Zoya Akhtar: It is a big win for us

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on September 27, 2019

Going places: While Gully Boy is going to the Oscars, Lust Stories, in which Zoya Akhtar had directed a segment, was nominated for the Emmys

Zoya Akhtar on finding the stories that have got her an Oscar entry and Emmy nomination

Zoya Akhtar’s films inhabit diverse worlds. Take Gully Boy — India’s official entry to the Oscars. The film is steeped in Mumbai’s street rap culture, just as, on the other end of the spectrum, the 2019 web series Made in Heaven deals with the intrigue that defines India’s big fat weddings. Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) is about a rich and dysfunctional family, and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara about three men — old friends — bonding on a holiday. But while the Hrithik Roshan film of 2011 may have catapulted her to success, it is the 2019 blockbuster Ranveer Singh-starrer about a Mumbai rapper that’s given her graph a year-long bull run — and the foothold into the Oscars.

Co-written by Akhtar and Reema Kagti, Gully Boy is loosely based on the life of Naezy, a homegrown rapper from Dharavi. It was released on February 15 this year, and brought national attention to the underground hip-hop that has emerged out Mumbai’s slums, as well as from other disadvantaged communities and areas in the country.

Last week, the Film Federation of India said its jury had selected Gully Boy as the official Indian entry to the international film category at the 92nd Academy Awards for its “infectious energy”. Akhtar says she was “thrilled” to hear the news. “The cast and crew are very excited; it is a big win for us. We’re happy with the response the film has got from the beginning, and the audiences’ reaction to it,” she adds.

The film, which did extremely well in the international festival circuit after premiering in Berlin, was the year’s highest grossing film overseas. It was also honoured with the NETPAC award for the best Asian film at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) in South Korea in July. Another of her projects — the web series Lust Stories — was nominated for an Emmy. The Netflix original, co-directed by Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar, explores short stories centred on the theme of lust.

For Akhtar, the story is all-important. “I try to understand if the story has a human element, and does it affect me at all in any way. I don’t mean in the sense that it has to make me cry or make me laugh. But does it make me angry, or inspire me, or move me? The second thing that I look for in a story is whether its universe interests me,” she says on the phone from Mumbai.

There is no one “specific thing” that draws her attention. “I like to see if a story is plot-driven. Sometimes it’s just a sexy plot or an idea that clicks — which you can use as a hook to get the audience interested.”

Akhtar is busy with the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival with Star, which is slated to be held next month. A MAMI board member, she was present at the festival’s Word-to-Screen market — a platform that helps film-makers and authors interact with each other for collaborations. Some 28 top publishing houses were present at the market, discussing 550 books across 30 genres in eight languages. “The platform has only grown since its inception, and I am thrilled to have been a part of this journey. The Word-to-Screen Market seeks to bring together the best of two industries. I saw tremendous potential in the stories that were pitched, and I’m excited about how we can work together to bring these narratives to life,” Akhtar tells BLink. She admits that she has never worked on one, but highlights the need to retain the “essence of a book” for a good adaptation.

“While adapting from another medium, you will be cutting things out, you will be shortening things, things will shift. But if you retain the essence and make someone feel what they felt when they read the book, then you’re home.” Behind unusual stories, a supportive producer is often an underrated but crucial factor. Akhtar points out that many mainstream producers are still loath to support films focussed on an unexplored subject.

“If I had taken Gully Boy to a lot of producers in the industry, they wouldn’t have gone for it. If I had gone to them and said that I wanted to make a film about a rapper from Dharavi, they would have perhaps questioned whether anyone would want to know this story. But my producers were supportive and pushed me to go for it. You need that support.” (The film was co-produced by Zoya Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani.)

Akhtar’s next projects include the second season of Made in Heaven, returning on popular demand, as well as a short film called Ghost Stories with Jahnvi Kapoor. There is speculation about a sequel to Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, but she’s tight-lipped about her upcoming films. What’s known is that the story has to excite her — along with its universe.

Published on September 27, 2019

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