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TED Talks India

Javed Akhtar: The gift of words

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"Do you know what I mean?" Legendary poet, lyricist and screenwriter Javed Akhtar asks why we seem to be losing our power to use words -- and inspires us to better understand and communicate with one another using this near-magical tool that carries our culture across generations. (In Hindi with English subtitles)

- Poet, lyricist, screenwriter
Javed Akhtar is an eminent Indian film scriptwriter, lyricist and poet, whose lineage can be traced back to seven generations of renowned Urdu writers, poets and freedom fighters. Full bio

Shah Rukh Khan: The speaker
you are about to meet is
00:12
someone who knows and understands
the value of words like no one else does.
00:16
In his writing career
spanning over four decades,
00:23
this man has chosen words
with beauty and versatility,
00:27
like a flower springing to life ...
00:31
like Mr. Bachchan’s memorable punches ...
00:34
(Laughter)
00:37
like a best-selling book of Urdu poetry ...
00:39
like well ... what do I say,
00:42
only Javed Akhtar Sahab.
00:43
(Applause)
00:45
Please welcome onstage,
the one and only Javed Akhtar Sahab.
00:49
(Cheers and applause)
00:53
Javed Akhtar: Friends, this topic --
the power of words --
01:05
is an interesting one,
and one that's very close to my heart.
01:08
It’s strange
01:10
how we often overlook things
that are so close to us, near us.
01:12
How many people question,
"Why is air transparent?"
01:17
Or, "Why is water wet?"
01:20
How many think about
what is it that has passed?
01:23
Time has passed. What came?
What went away?
01:26
How many of us wonder?
01:28
Similarly ...
01:30
the words that we speak and hear all day,
01:31
how many times have we really thought,
"What exactly are these words?"
01:36
Words are a strange thing.
01:39
You once saw
01:41
an animal and decided it’s a "cat."
01:43
But cat is a sound.
01:48
This cat has nothing
to do with the animal.
01:50
But I have decided it’s a cat.
01:52
So a cat it is.
01:55
So I gave the sound
the identity of this animal.
01:56
After that I made a semicircle,
02:00
a pyramid, cut into half,
02:03
then a straight line,
then another below it, and wrote: "cat."
02:05
In these criss-crossed lines,
I filled a sound
02:10
and into that sound, a meaning.
02:12
Now like with this cat,
02:15
even with love, anger, a thought,
02:16
an idea, pain, suffering,
happiness, surprise,
02:20
everything has been linked with a sound.
02:26
And then sounds were fit
into some criss-crossed lines
02:29
that we call a script.
02:32
So three things that had nothing in common
02:35
were joined by us to create a word.
02:38
A sound that is actually gibberish
has been added onto it.
02:41
And the lines, crooked lines,
they formed a word.
02:46
Incredible!
02:51
And I have come to believe that with time,
these words have become like human beings.
02:52
A man is known by the company he keeps.
02:58
Similarly, with words,
03:02
what is the company it has been keeping?
03:04
What are the other words
being used with it?
03:06
For an average noun
or an average verb, an average mind
03:08
can quickly create reference.
03:14
Where did they hear it? See it?
03:16
What does it remind them of?
03:18
What is its connection?
When was it last used in conversation?
03:20
What has been my experience with it?
03:23
A host of memories appear
when you hear a word you remember.
03:27
And a good writer or orator is one
03:29
who knows that when
he uses a certain word,
03:31
an average mind will associate it
with a certain reference,
03:35
specific memories will be evoked.
03:38
Then he can create a world around a word.
03:41
What is the power of a word?
03:46
Be it a mother’s lullaby,
03:49
a politician’s speech,
03:51
love letters from your beloved,
03:53
or a complaint against someone,
03:58
a protest call ...
04:00
anger, sadness, happiness,
surprise, belonging, alienation
04:03
anything in the world,
04:09
any feeling in the world,
any emotion, any reaction,
04:10
until it is expressed in a word,
04:15
it will not have any meaning for you,
04:18
forget getting across to anyone else.
04:20
Words are not thoughts,
04:23
just like bricks are not homes.
04:26
But houses are made with bricks.
04:29
If you have less bricks,
you will make a small house.
04:32
The more words you have,
04:37
the clearer your thoughts,
04:40
and the more clearly you can convey them.
04:43
Nowadays I often hear,
especially from young ones,
04:46
“You know what I mean?"
04:49
No, I don't know what you mean.
04:51
(Laughter)
04:53
“You know what I mean,”
is running out of words.
04:55
Everything is now moving fast
04:59
so communication has to be fast as well.
05:02
But the tragedy is
05:04
that we have attained this speed
at the cost of depth of words.
05:08
We want to speak faster,
05:13
so everything is faster,
05:16
so the language is also faster,
hence communication is faster.
05:19
But this speed has affected depth.
05:22
Which means that forget
about other people,
05:25
just look at yourself.
05:28
You are not being able
to articulate your own feelings,
05:30
thoughts or emotions
in a detailed manner or clearly.
05:34
And these words, as long as words exist,
05:39
they aren’t there just for a meaning.
05:43
They are also a conveyer belt
05:45
of language, words.
05:47
They reflect your culture,
05:49
your traditions, your inheritance,
05:50
your cultural wealth accumulated
05:54
over generations, all of that
is carried forward with words.
05:56
If you cut a man off from some words,
you cut him off from a culture, a history.
06:00
This is exactly what is happening
with us today.
06:07
So language is a very powerful thing.
06:09
Words are extremely powerful.
06:12
But by themselves,
they are neither good nor bad.
06:14
If we start loving words
06:17
and understand their power,
06:20
we would realize
06:23
that everything that happens
in the world is because of words.
06:24
Or there would be nothing
between us and the rest of the creatures,
06:26
the rest of the animals,
although we too are animals.
06:30
The only difference is that
we can pass on, through our words,
06:32
our experience, our learning
and our knowledge to the next generation.
06:37
So we don’t only live on instinct
06:46
but our slowly accumulated experience
06:48
and knowledge over generations
is passed on to the next.
06:53
Through what? Through words.
06:55
And if we didn’t have these words
06:58
our advantage is gradually over
07:00
other species would diminish over time.
07:04
We advanced only because we have language.
07:07
And if we didn’t have that
07:12
we wouldn’t be here.
07:14
We would be right where we started.
07:16
So what does language mean?
07:18
Words!
07:20
So learn to respect words.
07:21
Love them.
07:23
Befriend them.
07:25
Listen to them attentively.
07:27
And speak attentively.
07:29
Thank you!
07:31
(Applause)
07:31
SRK: Thanks a lot, Javed Sahab,
07:44
for coming here today
07:45
and sharing such wonderful things with us.
07:46
I have known Javed Sahab since
I came to Mumbai about 25 years ago.
07:49
I was really young then.
07:52
JA: Yes. You are still very young, Sir.
07:54
(Laughter)
07:55
SRK: But I have got a lot of my education,
07:56
my ideologies and many more
things from Javed Sahab.
08:01
I’ll share a small incident.
08:05
He got angry with us
08:07
while working on a film.
08:09
He sometimes gets angry
08:10
when unlettered people
like us give him suggestions
08:11
that maybe we could use
this word or that instead.
08:16
So our film was called
08:17
"Kuch Kuch Hota Hai."
08:18
(Cheers)
08:19
And he did not like the title at all.
08:23
So once when he was really mad at us kids,
08:25
who are like his kids even now,
08:29
he retorted:
08:32
"Now my heart remains
neither awake nor rests.
08:33
What do I do?
Oh! I feel something strange.
08:36
Is that what you want?"
08:39
In fact the entire song, all the words,
08:43
were thrown at us by Javed Sahab in anger.
08:46
And that song went on to become
extremely popular.
08:48
So even when Javed Sahab
throws out words in anger,
08:52
they turn into golden words.
08:53
That’s his gift.
08:55
(Cheers)
08:56
JA: Well, the incident that
Shah Rukh Sahab shared is indeed true.
09:00
So on hearing this title,
09:04
"'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai,"
09:06
I was shocked.
09:07
I felt it wasn’t dignified enough.
09:09
(Laughter)
09:12
Though to be honest,
09:14
I regret leaving such
a super hit film over its title.
09:16
So I left the film.
09:21
Later I also felt a little embarrassed,
09:22
and he too felt bad.
09:25
So we decided to let bygones be
bygones and work on some other film.
09:26
Hence, the film
09:30
"Kal Ho Naa Ho."
09:33
I told him that everything
else is still fine
09:35
but I owe you two kuchs.
09:37
Two kuchs.
09:39
(Laughter)
09:41
So I’ll write a song
and return these two to you.
09:42
I wrote a song specially
for this reason called
09:45
"Kuch to hua hai, kuch ho gaya hai."
09:47
(Cheers and applause)
09:49
and he returned his two.
09:52
(Applause)
09:53
Ladies and gentlemen, big
round of applause for Javed Akhtar Sahab.
09:54
(Applause)
09:58
Translated by Jenny Lam-Chowdhury
Reviewed by Brian Greene

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About the speaker:

Javed Akhtar - Poet, lyricist, screenwriter
Javed Akhtar is an eminent Indian film scriptwriter, lyricist and poet, whose lineage can be traced back to seven generations of renowned Urdu writers, poets and freedom fighters.

Why you should listen

A respected social commentator and activist admired for his secular, liberal and progressive values, Javed Akhtar has written a large number of poems against communalism, social injustice, national integration, and for women’s rights.

His publications include his first poetry collection, Tarkash, currently in its 11th edition in Hindi and 7th in Urdu. It has been translated into English, French and a range of Indian regional languages. According to a recent survey done by a publisher’s organization, it is the most sold book of verses in the last 60 years in India. His other books Talking Films and Talking Songs are hailed as some of the most definitive works on Indian cinema.

More profile about the speaker
Javed Akhtar | Speaker | TED.com