Re-written by Salim-Javed

Javed Akhtar has a unique connection with The Communist Manifesto. Salim Khan has a special bond with struggling actors. Together, they moulded afresh the role of screenplay and dialogue writers in Hindi cinema

Amidst the relentless momentum of life, a few incidents trickle down to memory bank. It was some 17 years ago that Javed Akhtar had joined hands with Jagjit Singh for a non-film album “Silsilay”. The album was launched with much fanfare, and Javed Sahab, a far cry from the man who wrote the downright pedestrian “Ek, do teen, chaar, paanch…barah terah” for N. Chandra’s Tezaab, was in crackling form – “Kabhi yun bhi to ho” and “Mujhko yaqeen hai” were part of the collection.

Regaling the audiences with some of his best couplets, he also had a revelation or two for those keen to appropriate him as one of their own. “When I was born my father, famous poet and lyricist Jan Nisar Akhtar, did not pronounce Azaan into my ear. Rather, he read out from The Communist Manifesto,” Javed Sahab said on stage, leaving many stunned. The words rang in my ears for days after that. “Did he actually say, The Communist Manifesto?” Or was I imagining things with my Left-leaning mind, I often wondered.

Years passed. I heard him in mushairas, attended his book launches, even those of his father-in-law Kaifi Azmi where he gave a fine account of himself. I met him too but could not get myself to ask him the question: “Did Jan Nisar Sahab actually read out from the Manifesto into the new born’s ear?”

The answer, most unexpectedly, came through Diptakirti Chaudhuri’s book “Written by Salim-Javed”, as aptly named a book as you would find after “…And Pran”. Honestly, the Javed question had slipped out of my mind, and I picked Chaudhuri’s book for Salim Khan, half of the formidable Salim-Javed combine. In recent times, Salim is often addressed as the father of Salman Khan – the superhero who was called Abdul Rashid Salim Salman Khan after his birth in December 1965.

At others Salim is hailed as Narendra Modi’s supporter, probably the most recognisable Muslim face after Zafar Sareshwala. All this combines to make the situation far from ideal for somebody who had come to movies to be a hero, did nearly 25 films as an actor before finding his true calling with the pen to give us films like Andaz, Haathi Mere Saathi, Seeta aur Geeta, Deewaar and Sholay in partnership with Javed Akhtar. In fact such was their aura that the two gave not one or two but 10 hits on the trot – their 11 venture Imaan Dharam was their first flop.

As Chaudhuri recalls Salim’s words, “One hit film, two hit films, even three hit films in a row can be a fluke. But ten or eleven hit films cannot be a fluke.”

Incidentally, Salim’s is the typical rags-to-riches story of Hindi cinema. Hailing from a well-to-do family – his father was DIG in Indore – he, however, lost his parents early. And decided to make a career in the film industry when it was unthinkable for a man from a ‘decent’ background to be seen there. He struggled for many years, acted in what were euphemistically called B or C-grade movies, struggled not just for recognition but even money – much like Javed who slept in studios, even in a cave and once declined to accommodate the then struggling Shatrughan Sinha in his room because he feared the latter may not be able to afford Rs.60 monthly rent!

All that changed when Salim turned screen-writer in partnership with Javed. The two combined to rewrite the rules of the game in Hindi cinema which, till then, was all about star worship. Producers lined up to sign the leading heroes, then on their suggestion, signed the heroines before finally getting a daily-wage earner for a writer! The posters were all about the stars. But Salim-Javed believed that the films, indeed, the stars, were a success because of their craft, their ability to write. After initial guffaws, and silent ridicule, the two of them, managed to carve out not just their place under the sun but made it easier for future screenplay and dialogue writers, even lyricists to extract their pound of flesh. As Chaudhuri writes, “I believe they brought a certain swagger to the profession of writing, long considered to be back-room job. There were more prolific writers, writers who had given a greater number of hits. But none of them had succeeded in changing the dynamics of an industry, notorious for being set in its ways. None of them raised their collars and advertised their success the way Salim-Javed did.” Such was their aura that the common man, hitherto used to identifying a film with a star, started looking out for their names on the posters and trailers before deciding to watch a film. I distinctly recall little single column advertisements of Deewaar in Patriot in the mid-70s. The film had completed silver jubilee at Majestic cinema, now converted into a museum. The advertisement proudly declared: “Yash Chopra’sDeewaar now celebrating silver jubilee….screenplay/dialogue by Salim-Javed.” Not a word about Amitabh Bachchan or Shashi Kapoor or anybody else. Just Salim-Javed. It was heady, dream-like as long as it lasted. Then came the tiff and the bitterness.

All that is fine but what about Javed Sahab and his early introduction to the Manifesto? Well, Chaudhuri talks of that too. He writes, “When Javed Akhtar was born, his father – poet Jan Nisar Akhtar – a member of the Communist Party, went to the hospital along with some friends directly from the office. Since he was carrying a copy of The Communist Manifesto, he decided to change the tradition of reading the Azaan in the newborn child’s ears and read from the manifesto instead.”

Ah! After so many years, I can heave a sigh of relief. I was not wrong, I had heard it right.

(The author is a seasoned literary critic)

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