Shortly after his second film as a director, Lakshya, was released in 2004, Farhan Akhtar was approached by ace filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who told him about a script he wanted him to read.
Nearly a decade later, Farhan was finally sent the script and loved it so much that he agreed to play the lead role in Wazir.
The first big Bollywood release of 2016 sees Farhan play a tough ATS (Anti-Terrorism Squad) police officer who forms an unlikely bond with a wheelchair-bound chess master, portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan. Acclaimed filmmakers Chopra and Rajkumar Hirani have produced the Bejoy Nambiar-directed film, which features an interesting supporting cast including Neil Nitin Mukesh, John Abraham and Aditi Rao Hydari.
Eastern Eye caught up with Farhan to talk about Wazir, working with Amitabh Bachchan, his acting success, inspirations and more.
You are very selective in your film choices, so what did you like about Wazir to say yes to it?
Well, there were many things. It is a serious human drama, which I always find very exciting to be part of. It’s the perfect combination of a thriller and a lot of emphasis is put on what is going on with the characters in terms of their personal journeys. So it was a combination of these things and, of course, the quality of writing which is great. The kind of character I was being asked to play was very well fleshed out and very layered. So there were many things that went in favour of the script, which made me agree to be part of it.
The film looks like it has many twists. What are you allowed to tell us about the story and your character?
Well, I guess the most I can tell you is that the character I play, Daanish Ali, is an anti-terrorism squad officer from the Indian police force. He finds himself in a situation where everything he believes in is pretty much taken from him. He is suspended from his job and is probably at the lowest point in terms of grief in his life.
That is when he meets the character played by Mr Bachchan and the story tells how through him, he gets a purpose to live again, a purpose to be happy again. He also gets involved with an issue Mr Bachchan’s character is facing. As Wazir, the title of the film, suggests there is one character who causes many issues in both their lives. What this person’s influence is in terms of creating these various issues and how they deal with it together forms the story.
Is it fair to say this role has been emotionally and physically demanding for you?
Yes, it was, Asjad. It was a very intense character to play. He is angry for most of the film and is dealing with a lot of pain. There is a load of emotion when you play a character like this. But there was also enough opportunity to vent all that stuff through action sequences in the film. However, it was a challenge playing a police officer because there is a certain manner, body language and decorum with which they conduct themselves. So all of that was very new to me. It was a learning curve.
It looks fun when actors do action scenes, but I am guessing it is not fun performing them?
There is a certain excitement, but you don’t want to lose focus while being excited. I think probably most accidents or injuries happen when people lose focus on the job at hand. So there was a lot of rehearsal time. I felt very safe doing the action scenes. The team was very good. I enjoyed it tremendously.
What is it like for you to be sharing the screen with Mr Bachchan?
It’s surreal on some level working so closely with someone whose work I have grown up watching, and having a lot of screen time with him. He is very inspirational in me wanting to be a part of this (cinematic) world. The relationship between our characters is really the crux of the story, and what propels it forward. So it was amazing to watch him up close and to see and feel his creative energy, and to kind of just jam with him. There was a lot of learning in it and just a joy in watching someone who you have admired so much, so close and in front of you.
You are very confident, but did you get nervous at any point acting alongside him?
No, not really, to be honest. There is a scene where I am supposed to yell at him – that felt a little bit strange and I wanted to make sure I did it correctly. You know you are acting, but he’s there and you have to kind of let loose and scream. I had to mentally prepare myself for that, but apart from that scene, not really.
You said you discussed classic films from the 1970s with Mr Bachchan on the sets of Wazir. Did you learn anything new?
You know, there were things he shared about the working process at that time and how things have changed. It was nice to talk to him because I have heard the stories from my father (Javed Akhtar) and from (late) Mr Yash Chopra when we had an opportunity to speak. I never really had a chance to sit down with Mr Bachchan and speak to him about all these iconic roles and how it was working with all these directors, what kind of preparation they did back then. There’s so much to learn from how these performances were created.
What are your chess skills like, because you played it a lot in the movie?
I am not too sure. (Laughs) I know how to play the game and guess I could give a good fight to anybody who can play chess. But beyond that it has been a while since I really played it seriously. On set we had an expert because they didn’t want us to mess around with the continuity of the chessboard. So we weren’t allowed to just start playing our own game, but I do enjoy it when I get an opportunity to play.
Do you have a favourite moment in Wazir?
They are many great and memorable moments in the film, but unfortunately I can’t reveal most of them. There are many scenes that I had a great time filming, but sadly I can’t share them with you right now.
From the trailer you get the impression this is more like a Hollywood-style film than a commercial Bollywood one?
To a certain extent, yes, but it’s a universal story of friendship, redemption and revenge. Stylistically (director) Bejoy has a great eye in terms of creating environment, mood and ambience. He does that really well, so I feel his skills of showcasing or visualising the film in a way that is contemporary and cutting edge has come across. But at the heart of it all, it is a very Indian film. There are films that translate into other cultures without you realising that it is possible, but this one is designed to be an Indian film.
We had high expectations from you as a filmmaker in the past, and now we have even higher expectations from you as an actor because you have done so well. Does that put pressure on you or affect you?
No, it doesn’t affect me. I think what is important is to focus on is the job at hand and on what comes next. Those are the important things – everything else I appreciate tremendously and I’m very grateful for them. I mean it gives you a lot of strength when people look forward to your work. It gives you a lot of motivation, but that can’t be the reason to do it. You have to find your creative expression because I think that honesty and sincerity in what you end up creating and is what people appreciate about you. That is all you can continue doing for them as a service.
Does this mean that you have hung up your director’s hat for now?
I think it is true for now. There is a lot of interesting work that is coming my way, a lot of interesting scripts and directors who I admire, so I will probably just enjoy this while it is good and then see how it goes.
Which other films do you have on the way?
I am currently working on Rock On 2 and am in the process of filming it. But beyond that, I really can’t say any more.
You are a multi-talented individual, but what most inspires you today?
It is tough to say. I think I enjoy engaging with people, be it through film or through music. That is something I have always enjoyed doing, and that inspires me. Of course, every experience that you have with a degree of confidence of what is possible while pushing boundaries and pushing the envelope always takes you a step further. But I am also really inspired by people’s work, watching other directors, listening to new music and reading books.
Finally, why should we all go watch Wazir?
Well, I would hope that as a viewer, your quest or your hunger for watching movies would be to go and see a well-told story that is engaging and entertaining. I believe Wazir fits that slot and ticks all the boxes. It is a good script, it is a good story and it is a very engaging film with a lot of heart, so I just hope that you go in there and enjoy it.
Wazir is in cinemas now.