Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar : A Bollywood Film Appreciation Course

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar : A Bollywood Film Appreciation Course

We live in a world where most TV programs have to produce something shocking just to survive. And yet, there is a quiet program where one man just talks for 40-45 minutes. Some movie clips are shown in between and that’s it. No manufactured drama or last minute reveals. So what makes Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar so engaging and popular?

Javed Saab is a master storyteller. We get a glimpse what the story sessions of Salim-Javed must have been for all the 70’s blockbusters. First, there is his language. Javed Saab and Gulzar Saab are two people to whom I can listen to anytime, anywhere, even if they speak on crop rotations or GST. Why? First, I am sure they will come up with something interesting on even such dry subjects. And second, very rarely do you hear such pure and beautiful Hindi/Urdu in today’s times. Apart from the routinely used words like hero or heroine, you will not find Javed Saab using much English. And he is not doing this consciously. The language just flows. Such beautiful words he uses! Roshan-Khayal for progressive.

💡 Roshan (रोशन) means illuminated and Khayal (ख़याल) means imagination. Together, Roshan Khayal means one whose imaginations or thoughts are illuminated – by new ideas, new concepts, new paradigms. In other words, a person with an open and progressive mind. How beautiful is that!
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In each episode of Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar, Javed Saab discusses one legend who may be an actor, a director, a lyricist or a music director. What are the qualities that made this legend so successful and memorable? What were the times like when this legend was working? How hard did he struggle to get to where he is? Most of the legends that are discussed in the series have gone through some very rough patches.

True success is rarely an accident.

You will find Javed Saab saying some phrases quite often. Phrases like “I have been thinking”, “I have thought a lot about this”, “I have often thought about how life behaves in a mysterious way”. This is what makes this show so interesting. The observations that Javed Saab relates are the result of years of deep thinking and observations, made during all his years in the film industry. Added to this Javed Saab is a very well read and erudite personality. The connections he makes between different areas of film making and indeed life itself, are remarkable.

Javed Saab went through some very rough times before he reached the dizzying heights of success that few could dream about. I remember one of his interviews where he said,

There was nothing to write. But I was reading a lot. Like a chain smoker, I was a chain reader. There was a book with me all the time and I would manage to read it in local trains and the office where I worked as a clapper boy or third assistant. Reading takes your mind away from the fact that you have not eaten.

I think this may be one of the reasons why he does not criticise anyone on the show. He knows the struggles of making it big in showbiz and he has empathizes with them. I have the greatest respect for presenters and interviewers who consciously stay away from the personal lives of their subjects. This is indeed a rarity in today’s television. In Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar, Javed Saab never, ever ventures into gossip while talking about the legends. And on the rare occasion that he mentions an incident that may be a little awkward, he prefers not to mention the names. There is a beautiful word in Urdu called Tehzeeb, which roughly translates to good manners and etiquette. This show is an embodiment of this word.

The insights Javed Saab brings to the show are fascinating. For instance, take any duet song of Kishore Kumar. No matter who the other singer is, Kishore always manages to come out on top. Do you know which movies started the trend of the slang routinely used in today’s movies – the Bambaiyya Hindi? Guru Dutt’s Aar Paar and Mr. And Mrs 55. The first anti-hero of Bollywood was in fact Dev Anand who played a smuggler in Jaal in 1952. Javed Saab compares the songs of Shailendra to Kabir’s Dohas – same simplicity yet such depth.

Bollywood movies are often criticised for their excessive number of songs. This is a pity because many of the old songs are amazing works of art created by exceptionally talented musicians and singers. Think about it, why are old songs getting remixed again and again? The popularity of the song Awaara Hoon from Raj Kapoor’s classic movie Aawara continues to rise even today. There are many stories of Indians stranded in some place in Europe or Asia, receiving unexpected help when they sang this song. Even the president of Uzbekistan sang it during a ceremony.

The best signature of good art is that it survives. Mozart’s music is in the list of best selling albums even today. The fact that a song lives on in a foreign country 50 years later speaks for itself. The tragedy here is symptomatic of a larger problem. We do not know how to preserve our history. Who remembers Shailendra or Shankar-Jaikishan today, lyricist and music directors respectively for Aawara Hoon?

In the episode on lyricist Anand Bakshi, whom he calls a Lok Kavi (poet of the people), Javed Saab relates an incident. When he visited the British Museum, Javed Saab went to a room where all the handwritten manuscripts of great authors and poets are kept, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Shelley and Keats. In the midst of all this, there is the hand-written version of Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. This is important for two reasons, Javed Saab says. First, the British are not afraid to say that we like Shakespeare and we also like McCartney. And second, they recognize and appreciate the exceptional quality of the song.

Old movies do not have the super polished feel of today’s movies but this does not mean that they do not have art. Javed Saab teaches us how to appreciate the old movies, what qualities did the famous singers of yesterday had, what made a lyricist special and what made a director stand out.

Classic Legends With Javed Akhtar is, in fact, an excellent Bollywood film appreciation course.

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