Why Bollywood star Farhan Akhtar loves being an independent music artist

The acclaimed actor and director recently released his solo English album Echoes

Farhan Akhtar performs at the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai, playing songs from his films. Photo: Blu Blood Middle East
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When not busy starring in and directing big budget Bollywood films, Farhan Akhtar is on the road with his band.

Fans felt the enthusiasm on Saturday when the Indian singer and actor performed to a packed crowd at Dubai’s Coca-Cola Arena, which featured two decades' worth of songs from films and a few Bollywood classics.

Taking the stage for a concert is a totally different thrill to being in front of the camera, Akhtar tells The National.

"I absolutely love it and it has been a real joy to do this ever since forming the band 10 years ago," he says. "We have played all around India and we went to Dubai a couple of times and for me it is that direct connection to the audience that I love.

“We are all in the moment together and just reliving the memories of these films together. And sometimes these memories extend beyond the music in these films because they may remind people of beautiful moments they shared in their private lives."

That mix of immediate crowd energy and the powerfully nostalgic songs make Akhtar’s music career as important as his film work.

These two strands have rarely been far apart.

Akhtar was a lyricist for several Bollywood films, including the 2004 comedy Bride and Prejudice and the 2006 Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster Don – The Chase Begins Again, which he also directed, before making his own acting debut with 2008's Rock On!!.

Following the experiences of a reunited Mumbai-based grunge rock band, Rock On!! was an ideal vehicle for Akhtar's talents. Not only did he write and star in the film, he also won Best Male Playback Singer and Best Male Debut at the 2008 Filmfare Awards for his efforts.

While Rock On!! and 2016 sequel Rock On 2 are full of electric musical performances, Akhtar says it’s not the same as performing the songs live.

“When you are working on the film you are never fully singing the song at the same time," he says. "Sometimes, it is only two or four lines of the song before you move on to the next shot.

“You spend two to three days shooting a song that has a running time of about four minutes.”

Akhtar says the concert experience allowed him to appreciate the song-writing craftsmanship of Bollywood composers.

His setlist is full of works created by some of the industry’s biggest song-writing names, such as the trio Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy, responsible for Rock On!! hits Socha Hai and Tum Ho Toh, and the revered lyricist Javed Akhtar – his father.

"When you are on stage it is really just all about songs. That is your focus because there are not 500 dancers behind me," Akhtar says. “For me, it's just seven guys on stage with our hearts wide open.

An intriguing note from Akhtar's Dubai show was that he didn't play songs from his 2019 solo album Echoes.

Independently produced, the broody collection of English language songs were recorded in Milan and produced by Grammy Award winner Tommaso Colliva, who has worked with musicians such as of Muse and Damon Albarn.

Akhtar remains fiercely proud of the release, which is available on streaming platforms under his first name – Farhan.

"I recorded it in Italy and released it from a small label in the UK and it was great to have that experience," he says. "It's a reminder that not everything is easy and that I am not entitled to automatically release an album that sells a million copies.

“I wanted that experience and to understand what it is to be an independent artist that's trying to make it.”

"I am planning a US tour next year where we will do a predominately Hindi set in arenas and I am speaking to my management to find me a small bar where I can play music from Echoes," he says.

Such a move could result in a more intimate UAE concert experience should Akhtar return.

"While it would be a dream to play my English music in an arena, I have to be respectful of the fact that it is a work in progress. I am also grateful for every time someone shares it because you never know where it can go."

Updated: September 04, 2023, 2:41 PM