Chanting ‘Apna Time Aayega’ is how I kept my hopes alive, every time I thought I had nailed an appointment with Zoya Akhtar, but thanks to her busy schedule, the interview kept getting delayed. And it was only when I was sitting in front of her, in her office, did I actually feel that ‘Mera time aa gaya’. Zoya breaks into a big smile on hearing this.
In the past one month, the director has been busy as a bee. She was premiering her latest film, Gully Boy at Berlin Film Festival, she also had to prepare the film for its’ Hindi release, and on top of that, she now has a web show dropping this month on Amazon Prime. And all of this is happening under her own production company, Tiger Baby, which she started a couple of years ago with her long-time collaborator, Reema Kagti. As we start chatting about all the work she and her team have been doing for the last few years, she looks relieved that her film has done well and also brought box-office collection in big numbers.
Talking about the figures coming in, and if she is interested in how the audience reacts to her films she says, “After my first film, Luck By Chance, numbers began to interest me (smiles). It is true that till then you don’t really think about them as you are so busy wanting to make the film. After you make the film you get into the business of it. I believe only the trade guys have to be interested in the numbers. Nobody else should be interested in the numbers except the business people. I’m very happy with the film doing really well. I want as many people to watch it as possible.”
For a decade now, Akhtar has directed feature films like Luck By Chance, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dil Dhadkne Do (DDD) under Excel Entertainment’s banner – owned by her brother Farhan Akhtar and his partner, Ritesh Sidhwani. And now the ace director has branched out along with Kagti (Gully Boy is co-produced by her company and Excel Entertainment) to start their own production house. Talking about the need to start on her own, she says, “Excel is owned by Ritesh and Farhan and we work with them, but at a certain point, as a writer-director, you have to get into a space where you start owning your work. And as an artiste, when you are comfortable producing and championing artists and work you like, you should do it. Yes, it was an ambitious start with two projects in two different mediums, because it took all of our time. Yes, it was ambitious because we worked non-stop. We believe once you start, you start. You can’t be half here and half there. Also it made sense because both of these were mediums in which we wanted to work and we just jumped in.”
The germ of Gully Boy came to Zoya from her editor Anand Subaya, who was editing DDD back in 2014. Anand showed Zoya a video of Naezy’s song ‘Aafat’ and that caught her attention. She began attending gigs and hanging out with rappers to get to know more about the underground hip-hop movement in the city. The last time Ranveer Singh and Zoya Akhtar came together, was for DDD, but with Gully Boy the duo delivered something drastically different. Zoya is definitely someone who has been able to show a new side of Ranveer in both her films. “I want to do different things, so it starts with what I want to put out there, and then the cast comes in. So the process is not like, take Ranveer and then mould him, or, I want to mould him, so what can I do with him. Do I think he is an actor with a gigantic bandwidth? Yes. Can he morph himself? Yes. He has a chameleon-like quality and he has deep empathy, which means he can fall into many roles. Since DDD had an ensemble cast, he was a little more relaxed. But during Gully Boy, we shot every day, so he worked harder.”
Zoya teamed up with Alia Bhatt for the very first and time and she tells me that she can’t wait to work with her again. “Alia is very special. She has an innate understanding of story, of human beings, of characters, and has a very high emotional IQ, and is very invested in her craft. She is naturally gifted but she also does her homework very diligently. She takes nothing for granted, is pleasant on the sets and I find her presence very calming.”
Gully Boy has received audience and critical acclaim around the world. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and received amazing reviews. “I wanted to send the film to festivals and there were only two film festivals that were fitting our timeline, and those were Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival. We wouldn’t have been ready for Sundance, so Berlin was the only option left. They liked it and picked it up. The main idea is that, with Tiger Baby, we want to make mainstream Indian films for the world audience, so the way to do that is by putting our work out there. Film festivals are an amazing platform to get out there to show your work, meet people and see work that is coming out of India on such a large scale.”
Zoya’s first web show, Made in Heaven revolves around two wedding planners, Tara and Karan, who are based in New Delhi. The series will showcase the creators’ take on big fat Indian weddings. The idea for the show came from a common friend of Zoya and Reema who works in the wedding planning industry. “We found that world to be very fascinating. Weddings in India are a melting pot of so many things like family, generation traditions, modernity – it is one big khichdi. It is also one of the biggest celebrations in the country and visually very beautiful. We wanted to do a show in this space, so we began talking about it and now we are here. It is our take on society at large and also human behaviour.”
One might be surprised to not see Reema Kagti’s name as one of the directors of the show, but that was because she was shooting for Gold at the same time, Zoya reveals. “Reema and I were supposed to direct one episode each but it seems that Amazon Prime happens to be very lucky for us. When we signed the show, our respective films got green lit and I had to shoot Reema’s episode as well, but she was a part of writing and creating the entire show, so it was fine.” The other episodes have been directed by Nitya Mehra, Alankrita Shrivastava and Prashant Nair. She also revealed that at some level, her maternal instinct did kick in as she was letting other directors work on her baby. But at the end of the day, she found trust in everyone involved in the show and knew that the show was in safe hands. “Nitya was the show runner and she was running it literally from the beginning. Alankrita is really good and she is a writer of the show, so if there is anyone who knows the characters really well it is her. Prashant came in later. He was new and fresh, and it was nice to get a male point of view, so it was interesting to work with him. At no point did we feel we didn’t know the people who were working on our show. Also I believe if one person had directed the entire show, then the quality of the show wouldn’t have been maintained.”
And did she change her process while directing the web show from her film? “Cinematically, the process was the same, but the only difference was the number of pages we shot in day and it was a lot. While shooting films, you have a certain luxury of time.”
Indian webs shows are still in an exploration stage as compared to what the West has seen and, in fact, a common complaint is that a lot of makers use sex and abusive language just for the heck of it, rather than serving a purpose to the overall narrative. Inside Edge and Mirzapur, both produced by Excel, have faced this accusation. How does she react to that? “I’ve only seen two Indian webs shows, Sacred Games and Mirzapur, and I liked both of them. I think either you get on board with something or you don’t. Either it sucks you in or it doesn’t. And if it feels false, I don’t watch it. There is a lot in the world to watch. Once you are sucked in, you don’t go into why did they do this or that. You either bite into it or not. If I’m not going to bite it, it won’t resonate with me and then I can’t watch ten hours of it.”