Profile: Filmmaker Zoya Akhtar

An adjective that comes to mind while talking about filmmaker Zoya Akhtar is ‘confident’. She is confident, and fiercely so. But the 42-year-old is not ready to go soft on even herself. “A lot of people tell me this when they actually want to tell me that I am arrogant,” says Zoya, who is just out with her much-anticipated film, the multi-starrer family drama Dil Dhadakne Do. And, she feels there is nothing wrong in being so, too.

“I survived in this industry because of my arrogance,” she says. “You need the nerve to disagree with established people and stick to your vision. Confidence doesn’t help you with that, you need to be arrogant and stubborn.”

Don’t dismiss this as the words of a rich, haughty industry kid, because unlike many of her peers, Zoya was the one who seemingly worked the hardest to find a breakthrough in tinsel town. Born as the elder daughter of acclaimed and award-winning scriptwriters Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani, she had the option of working with absolutely anyone from the industry.

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There was a strong foundation built by her parents’ illustrious careers and the biggies were all just a phone call away. But somewhere in the 80s, when she wanted to seriously consider films as a career option, she was confused. “As a family, we saw a lot of films,” says Zoya. “My mother is a collector of films and we were exposed to everything under the sun — be it musicals, Hindi films, foreign films, everything! But the Hindi films that were coming out in the 80s were so bad that I had no clue how I would be a part of them.” It was Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay that became a turning point in her life. “I fell in love with it. It was a film about my city, but about people belonging to a milieu I wasn’t familiar with,” says Zoya. “That was when I realised that even films like these could be made in India.”

Ups & downs

Soon after college, at 19, she joined adman Adi Pocha as a copywriter, and two years later, she found herself in Mira’s team as an assistant for her film Kama Sutra. She followed this up with a film production degree from NYU and went on to assist independent filmmakers like Dev Benegal, Kaizaad Gustad and her own brother Farhan Akhtar in his most successful debut film Dil Chahta Hai. Despite having ample experience, when it came to making her own film, Zoya had to wait for a painful seven years. “It was a low period in my life because Luck By Chance wasn’t taking off.

I thought nobody got it when they told me it wasn’t commercial, but once I came out of the whole experience, I knew there were right at some level,” she says. The film, which centred around the lives of two struggling actors, was a satire on the Hindi film industry and had almost all the big names making friendly appearances. Although it did not fare well at the box-office, the film was much praised by critics. “That is one reason I don’t regret having made the film, because it was made exactly the way I wanted it to be and there were at least a few who appreciated it,” says Zoya.

Going commercial

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Luck By Chance was also her most non-commercial film, as with every next release of hers, the star power and the budget has grown vastly. Her second, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), in which three friends find themselves during a bachelor trip across Spain, and her latest Dil Dhadakne Do (DDD), which has a Punjabi family, the Mehras, on a luxury cruise, are all big-budget vehicles. So, is this one of the lessons she learnt then, to spice her films up with more ‘mainstream’ elements? “Both no and yes,” she says. “First of all, I have to say that for all my films’ stories come first. I think of characters and a story, and the location is only secondary. For both these films, the road trip and the cruise were used more as plot devices to get the story moving. The idea was to create a way to bring these characters together. In ZNMD, the bachelor trip became the obvious choice and the same with DDD. Now, if I am trying to tell a story about an affluent Punjabi family, it would be unnatural to put them on anything less than a luxury cruise.”

Zoya, however, admits that she has become more open to including certain elements in her films to make them more ‘accessible’ to her audience. “I was surprised when I met people who told me they didn’t understand Luck By Chance,” she says, with a laugh. “Now, I had to think of such people, too, when I wrote my next films.” She shares how she wasn’t keen on placing a song at the end credits of ZNMD, but did so after being coaxed by her father, brother and schoolmate-cum-producer Ritesh Sidhwani. “They all were of the opinion that the audience would be confused if I just showed the boys running and ended it with a black screen,” says Zoya. “When even my dad told me that the audience would think they might have died, I decided to put in the song, which shows exactly where these guys ended up in life after the trip.”

Making a multi-starrer

What has remained unchanged, however, for her films, is the struggle to find a cast. Even DDD took long to end up with the present cast that includes Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma and Farhan Akhtar in the lead. “I am extremely happy with all the 26 actors I worked with in the film. They brought in a lot of positive energy,” she says. “It is not easy to shoot with so many people on a cruise. They all gave their best and had a clear and healthy understanding that the film was bigger than their egos. None of them came in with a personal agenda and I was honest with them and gave all of them the creative space they needed.”

Dil Dhadakne Do brings the ‘dysfunctional’ Mehra family together to deal with their problems and quirks at sea. “The cruise is like a stand-in for what every family goes through,” says Zoya, who has co-written the film with long-time collaborator and best friend Reema Kagti. “Not many of us get along with the family we are born into, but they are the ones whom we are closest to, are most vulnerable with and who shape us the most. And, I don’t think the Mehras are dysfunctional in the Indian sense. They are just another ‘normal’ Indian family.” Drawing comparisons to her own family, she says, that there were times that she didn’t get along with her father and brother. “We all have these phases and then you naturally come out of them,” says Zoya. “But without them I wouldn’t be what I am today. I am closest to my mother and my brother Farhan, because they are the most non-judgemental people I have ever met.”

And, as for DDD, the only thing she can do now is to hope that people like it, she says. “Irrespective of the business a film does, it is a special feeling when people come up to me to say that they could relate to the characters and felt good about the film,” says Zoya. “This doesn’t mean I don’t care about box-office. How much ever you try to deny it, moviemaking in our country is a business. I do not want to be the filmmaker who cannot recover my producer’s money or my actors’ trust!”

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