Zoya Akhtar: Game Changer

August 6, 2019
A special guest of the Indian Film Festival Melbourne, we take a look at the career of this groundbreaking filmmaker.

Indian screenwriter, director and producer Zoya Akhtar regards inclusiveness, openness and more nuanced conversations as current societal needs. Passion to give voice from a disenfranchised space drives her main character Murad (Ranveer Singh) in Gully Boy (2019).

He’s a 22-year-old Muslim rapper from the Dhavari slum in Mumbai whose story is loosely based on that of real-life rappers Naezy and Divine. This is an unconventional narrative for commercial Hindi cinema where for decades escapist melodramatic romance has dominated.

More than 10 years ago, when Akhtar approached stars to be in her first film Luck by Chance (2009), they refused, predicting low returns at the box office because her protagonists were grey characters; there was no conventional hero. Flawed characters, however, are a mainstay of Akhtar’s films which have grown in popularity with globalisation, the rise of multiplexes and bigger urban audiences.

Gully Boy has been one of the top grossing films of 2019.

As an industry insider, Akhter has great resources to draw upon. Both parents, Honey Irani and Javed Akhtar, are successful screenwriters. Her brother, Farhan, director, actor, producer and singer, has appeared in three of her films. Creative channeling of the skills and contacts offered by family has strengthened Akhtar’s craft.

For Gully Boy, she had her 74-year-old poet-lyricist father working with rapper Divine to produce a song (Doori – Distances) which shows Murad’s progression from insular poet to performing rapper. There has been a tradition of using poetry in Hindi cinema, but it has never been used as an intergenerational fusion highlighting the rap hip-hop subculture. Akhtar herself didn’t know that street level rap existed in India until a crew member introduced her to it.

Akhtar favours ensemble casts and interlacing subplots. She and co-writer Reema Kagti spend about three years on each feature film, ensuring that all character arcs are satisfactory. She is aware that the pre-interval sections of her films may appear lengthy and languid but regards them as necessary if viewers are to invest in the characters.

Gully Boy weighs in at 158 minutes. Its first part develops the claustrophobic, dysfunctional nature of the protagonist’s homelife; his friendships, romance and discovery of rap as a platform for self-actualisation. The post-interval section gently resolves the romantic and domestic tensions, placing Murad’s ascendance as rapper of note into relief.

Traditional Hindi films exaggerate drama whereas Akhtar has chosen to downplay it, emphasising instead the point that ‘art cuts through class’.

Self-realisation and actualisation are common themes. Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma) in Luck by Chance finds her identity and independence in the cut-throat film industry. The three friends on a road trip in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) find that life is in the here and now as they race bulls in Pamplona. The dysfunctional wealthy family in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) on a cruise in the Mediterranean discover that there is a hidden bond between them as they head for a better future. Akhtar’s touch is light; her outlook – hopeful.

However, it’s not a rose-coloured view of the world. She started with what she had grown up with – the Hindi film industry, using it as setting and context for Luck by Chance. Her second and third films – Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (You won’t get a second chance) and Dil Dhadakne Do (Let you heart beat) deal with the privileged lives which prompted one commentator to call her ‘The Posh Princess of Pain’.

The lives and settings are undoubtedly glamourous, but the flawed characters and detailed, layered crafting gives them a modern feel. It has never been about pure escapism; there has always been a social or personal relevance to the narratives.

She works against stereotypes in all her films. In Gully Boy, it’s evident in her portrayal of a Muslim family, where a mother is more unyielding than a father in accepting their daughter’s desire to be a modern girl; one who wears lipstick and goes to parties.

Women in Akhtar’s films are assertive, philosophical, sometimes aggressive, questioning their role in society and initiating sex. They are also shown to be ‘their own worst enemies’ in the way that some women hinder the progress of others with lines like – ‘Have a baby. It will solve your problem’.

Akhtar surprises by playing against preconceptions. In Gully Boy, we first see Safeena (Alia Bhatt), Murad’s girlfriend, as she boards a bus. We notice her headscarf and chaste downward gaze but then she moves to the back seat, sitting next to a young man and casually fits one of his earphones into her ear.

Setting the viewer up for another surprise in a short film from the Lust Stories compilation (2018), Akhtar begins with a raunchy sex scene where the woman is dominant. The next minute the same woman is shown scrubbing floors, revealing she is the maid. With Lust Stories and Gully Boy, Akhtar has moved away from her roots and is presenting other voices and genres touching on issues of class, gender and religion.

There are resonances of 8 Mile (2002, Curtis Hanson) in Gully Boy – points of similarity in the rap battles, loss of courage when up against a tough opponent and the raw handheld camera work, but the milieu and the dramas unfolding in Murad’s life are all authentically Indian, based on grassroots research, collaboration and discussion with Kagti.

Often details speak volumes. For example – a little boy watches his mother put on lipstick wishing he could do the same (Bombay Talkies, 2013); a glamourous socialite privately stuffs her face with chocolate cake as a response to her failed marriage (Dil Dhadakne Do) and Murad (Gully Boy) so carefully replaces the towelette in a wealthy friend’s bathroom showing how alien the environment is to him.

Most of these films have targeted Indian audiences but now Akhtar is aiming for greater reach with the online streaming of her series about wedding planners – Made in Heaven (2019).

Zoya Akhtar’s feature films are an entertaining mix of tradition and modernity. They retain song and dance elements as well as the emotionality associated with commercial Hindi cinema. For years, strong screenplays were few and far between, so the game changers stand out. Akhtar is one of them.

Zoya Akhtar is a very special guest of the Indian Film Festival Melbourne. Her film, Gully Boy is also playing at the festival.

Leave a Comment