Javed Akhtar is an Urdu poet, film lyricist and scriptwriter. Together with former partner Salim Khan, he scripted several Bollywood hits such as Sholay, Zanjeer and Deewar. He has also written a number of successful films on his own, in addition to being a respected social commentator and activist. Akhtar has written many poems against communalism, social injustice and national integration and for women’s rights. He has been named among the 50 most powerful people in India by India Today magazine.

Indian cinema is changing, he says in this interview with India Knowledge at Wharton. Globalization is playing a part, but a small one. The real pressures, he notes, are coming from the changes in Indian society and the target audience.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Has Indian cinema become more globalized? How has that impacted the content, style and even the language of the films?

Javed Akhtar: Indian cinema is changing, but it has nothing to do with the international market. There is an international market; we talk about it a lot. But that international market has been with us for quite some time — in the Middle East, in the Far East, in Africa. We are making some inroads in Latin America. But, by and large, Indian cinema is patronized by the diaspora. The awareness has increased, but to say that it has now gone global is premature.

Indian cinema is changing not because of outside pressure but because of inside pressure. Society is changing. Obviously, ideas change because of globalization, because of the huge middle class that is mostly first generation. [The change has been spurred by] Western influences and culture, industrialization, and the joint family system breaking up. People are becoming more individualistic. That is reflected in cinema.

Then, with multiplexes, the game has changed because a film has become viable now even if it is appreciated or patronized by one segment of society. So the lowest common denominator is a segment of society, not the whole society.

I believe that life offers you packages. It doesn’t offer you good and bad, otherwise you will choose the good and you will leave the bad. It offers you packages and every package has some good and some bad. And you keep wondering which is a better package.

Now, with globalization, a kind of consumerism has come into society. The middle class is celebrating its new affluence and multiplexes are a part of this. In the average multiplex, tickets are Rs. 350 to Rs. 500 (about US$7 to US$10). In a standalone theater in [the eastern state of] Bihar, the ticket is Rs. 50. It means that one person liking your film in a multiplex is good enough to cover 10 people in Bihar. This also means you can make your film financially viable by attracting a small segment of society. That is what has been happening.

If you watch Indian cinema, you will realize that in the past 10-15 years, the protagonist doesn’t come from the working class. In the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s, the central character of a film was often a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a taxi driver, a welder, a rickshaw puller, a millworker, a farmer, an unemployed youth — all from the middle class. It’s not so any more. The hero lives in a big house [and] doesn’t do anything at all. You are told that he’s looking after his father’s business or he’s an architect. It’s just information. It has nothing to do with the story. When he’s kicked out, he is in Canada or wherever.

This film is for the segment of society that is having a party. It’s interesting that never before have you had this kind of film — Barfi and Vicky Donor, for example. There is great variation, but one thing is missing: the sociopolitical reality of India, the socioeconomic reality of India. That’s all forgotten. Because I am doing fine, I want to have a good time. Give me new stories. I have aspirations because, economically, I have come up. I don’t want to believe that I enjoy those regular films because I have better taste. So give me a different kind of film, but don’t tell me what is happening in a Bihar village because that will spoil my fun. Don’t give me any reality which will spoil my mood. Give me variety, but be careful that it is palatable.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Social and political issues may not be reflected in Indian cinema anymore, but films often address topics like secularism and different parts of society being friends. Every once in a while, there will be some kind of message that’s very positive. Do you feel that’s reactive to what is going on in society? Or is that a proactive thing — the film industry taking a stand and saying this is how we should be?

Akhtar: No, it was always like that. You have to cater to your audience. You can’t make films that are too political or against any particular community; they won’t watch your film.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Are you saying it’s more commercially driven as opposed to trying to put out a social message saying that this is how we should be?

Akhtar: No. This has been the morality of modern independent India. There was a time when it had gone out of focus. You had films where the villain was from Pakistan. Some films differentiated between Indian Muslims and Pakistani Muslims and some did not bother about it. But the law of diminishing utility applied to it, so we are not making those kinds of films now. As a matter of fact, at the moment, we are short of a villain. That’s a problem. Only morality can define a villain. If you don’t have morality, how can you have a villain?

India Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that cinema that pushes the envelope on some of these societal issues can shape the discourse on them?

Akhtar: Ultimately, it is the mainstream [that shapes discourse]. Very rarely does a mainstream film push the envelope. A film that’s so-called mainstream and questions certain norms, certain notions of morality, and gets away with it opens doors. It means the common man, the majority of the people, have accepted it. But if you make an art film or a niche film, it is patronized by a very small, miniscule percentage of society. Then you can’t say that it will work everywhere or you have caused a change. But that also matters, because if you are changing two people, they may create further change.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Your children, Farhan Akhtar and Zoya Akhtar, haven’t addressed significant societal issues in their films, instead choosing to make commercial films that are asking the questions of today’s generation. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara by Zoya Akhtar is an example. Can you give us an insight into the discussion around the themes?

Akhtar: I understand their problem and I have discussed these things with them. They say, ‘How can we write about things or make films about things we don’t know? We have never lived in a small town. We have never lived in a village. How do we make a film about that? We don’t understand these things. We can only make a film about a society or the part of society that we are familiar with.’ They are successful, which is a matter of great happiness for me. But what I really appreciate about them is that they honestly try to do good and decent work. It is not enough to be successful; what has made you successful is equally important.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Could you speak a little as a writer, a poet and a lyricist on how technology and the fact that English has become incorporated in daily speech have affected your work?

Akhtar: I’m really sad about what’s happening to languages in our society. I said that life offers you packages. The world is becoming a village. English is an important language and now anybody worth his salt sends his child to an English-medium school [where English is the language of instruction]. So the vernacular languages are left to the poorest of the poor. If you are educated in English-medium schools, you get a better view of the world, develop more liberal values, have more gender sensitivity and become more forward looking. But you pay a price because you don’t know your own language. You get cut off from tradition, from the full culture — folk poetry, music — of your own.

Language is a vehicle that carries culture. You stop the language, you stop the culture. On the other hand, the child who is brought up in a vernacular school will know something about his or her own language, culture, roots and traditions. But, more often than not, this person will be parochial, narrow-minded and have values that are almost obsolete. The realization that he or she cannot speak English or write English creates a tremendous sense of inadequacy and anger.

On the other side, if the person from the English-medium school decides to get into mass communication, he or she requires the vernacular language for the first time in his or her life. He or she finds it in the slum and brings it [home] and gives it dignity. In the slum, language lives the way the people live. And when this person owns this language and uses it in cinema, in advertisements and in public discourses, this crude language gets dignity. So it is sent back to the slum, and that is what has happened.

India Knowledge at Wharton: How have you approached that when writing lyrics for contemporary films? Some films ask for that kind of language.

Akhtar: I have noticed that the younger generation connects with nature very poorly. Today, you can’t use nature in a song. If you talk of moonlight, and rivers and wind and mountains, they don’t relate to it. They have nothing to do with the moon and the stars and waterfalls. So, to keep your song modern, you have to first keep nature out of it. It’s sad but true. You bring in nature and the song will sound dated.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Perhaps you also have to incorporate a lot more English into the lyrics?

Akhtar: Sometimes. But it should be almost like spoken language and shouldn’t be too labored.

India Knowledge at Wharton: So you take it as a challenge.

Akhtar: Rock On!! [a 2008 film that included Akhtar’s lyrics] became very popular. But the connoisseurs and critics did not understand the value of these songs. [The danger is] that when you use English words or contemporary things, the song may start sounding like a comedy song or some kind of parody. But it did not. Despite using phrases like “denim ka jacket” [denim jacket] and “Mary Jane ka ek packet” [marijuana] and so on, the song remained a modern, contemporary, young person’s song.

It’s not a [late Indian film comedian] Johnny Walker parody. This kind of film song writing has no precedent. I did not have any reference at all. That year I got almost all the awards for Jodhaa Akbar [a period film about the Mughal emperor Akbar and his wife Jodhaa]. But these lyrics were more difficult to write than the ones for Jodhaa Akbar.