Désiree Schneider 18th February 2019
Farhan Akhtar, Bollywood actor and feminist, came to the UK to launch his debut album Echoes and to continue his fight against atrocities faced by women and to spread gender equality and end violence. Akhtar, who started out as a directorial assistant quickly became a bonafide director, actor and singer. After conquering Bollywood, Akhtar now has the patriarchy in his sights.
A real mard (मर्द) – meaning “man” in Hindi — has to have respect for women. That is what Akhtar, who is the also executive producer of new Amazon Prime original thriller Mirzapur, believes — and it’s the reason why he wants young men to rethink their own value system.
“[Growing up] concept of masculinity didn’t involve things like gender equality or equal opportunity. That is something you should consider when you are growing up. You should know what it means calling yourself a man and it should include these qualities and these rights, and to respect women,” Akhtar tells The Overtake.
#MeToo in Bollywood
One year after the #MeToo movement triggered severe changes in Hollywood, it has gained momentum in India, traditionally a deeply patriarchal society. Akhtar — one of only two male UN Women Goodwill ambassadors — became one of the strongest voices standing up for equality and women’s empowerment in India. He has used his influence and fame in India to make changes in the film industry.
The first sparks of the debate in India started when female actor Tanushree Dutta claimed that male actor Nana Patekar behaved inappropriately towards her on the film set in 2008. Dutta alleges Patekar demanded intimate dance steps, even though Dutta said that she felt uncomfortable. Akhtar became one of the first people to openly voice support for Dutta, telling The Overtake: “It was important to encourage that woman so that more and more women could speak up.”
“Ever since then, there have been many revelations, whether it has been film directors or actors or whether it was music directors. There is a definite change now taking place in the wake of everything that has happened,” notes the Rock On!! actor.
He explains the Indian film industry now attempts to make sure that there are guidelines in every single production company, worker organisation and union. Meaning in the case of any sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour, there would be “a proper channel that could be followed by the person who is raped or who has suffered that kind of an episode”.
Akhtar hopes that this will be implemented by all and that it this will discourage people to take advantage of certain situations in their job. Akhtar’s aim is to act as an amplifier for the voices of women. “If [Dutta’s] voice would have not been heard, every voice would have been silenced and lost in the noise. I don’t know how other women would have felt brave enough to come out.”
In 2013, Akhtar started the social campaign Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD) to raise awareness against sexual assault and discrimination against women.
“My intention with MARD was actually to reach out to young men. It is not only a problem women need to deal with because the perpetrators who mistakenly enforced these crimes and discriminations are men. So, if we [men] don’t get involved in solution seeking, I don’t think the problem is gonna end.”
In the short film She, which was released last year, MARD portrays the harassing and violent situation Indian women have to face on a daily basis and how ignorant of the problems men can be.
Together with the likes of Harry Belafonte, Ryan Gosling, and Will Smith, Farhan Akhtar is one of the few male celebrities that are vocal about the fight for gender equality. He says that “living in a predominantly patriarchal society” is the biggest obstacle he has ever faced as a male feminist.
“I have grown up in a family with extremely strong women, very independent women, with self-respecting women who have careers for themselves and have worked really hard for those careers.
“And when I see the happiness, the joy, the satisfaction that brings a person, to be able to live their lives in a way that they choose to live it, and when you realise that there are so many women who do not have the choice — just because they are born female — that is something that is really makes me want to make sure that women have the opportunity to fulfil her ambition, her dream. To be that woman that she wants.”
A lot of times those choices are not really left up to the woman. It is decided for them
Akhtar’s sister Zoya Akhtar is a Bollywood director. She made her directorial debut in 2009 with Luck By Chance, starring her brother. In 2011, she directed Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which turned out to be a huge box office success which was well received by critics and won her the Filmfare Award for Best Director.
Zoya Akhtar’s next directorial venture is a film about a young rapper from Mumbai titled Gully Boy, which came out a few days ago and stars Indian actors Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt.
To commemorate the film’s release, Farhan wants to create awareness for the malfunctions of a patriarchal society. He wants to keep everyone in a continuous conversation questioning themselves and their position and their values to “improve the human condition”. Especially in such a strong patriarchy as in India where it is common that the husband uses marriage to obtain property and women find themselves forced into servitude and experience public and domestic harassment, intimidation and sexual abuse.
“Because you are born a woman, there is a pre-disposition within the family that this is the set path that one would have to follow. So, whether it is about getting married, having children. A lot of times those choices are not really left up to the woman. It is decided for them.”
Choice is a human right
“These choices, which are inherently human choices and every single individual should have for themselves, those choices are taken away,” explains Akhtar. “[Feminism] is about giving women the right of freedom to choose what happens in their lives — as for their wish and as for their desire — as opposed to something that is already decided.”
The Bollywood actor fights against gender inequalities in South East Asia as UN woman ambassador alongside the likes of Emma Watson, and as a HeForShe advocate on a national level. But the biggest impact he makes is on his social media accounts and his day to day life, with his non-conformist attitude and disregard for conventions.
After his long and successful career as film actor and producer, Akhtar has decided to convey and share his message of female empowerment through music because “it is more personal” and “you cannot hide behind an actor or the script”. In 2016 he composed and released a song called We All Are On The Goodside for the International Women’s Day. Now his own, first album Echoes is soon to be released in February.
Akhtar has already leaked two songs, Seagull and Why Couldn’t It Be Me, as tasters of his new album, with Why Couldn’t It Be Me being an explicit call against violence.
The song is inspired by an article on the Peshawar attack in 2014 in which the Taliban stormed into an army school and shot 200 children. It tells the story of a boy who pretends to be sick to stay home from school and thus survives the massacre.
The actor says that there have been a lot of things going on in his life during the last couple of years. The album helped him to focus and process everything that has happened: “I think that most people who know me will know that [the album] is very honest. It’s talking about love, it’s talking about loss, it’s talking about moving on. It’s talking about explaining things for what we are and it’s talking about giving time to things you may feel guilty about. It is talking about basic human emotions and feeling, and I hope people can relate to it.”
Akhtar admits that it makes him proud when his work has a positive impact on others. “I like when people feel good about the work that I do. When they like the work I do, when they feel moved, inspired or motivated,” he says.
But nothing makes him prouder than his two daughters Shakya and Akira who impress him the most of all people. “Frankly that may sound a little bit biased but I am very impressed by my daughters. At the moment they are growing up to some extremely strong and independent woman and that makes me proud.”
Something that he wishes every girl could do.
Désiree Schneider 18th February 2019