Songs are no longer songs, they've become item numbers: Javed Akhtar

Published February 22, 2015
Javed Akhtar / Photos by the writer
Javed Akhtar / Photos by the writer

The theme of this Year’s Jaipur Literature Festival in India was kavita (poetry) in films. One of the main opening sessions featured the witty and uber-talented poet, lyricist and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar, speaking on Gaate jaye banjara: film songs — Urdu, Hindi, Hindustani with Shabana Azmi and Waheeda Rehman seated in the front row, the former sounding off at every opportunity she got.

Reminiscing about the days of yore when there were as many as 50 songs in the first Indian film, Akhtar mentioned with pride that India has produced the best lyricists in the world.

With his characteristic spontaneity he pointed out that “good lyrics are never forgotten” and asked the packed venue “Who doesn’t know the song Yeh raat, yeh chandni phir kahan” to which only two youngsters sheepishly raised their hands.

Comparing today’s music to brainless, good-looking people he added, “You remember good-looking people only if they are not boring and stupid,” and added, “I see the good-looking people haven’t clapped!”

Remembering evergreen songs like Dost dost na raha and Janay woh kaisay loag thay jinn ke, he lamented, “Ab songs songs nahi rahay, item songs ho gai hain!” (Songs are no longer songs, they have become item numbers).


Critical of the general response to music in poor taste, Akhtar lashed out, “The problem is we now lack morality — that is why we do not protest against vulgarity. Unless we collectively make an effort to reject bad music, marketing agencies will continue to promote bawdy lyrics.” On the other hand, he appreciated the music in Pakistan by saying, “Since the Pakistani film industry is not larger than life, unlike its counterparts here or in Hollywood, their non-film music has been thriving.”


He added, “Tunes and situations on which they are picturised are no longer conducive to remembering the lyrics; only a sensible song will be remembered in the long run.

“Once, homilies, simple philosophies and values were promoted in ditties, such as Jeena issi ka naam hai, which stayed with you forever.

Shabana Azmi (C) and Salima Hashmi (R) with other guests at the JLF
Shabana Azmi (C) and Salima Hashmi (R) with other guests at the JLF

“Even if someone holds a gun to my head, I would not write lyrics like Choli ke peechay kya hai and Gandi baat! If as an audience you can protest against a film that hurts your religious sentiments, you ought to also protest against vulgarity and bad writing.”

When someone from the audience asked how the current music scenario could be improved upon, he quipped,

“Once Faiz Sahib had come over and someone requested him to recite his poetry. When he obliged, one of the listeners commented, ‘I wish Faiz Sahib could recite as well as he writes’ to which he instantly responded, ‘Aray bhai, sub hum hi karain gay? Kuch aap bhi kar lo’!” (Brother, will I have to do everything or will you also do something?).

Interestingly enough Akhtar does not feel that commercialism is responsible for the decline in the quality of music. He cited the example of Michaelangelo who had been commissioned a ceiling for a mural and did a brilliant job with it.

“Just because you are commissioned something doesn’t mean it has to be uninspired. Whether a painter or a singer or a lyricist — they have to be great at their work and enjoy high self-esteem; only then will they produce quality work. That arrogance has to be there.”

Waheeda Rehman
Waheeda Rehman

Critical of the general response to music in poor taste, Akhtar lashed out, “The problem is we now lack morality — that is why we do not protest against vulgarity. We see a seven-year-old dancing to Munni badnaam hui and no one finds anything wrong with that! Unless we collectively make an effort to reject bad music, marketing agencies will continue to promote bawdy lyrics.”

On the other hand, he appreciated the music in Pakistan by saying, “Since the Pakistani film industry is not larger than life, unlike its counterparts here or in Hollywood, their non-film music has been thriving. I too, have done an album with Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.”

At that moment, someone from the audience asked what his source of inspiration is but before he could answer, his wife, who had been constantly making wisecracks throughout shouted, “Shabana Azmi!” He responded to the question by saying, “Meri kya majal kay mein kutch aur kahoon!” (I dare not contradict).

The session ended with Javed Akhtar reciting his new poetry and announcing that Deewar — for which he has done the screenplay — had completed its 40th year that day — a testament that even in this day and age, a quality product will find its own life and you don’t need to have vulgarity to make it sell.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 22nd, 2015

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