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Zoya Akhtar In An Interview With Subhash K Jha

After  the  massive ovation accorded  to her latest film Gully Boy  , Zoya Akhtar  is  in  that calm space which  a filmmaker can only claim when liberated  from all burdens  of  boxoffice commitments.So how does it feel  to one of the foremost voices  in  the  filmmaking scene today ?  

How are you  celebrating the  success of Gully Boy?

I am very very  relieved.  When you make  a film you want it to connect with the widest possible audience. You are  responsible for  the actors and  producers. You want a  film to succeed for their sake.  I am very lucky to have  producers  like Ritesh Sidhwani and FarhanAkhtar. They let me make whatever I want  to. I wonder what  other  producers  in their place  would have said if I had gone to say, ‘I want to make a film about  a hiphop singer from Dharavi.’

It helps to have a  super-creative brother  as  a producer?

Ritesh  is not my brother. They would’ve said  yes to Gully Boy even  if someone else  had gone  to  them  about it.They  want to push  the  envelope with their  cinema.

Zoya, is there  anyone in the entire  universe  who has  not liked Gully Boy?

Ummmm…yeah  there are some. One review  was  not very nice.And a friend didn’t like the film. I think she expected more.And I don’t think those who didn’t like the film would tell me  so on my face.I mean ,who will come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t like  your film.’

Did  you expect a film  about hiphop music would reach  out so far and wide?

It has reached  out so far  because  of  the  class issue.  A  boy from the  underprivileged class  chasing  his dream , is  a theme everybody identifies  with.Somewhere  it resonated with the entire  population. I think  the  line from Gully Boy, ‘Kisske  liye aasan hai?’ is  true  for  everyone. No one gets success easily.Everyone has his own struggle. But it comes  from the same  place.

 One  of  the  things I really  like  in Gully  Boy  is that  it normalizes  the Muslim  community, it doesn’t follow the clichéd cultural representation that we have grown up  seeing?

Why just Muslim,no community  or culture  is normalized in mainstream  Hindi cinema. I don’t think the characters are always written well.They caricature women, homosexuals, disabled people…It’s  across the  board…It’s not about a  particular  community  or gender. They  even caricature men in our movies….you know, that whole  toxic masculinity thing. So what is ‘normal’ in our films?

The  abnormal?

(laughs)  I  guess. Most scripts operate  on  the level of conjecture…We see an IDEA  of how  woman should be,or  how a homosexual should behave….Nobody is like that(the way shown in many films).

Why do  most mainstream  filmmakers  in India treat the  audience  as  morons?

I don’t know why they don’t treat the  visual medium as a visual medium. The audience  isspoonfed  every morsel  of information through the dialogues. Arrey, the audence can see!I don’t know  why cinema is largely regarded as  an aural  medium  in mainstream cinema

Why do you think  mainstream cinema  remains largely cut  off from reality?

I don’t think  it is always  like that. Every decade has  had mainstream  filmmakers who  give us believable,tenable characters. In the  1950s which I feel was  the best era  of Hindi  cinema where  entertainment  combined  with  social consciousness,  we had Bimal  Roy, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt….Then  in the  1960s the  Hrishikesh Mukherjee started…

No, I  think the socalled middle-of-the-road cinema of  the Hridshida, Basu Chatterjee, BasuBhattacharya, Shyam Benegal started in the 1970s. 1960s was relatively non-intellectualisedcinema…

You mean, Shammi Kapoor,Nasir Husain, Asha Parekh, the musicals?  You have a point.Then  the 1970s had the Angry You Man….Mahesh Bhatt.. What  about him? He  was  a  big influence on Hindi cinema.

Who are  the  filmmakers who have  influenced you?

There are many foreign  directors.Among  the  Indian ones I’d say, Mira Nair, ShekharKapoor, Mahesh Bhatt and of course Guru Dutt, Satyajit Ray…I’ve seen all their work.

How did you decide to make a film on something as  out-of-the-box as hip-hop  music?

I  was always  interested  in hip-hop music.I’d  listen more to the American hiphopmusicians. Then I discovered  the throbbing  desi hiphop culture. I had to interact with the Mumbai hiphop  musicians. Gully Boy reflects  their struggle.I started  exploring their world, their lives, their trials  and tribulations. I  needed  to marinate in  their world. I met  them, their families . It was a huge  unexplored world that opened  up to me.I was  completely  hooked.

Well, the one criticism  against  your cinema  so far was that it was elitist. That  criticism had been felled by Gully Boy?

I really want to  make  my films on any  and every kind of  theme that fascinates  me. Tomorrow I may decide  to make  a film about a Mexican family. I wouldn’t be bothered with which strata of society they belong to. I want to able to seek the humanity  of my characters. I want  to transcend  the  barriers  of class and  creed. The  filmmakers  that I admire are those who address themselves  to the human spirit.As a  storyteller  I want to  be able to  make every kind of film.And  by the way the protagonist in  my  short film in Bombay Talkies was a house help.

Alia Bhatt is  a firecracker in  Gully Boy. Did you  create  a special space  for her in the  film?

No, the  role was  written  like that.  Actually my co-writer Reema Kagti had written this  character  for another  film  . Of course we  adapted  the  character to our own requirements in Gully Boy. Alia  is  brilliant  in the film.  

Everyone  in Gully Boy is  perfectly cast, Were they all  your first  choices?

Yes, luckily  no one said no to me this time.The credit goes  to my casting directors for finding the right choices.

Who would say no to  you?

Ha ha  you would be surprised.

Your  prized find  is Siddhanth Chaturvedi. How on earth  did  you  envision this boy from Uttar Pradesh as a Mumbai hiphop artiste?

It just happened.He was  the last to be  cast. We were  just  three weeks  away from shooting.And I wasn’t happy with  anyone  I had seen. Suddenly one evening I  spotted  him at a party.He was  dancing like there was  no tomorrow. And man, he could really move. I  introduced  myself.  He  said  he knew who I was and he was dancing to show me what he  could do. I  called him for an audition the  next day and  that was  it. Siddhanth was manna  from  heaven.If  I hadn’t found him I would have had  to  compromise on my casting.

I feel  Gully  Boy is  a film that was waiting  to happen?

I agree. The  entire  hiphop culture  was opened up to us.We  just needed  to  dip  into it and come up with whatever  we  wanted  to say  on screen.It is an experience I  won’t forget easily.

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