Zoya Akhtar on Filming Gully Boy, Azadi, the Ranveer-Alia Connect

I was supposed to do a sit down video interview with Zoya Akhtar last week in Mumbai, however, it got cancelled at the last minute and then the filmmaker had to fly over to Berlin for the premiere of Gully Boy. I finally got my chance again to do a Q&A on Monday, but, once again the video bit got cancelled because of hair and make-up logistics (yes, filmmakers need it too). But then, you don’t let go of an opportunity to interview Zoya, so I settled for a telephonic chat with the lady who’s right up there among India’s few consistently brilliant mainstream filmmakers.

Read the story below or listen to our chat here:

Q: Congratulations on all the positive reviews for Gully Boy. How has the general audience reaction in Berlin been?

Zoya Akhtar: It was a 1800 seater and I was so overwhelmed by the size of the cinema hall, I think the screen was about 70 feet tall, I have never seen a screen that big. There was a mix, there was at least 50% of a foreign audience and 50% of a South Asian audience. When it started, Alia said it’s like we’re in Gaiety, it was literally like being in Gaiety - Galaxy, they were reacting to everything. Even the Indians there don’t speak Hindi, so this was on a subtitled print, so honestly they didn’t get the lingo and the dialect, so they actually missed a certain flavour of the film, you know. But at the same time, they were screaming, they were whistling, they were reacting, they were gasping, when the scenes were serious they were completely quiet. I mean if this can be the reaction in every theatre, I’m home.

Q: Any memorable reactions that’s going to be stuck in your head for a long time?

Zoya Akhtar: Yes, I got a lot of very good reactions from people. There were a couple of people who came up and told me it’s their story. I think when you are a filmmaker, nothing can beat that reaction. When someone comes and tells you that this was me, or this moved me or this is something that changed or shifted or resonated with me on such a personal level as opposed to being just entertainment, I think those are the reactions that stay with you.

Ranveer Singh, Zoya Akhtar, Alia Bhatt at the Berlin Film Festival for Gully Boy.

Q: What made you curious about and how did you discover the entire rap and hip hop scene in Mumbai’s gullys, slums and chawls?

Zoya Akhtar: I love hip hop, I love the genre of music, I’ve been listening to it through my growing up and I had only engaged with international artistes whether it was Tupac or Eminem or the Fugees, those were the artistes that I would listen to.

I didn’t really engage in the space with our mainstream rap scene and then when I was editing Dil Dhadakne Do, my editor at that time Anand Subaya, who’s also a musician, he showed me a music video called Aafat and there was this 21-year-old artiste called Naezy and I couldn’t believe how legit this sound was. Because he obviously had standard beats and he’d obviously just made it on his iPad or iPhone and shot it even on an iPhone and it was this very indi video that he had put out, but you could tell that he was a writer, you could tell that his rhymes were really sophisticated, you could tell that his flow was unbelievable. So I got so hooked that I keep watching that video again and again and then I found him, I traced him and I had a meeting with him. I was just compelled to meet him and the minute I met him I knew that there’s a story, there’s an entire sub-culture and I am big on sub-cultures, so firstly I was shocked that I didn’t know that it existed and I had to know more of it and then I took time and now I’m talking to you.

Q: Your films Luck By Chance, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara, Dil Dhadakne Do revolved around a class of characters that belong to a completely different strata of society, far away from the slums and chawls of Mumbai, it was a world that you grew up and knew inside out. How difficult was it then to get out of that comfort zone and embed yourself into a life that’s lived in a slum?

Zoya Akhtar: At the end of the day we’re making films about human beings, there was people living in chawls even in Luck By Chance. It’s not about the backdrop, the backdrop is something you can research and you can spend time with and you can absorb, at the end of the day it’s the personal journey’s of the characters, it’s the relationships within that, it’s their dreams, it’s their conflicts and it’s what obstacles do these particular people have that they need to overcome.

No matter where human beings are from, they have ups and downs, they have sadness, they have depression, they have conflicts, they have all kinds of experiences, the human experience beyond a point is the same. It’s the conditioning, it’s the environment, it’s the socio-economic space that changes, but that is research and that is backdrop.

Q: I am asking you this because when some filmmakers try and show the economically deprived class - it comes across looking very fake and make believe, even Chandni Chowk looks like Trafalgar Square but what we get from the trailer is that you seem to have authentically captured the grit and vibe of a Mumbai slum and it’s inhabitants.

Zoya Akhtar: But that to me is the joy of doing what I do, otherwise there is no point, I’m not here to make school plays, I’m here to make feature films and I need to get into the trenches to do it. So even though I am not an upper crust Delhi Punjabi, who personally takes my family on a cruise, I’m not that person at all but I have spent enough time there and I have spent enough time with those people to know them and understand them. So actually when I am in Delhi people are like, ‘how did you nail this?’ because it’s not my life. But that is the beauty and that is the excitement for me. So you have to decide every subject, you have to make a decision, how do I want to see it.

Like for Dil Dhadakne Do, I wanted to be on the outside looking in, I wanted the perspective of somebody who is watching these human beings and their weird behaviour, so I used the dog as a tool. The way I shot it was also like there were two close ups in the movie, everything is either mid shot or wide so you are always almost looking at them from the outside.

But with a film like Gully Boy, I can’t be looking at them from the outside because that’s when it gets condescending. I need to actually be inside with the character Murad, looking at the world from where he is at. So then you need to spend that kind of time, you need to make that effort, you need to respect that space and you need to absorb it and look at the world from their eyes and see how the world engages them, how the society engages with it, what is their interaction with people, where are they welcome in Bombay city, where are they not welcome, what are the spaces that are easy and accessible for them. So those were the things that Reema and me spent a lot of time doing. That to me is the fun, that is what I enjoy doing.

Q: Looking back what was the most challenging aspect about making Gully Boy - was getting the whole sub culture right without hitting a false note a large part of it?

Zoya Akhtar: I think the most challenging part of getting Gully Boy made was actually getting 54 artistes on a soundtrack, they are all independent artistes, they never ever worked in this kind of set up before. Our youngest collaborator is a 16-year-old beat boxer, so just curating people from various disciplines, various cities, bringing them together, doing workshops with them, and earning their trust, because they are all acting in the film, they are all in the movie. So, besides Ranveer and Shera, who are actors, every other single person is a rapper or a beat boxer. And also to respect who they are as artistes and they are so authentic and so honest that I could not afford to have a false note. So, I think that was challenging, it was great fun.

Q: Talking about music, the inclusion of the track Azadi, was that something done because it went with the context of the film or is Murad also a political being in the film with a take on what’s happening around us today?

Zoya Akhtar: Everybody in this country who votes is a political being. You are not apolitical if you are voting. So, that goes across the board, I’m political, you’re political and even Murad is political. Now, Azadi is a very strong word, Azadi is a word that symbolises freedom. It is also a word that is very, very, very closely associated with youth, because they are rebelling against many things. Azadi as a form or as a naara has been used before the Kanhaiya Kumar JNU incident and it will be used after, it’s been used for women’s rights, it’s been used against government rule, against caste patriarchy, against many many many things.

I really liked the track that Dub Sharma had created and I wanted to adapt it and change it lyrically so that it suited my narrative. My narrative is about a class, it’s about class oppression, it’s about the concept of class specific to our country. It is about economic disparity. So these are the themes that are in my film. So I had to adapt the track, Divine obviously wrote the track also, so that it fits into my narrative, as easily as it needs to. I could obviously not use the original because that would be fake. My film is not about the caste system and my film is not about JNU, so if I had used that in it’s authentic form, it would have actually been very disrespectful to everyone.

Q: When it came to casting, was Ranveer an easy choice since you’ve already worked with him, he’s saleable and he’s already quite into the rap and hip hop scene?

Zoya Akhtar: Ranveer was my only choice. Subsequently he’s gotten bigger since he signed on this film, which is only good fortune to me. I had such an amazing collaboration with him on Dil Dhadakne Do, we really had fun together and we knew that we were going to work together again. When I came up with this, he was my first choice because he’s a great actor, he has a great bandwidth, he’s somebody who’s deeply, deeply influenced by the hip hop culture and rap music. He raps himself, he writes, if you see the way he dresses, you’ll understand where I am coming from.

He is also somebody who’s grown up with Bombay street lingo, the slang comes very easily to him. He was already associated with Gully rap, he was familiar with it, so there was no reason to go to anyone else. Plus he’s a great actor, plus he’s saleable. I mean there are no down points.

Q: You’ve worked with Alia Bhatt for the first time, what’s the one special trait that you find in her as an actress that sort of sets her apart.

Zoya Akhtar: Alia is in the now, I don’t know if that means anything, she’s very in the moment as a person. As an actor, I find her very centred, she doesn’t feel the need to garner attention, even when she comes on a film set. She doesn’t feel the need to do more. She knows what it requires, she can very easily cut the world out and tap into the emotional space of what she is required to do at that moment. I think she’s very centred, I think that’s what’s unique about her as a person. She’s got a certain calm, a meditative calm to her as an actor that keeps her in the moment every time she gives a take.

Ranveer Singh with Zoya Akhtar while shooting for Gully Boy.

Q: Luck By Chance was in 2009 - it’s been ten years - you’ve made 4 films, a couple of shorts, produced films - what would you say has been some of your big learnings as a filmmaker - be it about knowing which script to choose or about how to handle an actor or about trusting your instinct on how a scene you are shooting should play out.

Zoya Akhtar: My biggest learning has been, choose your crew wisely, handpick your crew. When I’m saying handpick I mean down to the last assistant, because no director is an island and you cannot accomplish any kind of vision if you do not have the right collaborators. You need people who are on the same page, you need people who work in teams well, I need that kind of bonding with my crew. The second thing, I think is trust your instinct. Every time I have ignored by instinct, I have screwed up. If my instinct tells me this is not going right or my instinct tells me this person is not correct for the role or job and I have ignored it, I have screwed up, so I would go with my gut.

And the third thing is, work with actors, work with people who can act, even a scene that is two lines, just try and get the person that can perform because that changes the world.

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