A couple of weeks ago, I started noticing posters all over the place for some band called Farhan Live, announcing sizeable concerts across the country. When it also rushed into my Facebook feed, promoted tweets, and the app I use to book movie tickets, I made an effort to squint into what suddenly looked remarkably like actor-director’s Farhan Akhtar’s face.
What? Wasn't that just a Rock On!! publicity stunt? Come on, came the replies when I checked back with people who know these things, he’s been at this for years!
Ha ha… wait, seriously?
Look, I love this man. His directorial debut in 2001 really turned some things around in Bollywood with one of the first noticeably normal-feeling, more realistically portrayed movies in forever, Dil Chahta Hai — much to the delight of urban audiences otherwise fed up of having to drug themselves to get through the implausible melodrama they had no choice but to watch every weekend.
He has since acted in several movies in fairly interesting roles; when he took on Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, he was in beast mode with his dedication to the thing. Akhtar also often leverages his well-earned celebrity to speak up and spread awareness about issues that need it like gender equality, wage gaps in the film industry, and women’s safety and empowerment.
He founded a social campaign called Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD), was the first man to be appointed UN Women Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia, and even his Wikipedia page has a photograph of (um) “Akhtar at a tree planting event”.
He’s delightfully easy on the eye, perfectly lovely in person, and while some people think his voice sounds like it’s been extracted from a sugarcane juice machine, that delicious raspy tone really unbalances the hell out of my hormones.
So this is not at all an attack on who Akhtar is, but an observation that he cannot seriously carry a tune outside a carefully supervised studio. I can’t understand why no one’s telling him that.
In 2008, Abhishek Kapoor’s Rock On!! — in which Akhtar debuted as an actor and started all this singing stuff — didn’t set fire to the box office, but it scored some critical acclaim. Some of us self-important, self-appointed guardians of the genre were in disagreement with the “rock musical drama”’s idea of what classifies as “rock”, but the movie wasn’t unbearable.
Then something got lost in translation, or he was roofied long enough, for Akhtar to think he should take his pretend-band out of the 70 mm playground and get this show on the road. (But your “band” was called Magik! Your “setlist” was some mighty fine nonsense thrown together by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. How could you take any of that seriously?)
Those who didn't like the idea, ignored this self-indulgent sidebar. Then this arrived on Twitter the other day, and mass-infuriated everybody:
“Et tu, ROLLING STONE?” went the Outrage Of The Day. “On your 8th anniversary COVER?!”
These were not bored trolls, they were people struggling to believe that things had come to this. Once upon a time, Rolling Stone the world over was the authority on everything music; making it to the cover was like striking gold for artists and bands, all of whom were desperate for that glory.
But for a while now, its credibility has been questioned. I’d like to argue that it doesn’t help that the “legends” are all dying at warp speed, leaving us to redefine the word and make do with what we have (Coldplay, Kanye), so of course audiophiles will frequently have a problem with who’s making the cover, and why they’re famous. But isn’t that less the magazine’s fault, and more a reflection of our own increasing acceptance of, and morbid fascination with, mediocrity?
It’s the same with our favourite frenemies, Bollywood actors. Autotune has helped everyone from Shah Rukh, Aamir and Big and Junior B, to prison besties Salman and Sanju, even passing fancies Rakhi Sawant and Mallika Sherawat, to check the rockstar dream off their bucket lists. Were they deluded enough to get into an actual tour bus and remove all doubt about the limitations of their actual talent?
No. But if they did, it’d be the same story — a majority of their fans/audience would be so insanely star struck that any of the above mentioned could knit a sweater on a stage and they’d still get a standing ovation, and more sold out shows.
The thing is, even if college crowds (which, according to Akhtar’s Facebook page, consist of his “true fans”) are too high to notice at the time, people have cellphones now, man. And the stuff they save on it has a way of trundling into your work day when you’re least expecting it. It’ll suddenly start autoplaying while you're scrolling through for the 10 Best Beach Getaways, for example, and ruin your day because you couldn’t help but watch the damn thing and now you have to waterboard your intern instead.
This is a fair reaction. As if the otherwise respectable Javed Akhtar’s lyrics in Rock On!! weren’t a bad enough joke on his son (present mili much ek ghadi, pyaari thi mujhe badi, na na na x 1800/ do one day match ke passes, mere naye naye sunglasses), here’s something from Farhan Live:
"We all are on the good goodside (goodside)/ We all are on the good goodside (goodside)/ We all are on the good goodside (goodside)/ You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one/ Lennon mused over his piano/ As he sat in the sun…"
What in good god’s name is he going on about? Someone’s trying to tell me a really sweet story about them being inspired by or borrowed from his daughter’s painting or something as I’m writing this and yes, wow, that’s just wonderful… but unless he’s planning on performing with cue cards to explain the unnecessary etymology of this one line looped over and over again, quit while you’re ahead?
Or not. If the videos of his live shows and the comments on his YouTube channel are anything to go by, enough people love him. Or it’s the closest they’re ever going to get to him in real life. Or they really do love his performances, I can’t tell.
The people grumbling about it on social media this past week are annoyed because Akhtar is not the rockstar they think they deserve. But unless we stop being coy about honestly critiquing the indie music and artists everyone so valiantly fights for when we suddenly realise what the alternative is, he’s a sample of what we’ve got. At a recent concert, he even signed off with this friendly threat: “I will be back again. And again. And again.” Which sounds a bit like we’re the ones being mocked.
If I’ve fallen for a good old promotional gimmick, and turns out this is just part of the build-up to Rock On!! 2 (slated for a November release, so this is one hell of a build-up), then ha-ha, good one, wanna hear my knock-knock joke now? But if this is the kind of thing that Bono is going to think of when he thinks of rock bands in India because the rest of it will never make it to Priyanka Chopra’s radar, then we have a problem.
And Rolling Stone might as well just put Baba Sehgal on their cover and get it over with.