Lakshya—which opened last Friday everywhere from Mumbai to Kuala Lumpur, London to New York—looks destined to be this year's big Bollywood blockbuster. If so, the key to its success will be the fearless and fastidious professionalism that Akhtar has brought to an industry too often doomed by technical sloppiness and a numbing lack of originality. Unusually for Bollywood, where directors often turn out five movies a year, Akhtar took more than two years to bring the script and music (both by his father, Javed) to the screen. Breaking with the norm again, Akhtar insisted on a continuous 146-day shoot so that cast and crew would focus on one project alone, instead of juggling several movies at a time, often on the same day, as is routine in the industry. And by shooting on location rather than on dodgy sets, by employing award-winning Hollywood cinematographer Christopher Popp, and by obliging the actors not to ham it up, Akhtar has produced the first mainstream Indian movie capable of holding its own against virtually any summer smash from Hollywood.
Lakshya (which roughly translates as "aim" or "focus") follows an urban slacker (Hrithik Roshan) who joins the Indian army on a whim and winds up finding heroic purpose fighting Pakistani troops who crossed into Indian-controlled Kashmir in 1999. The tragic context of a conflict that has cost up to 70,000 lives offers ample opportunity for that staple of Bollywood film: copious melodrama. Akhtar isn't so radical as to depart from such essential ingredients of the genre: song and dance, boy meets girl, and plenty of tears are all there. But everything is deftly updated. In the first of three dance sequences, for example, Roshan puts on a display of body popping and moonwalking that banishes the possibility of a self-respecting Indian male lead ever again sashaying suggestively around a pine tree. Likewise, his love interest (Preity Zinta) is an ambitious newsreader unafraid (horror!) to date other men or even (the horror! The horror!) cut her hair short.
The movie looks different, too. Popp brilliantly captures the starkness of Ladakh, the endless dustbowl valleys and vast plains of worthless desert that form Kashmir's unforgiving battlegrounds. As for the performances, Akhtar asked for, and got, very un-Bollywood and uniformly excellent understatement. Roshan, with his self-deprecating humor and subtle emotional depth, sets a new standard for the industry. "I went round to [Akhtar's] house to talk about the character just before we started shooting," says Roshan. "The meeting lasted maybe two minutes. Farhan said, 'I want you to be you. Nothing more, nothing less.' It's very honest. You don't project emotion. You're just very straight with the camera and leave the rest to the narrative and the audience's intelligence."
The constant grimace the characters wear in the mountains is certainly real. Akhtar took a cast and crew of 300 to Ladakh, where they worked and slept in temperatures of -10°C for two months.
At heights of up to 5,500 meters, they endured constant breathlessness and headaches. "It adds tremendously to the atmosphere of the film," chuckles Akhtar. "Believe me, they're really in a place they don't really want to be."
Non-Indians will find the chest-bursting patriotism of the climax a little overdone. And at 2 hours and 40 minutes, Lakshya might have benefited from some more editing. But after waiting so long for a Bollywood movie this fresh and ambitious, it's easy to forgive a few victory reels.