains his process, “I don’t have a criteria in mind. I react to the gut feeling that happens when reading or hearing a script. I have been like that for most of my life.” Did he doubt his own intuition then when news broke that a film very much akin to Lucknow Central was readying for release? Back to reticence, Akhtar drolly replies, “I actually heard about [Qaidi Band] when the trailer of the film came out, so it was too late to have any apprehensions and we were like ‘we need to focus on what we have set out to do. We need to make our film as good as possible and hope for the best’.”

After Lucknow Central’s release yesterday, Akhtar is officially a free man. His next, The Fakir of Venice (meant to be Akhtar’s original acting début) releases later this year, followed by Bombay Samurai in 2018. But if anyone’s reading, there’s a little known dream role he’s got in mind. “I’ve always been fascinated with Kishore Kumar; he was such a multi-talented, multi-faceted man, a great singer and comedian,” he says, talking about how Kumar didn’t want to act in films at all and was almost forced to. “He was very eccentric and he’s left behind such a crazy legacy and there’s never been anyone like him before or after.”

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