The most defining characteristic of the Hindi commercial cinema in particular, and of popular entertainment in general is that they are recognized, recalled and reflected upon by the actors and players in them, known as stars. The stars, therefore, are the true “auteurs” of a work of popular and mass entertainment. For a Hindi commercial cinema, the story writer, the screen playwright, the choreographer, the lyricist, the music director, the camera crew and indeed the director seem to converge to explore the thoughts, attitudes, bodily movements, rhythm and tone of the persona of the star. The star is the “face” of a work of popular entertainment.
If the star is the concrete manifestation of a Hindi commercial cinema then the film song stands at the other end of the spectrum by representing the non-visual and non-concrete manifestation of the film. It is the song which carries the Hindi film out of its “body” into the everyday living and feeling of the listeners. It is the song that becomes the “abstract” soul of the cinema when it plays through the radio, the car stereo, the puja pandals, the bands at marriage processions, at gatherings and celebrations and is even hummed in the bathrooms. If the star is how we classify and identify a Hindi cinema within its frames, then the song is one that gives films their identity from outside the frames. The star and the song both have reasons to claim that they render cinema its innate features. The Aamir Khan and Javed Akhtar fight is between the star and the song, each claiming to be superior over the other just as the two sides of the same coin would fight as to which side represents the real coin. Both sides of the argument in exclusion of the other is preposterous.
Javed Akhtar is a lyricist with a lot of official recognition, media presence and awards. But he does not share the same space in the minds of the people as Sahir Ludhianvi, Hasrat Jaipuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Anand Bakshi, Gulshan Bawra, Pradeep and his own father Janisar Akhtar among others. In fact, Javed Akhtar’s role as a lyricist seems to be an option B compared to his thunderous years as a script writer in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In those days, Javed was better known as Salim-Javed, with Salim Khan being the other one of the duo. Together they scripted films that have become history like Sholay, Deewar, Zanjeer, Kala Paththar and Don to name a few. One may wonder whether Amitabh Bachchan would have been the star that he eventually rose to become had it not been for the writer duo, Salim-Javed. With Salim-Javed emerged the writer with a vengeance and became an important name in the creation of the cinema.
However the present spat between Aamir Khan and Javed Akhtar seems to have stemmed from the changing power positions of both the writer and the actor vis-à-vis the cinema as a whole. Indeed, Javed Akhtar’s decline as a writer and his separation from Salim is a part of the larger process by which cinema and society are embedded into each other. The star and the song writer both drew their power from the formula film that had the sole proprietorship over
With the decline of the formula film, the writer has come into his or her own. There are many off the mark, small budget films where the story is the star obviously giving the writer an edge that he never had before. Due to the development of technology, innovations in sound recordings, departments of music and choreography have assumed a stand alone status. Music videos and remixes with elaborate launches try to make music into a self-sufficient and self-contained product. This development is an attempt to separate music from the fate of the cinema.
The popular cinema has always upheld the Indian state and especially the ideological position of the Party that has held power. By this token, the Hindi commercial cinema has supported a neo-liberal State and in this alienated a vast majority of its audiences since neo-liberal politics has worked only for a microscopic minority. The shrinking support base of the State has shrunk the support base of the Hindi popular cinema. The popular cinema, thus having lost its numbers is now looking at niche and high value markets of the multiplexes and this roll back on its popularity has had huge implications for the formula of the film within which used to be couched the power of the star and of the song. The star, as has often been repeated, is now the story rather than the actor. The song similarly is now more of a stand alone product than the essence of the cinema. The star and the song have suffered similar fates.
Aamir Khan’s appeal to his audiences is cerebral rather than emotional, and hence he “lacks” in the crucial component of being a star despite being a successful exponent of cinema. Aamir is an innovator of different kinds of cinema, which is an antithesis of the persona of a star that emerges from certain sameness in formula films. Aamir is thus an important ingredient with which films become successful cinema but he is not the star in the true sense of the term around whose persona stories grow intertextually to reach for a perfect persona. In the same way, Javed Akhtar is smart and talented but nowhere near the maestros like Kaifi Azmi, or Hasrat Jaipuri or Sahir Ludhianvi in terms of soulfulness. Both Aamir and Javed are experts at their craft rather than artistic or pure aesthetes. Hence as craftsmen they excel, but they are not emotionally woven into the film formula. It is here that they seek a stand alone identity and do not consider themselves as inseparable from the film. This creates in them a sense of competition and one-upmanship rather than a pride of creation.
Since the cinema is no longer silent, the actor cannot be preferred to the writer and since the film is not a printed medium or exclusively audio, the writer cannot be preferred to the actor. In this sense, both Aamir and Javed are wrong. Both lose.