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Before Farhan Akhtar’s birthday, decoding what makes the actor-director an exemplar

As Farhan Akhtar turns 48 on 9 January, a look at how the multi hyphenate star has successfully dabbled in direction and acting. 

Pratishruti Ganguly
Jan 05, 2022
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Farhan Akhtar stumbled into the direction in 2001, when he took on the director’s mantle with his coming-of-age buddy comedy Dil Chahta Hai. He conceived the story while working as an assistant director for several years, and wanted it to be translated on screen. However, he was assured no one else would be able to comprehend the characters as well as he would, and thus took the plunge.

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It’s understandable though, why Akhtar did not intend for anyone else to helm the movie. Frolicky and frothy at its surface as it was, Dil Chahta Hai introduced to Hindi cinema a unique voice that straddled commercial aspects of cinema and mature storytelling with gusto. While on one hand there was the prototype man-child in Aamir Khan’s character, there was also a Sid, expertly played by Akshaye Khanna. Rarely had a character like Sid been seen on screen before. He is calm and contemplative, kind and considerate, and does not love to acquire. It also altered the visual grammar of moviemaking by redefining what cool means to the naughts. Spiked hair, shiny bootleg pants and taking drives from Mumbai to Goa formed the new definition of aspirational. And behind the phenomenon was a debutant director.

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His second directorial, Lakshya (2004), is yet another coming-of-age story. But this time, his protagonist’s professional growth is also expanded upon along with his personal growth, something Dil Chahta Hai only hinted upon with Akash’s relocation to Australia and managing his father’s company. Karan, played by Hrithik Roshan, starts off as a directionless young man who enlists himself in the army on a whim, but quits shortly after. However, he decides to return to the academy and see it through.

The film did not fare well at the box office. While Hrithik and Preity Zinta’s haircuts sparked much curiosity, Akhtar’s spectacular debut proved to be a death-knell for his comparatively more sedate Lakshya. Clocking in at just less than three hours, the pace at which the film unfolds felt distressingly glacial for many. Furthermore, the second half of the film is entirely dedicated to the Kargil War sequence, but the portrayal was a far cry from what audiences were familiar with (à la Border).

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Over the years, the film has been rediscovered by cinephiles, who attest to its cinematic calibre. For one, the length of the movie made Karan’s transformation gradual and believable. His repeated failures made his frustration palpable, and when he was rewarded, it felt personal. Much like his previous film, the characters in Lakshya were crafted with care and delicateness. From Preity Zinta’s Romila to Boman Irani playing the father, every character is well-rounded and believable.

His next two directorials — Don and its sequel — still divide critics. Amitabh Bachchan loyalists insist that the original movie is a far superior thriller than Farhan Akhtar’s remake. However, there is a section of the audience that vouched for Akhtar’s stylised vision. The 2006 version of Don is a slick action thriller with mammoth production value, evident from its continent-spanning narrative. But Akhtar’s biggest achievement with Don was subverting the original’s ‘good wins over evil’ morality trope by making his evil protagonist defeat other bad guys. In a dog-eat-dog world, it is the fittest that survives. And Don is fit enough to hoodwink everyone else and survive for a sequel. Even with Shah Rukh Khan’s signature mannerisms, Akhtar is able to invoke the 70s nostalgia by dropping regular references to the original and having his version of Don convincingly mouth dialogues penned decades ago.

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The multi-hyphenate’s keen sense of observation finds expression in his acting as well. Akhtar made his acting debut in Rock On!!! in 2008, which he himself produced with Ritesh Sidhwani under their banner Excel Entertainment. Akhtar was a revelation in the role of a rockstar-turned-bitter banker, with critics lauding his yet-untapped acting talent. Further, for the film being produced by the man launching himself in showbiz, Rock On!!! remained and ensemble drama throughout, without any of the characters getting sidelined.

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Akhtar has also not shied away from playing complex, grey characters, like in Luck By Chance or Karthik Calling Karthik. In the former, directed by his sister Zoya Akhtar, Akhtar plays an unscrupulous struggling actor, who makes questionable choices in order to gain favours from influential industry folk. Although the protagonist of the film, Akhtar’s Vikram remains unlikeable even at the end of the movie. Similarly, in Karthik Calling Karthik (2010), Farhan shed every ounce of vanity to play a broken, frail man, whose mental condition makes him sabotage the lives of everyone who may have harmed him, either deliberately or unconsciously. He effortlessly channelised the angst and fragility of his character, never letting the audience disconnect with him, even when he wreaks havoc in people’s lives.

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Akhtar’s larger-than-life hero moment occurred in 2013, when he was cast as Milkha Singh in the biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. The decade-spanning movie, with impeccable production design, and a brilliant Akhtar, charted the rise of one of the most celebrated sportspersons in the country. From his physical transformation as a lanky young man to an athlete to his characteristic transformation with age, Akhtar certainly committed to the character of Singh.

There are not many film personalities who have straddled as many professions as Farhan Akhtar. And yet, with each, he has proven why he deserves all the laurels time and time again.


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