ZOYA AKHTAR ON HER GULLY BOY SUCCESS AND BRAND NEW WEDDING-SET SERIES ON AMAZON PRIME
In terms of critical and commercial success, the best Bollywood film by far of 2019 has been Gully Boy.
Although the hip-hop drama had fine music, great performances and an engrossing story, the biggest hero of the film is writer/director Zoya Akhtar for delivering the game-changing release.
Instead of resting on her laurels, the genius storyteller is unleashing her next creation Made In Heaven on Amazon Prime, which is a potentially path-breaking serial set to the backdrop of a booming wedding industry in India.
She has teamed up with writer/director Reema Kagti for the predominantly English language drama chronicling the lives of two wedding planners based in Delhi. I caught up with Zoya to talk about Gully Boy and Made In Heaven…
Did you expect Gully Boy to be a huge success? The success has been really overwhelming. What really surprised me was the fact that some people watched the film more than once, which is something I really didn’t expect. It’s perhaps the best feedback a filmmaker can hope for.
How much did the critical and commercial acclaim mean to you? I’ve always liked to have a balance of commercially viable and critically acclaimed films as both are very important to me. However, if I make a film and it makes money at the box office but the audience didn’t like it, that will really disappoint me. My wish is for everyone to watch my films and like them.
What inspired Made In Heaven? I have a lot of friends in the wedding industry and they would tell me such interesting stories that went on behind the scenes. When we do weddings in India we do it big! No matter what the budget, we are known for our big Indian weddings. But no one talks about what goes on behind the scenes. I was fascinated by this and mentioned this to Reema. We chose the theme of weddings for the show because in India a wedding is considered as the most important day in a person’s life. It’s a coming together of families, cultures and different generations and can be seen as a nice melting pot. It is also that space to show off; a space to cling to traditions unquestioningly.
Tell us more… It was interesting to be able to juxtapose two very different people, with their own internal struggles against this setting. For instance, you have Tara in a marriage that is less than ideal, and you have Karan, a homosexual in a country where being homosexual was illegal until recently, planning these seemingly perfect weddings.
Tell us more about the creative process of Made In Heaven? Reema and I came up with the idea together, and then Alankrita Shrivastava came in and we structured the season, with Alankrita and me writing most of the episodes. We would send the episodes to Nitya Mehra, the showrunner and this became our writer’s room. This was the first time we have written for a digital series and it is something we have wanted to explore for a while. The show, in a way, is a social commentary talking about prejudice, fitting in and surviving. The show is mainly about people who start-off in a seemingly perfect scenario and actually travel inwards. The journey of the characters is internal where the layers of these characters keep peeling through to reveal how much of an outsider they really are, and this helps create an interesting arch.
How does this compare to other projects you have done? I have wanted to work on a format that I personally consume. Also, as a writer, I think it is a completely different experience to write for a nine-episode format that translates into 45-minute episodes. I consider the long format a boon because I tend to overwrite. A series format through a digital medium allowed me the liberty to build characters and story arcs across multiple episodes. It was an opportunity to build layers and tell a nuanced story. This was the first time I have written for a digital series and it has been a great learning, not to mention exciting, experience.
What is your favourite moment from the series? There are many, it would be difficult to pinpoint one favourite because it is such a special project. I am working with a wonderful cast and such an amazing, talented crew. When you are spending a lot of time with these particular people they become your home and family, and when it ends it feels like an empty pace. This particular experience with this family, this environment is gone; I get that feeling with every film of mine.
Do you ever get nervous before your projects’ release? I was only nervous before the first day of shoot on Luck By Chance, I had anxiety and I hadn’t had it until that moment. I remember I was with a whole bunch of people like Faran (Akhtar), Ritesh (Sidhwani) and said I am nervous. They said in that case you should have a drink! I have to say I have never been nervous since then. I do feel nervous before a screening. I feel like that before presenting a film, even if it is a rough cut, but other than that I’m never nervous.
What can we expect next from you? I want to do a period film; I think I will find the story out of a book.
What was the last series you binge-watched? I am watching Marvelous Mrs Maisel, it’s an amazing series, also on Amazon Prime. It is a must-watch.
Is it now becoming easier for women in the creative field? There are women everywhere now, whether it as a film producer, director, studio head, publicist or in marketing. Therefore there is a change of sensibility in the narration. As cinema is a reflection of the world around us, with more women coming into the mainstream business, more women narratives will grab the limelight. Every time we have a woman on-screen, we can empower her in a different way rather than just giving a speech on the importance of equality and empowerment. I think sometimes we have to show her as powerful. I think the influx of women at the workplace is also changing the narratives in our cinema
Why should we watch Made In Heaven? (Laughs). Because we made it! No seriously, because there’s nothing like Made In Heaven that’s ever been made in India before. The world that we’ve created is set in and around weddings, a time in which people tend to forget what really matters and resort to projection. The hope with Made In Heaven is that it will make us all realise that there is so much beauty in the world, and that if we shattered these projections and recognised who we really are, we’d all be much happier. On a personal character level, the show is about being honest and true to yourself. One can only be happy when they get comfortable in their own skin.
Will there be a second series? Let’s just focus on this one for now!
What message would you like to give for this International Women’s Day? Let’s just say I hope there will be a time we don’t need a woman’s day.
What kind of films and serials do you like to watch at home? To be honest, I don’t watch a lot of shows. I’m very selective about what I watch and I tend to watch more films.
Who are you hoping connects with the series? Hopefully everyone and anyone! I think there’s something in Made In Heaven that would connect with anyone.
This, like Gully Boy, looks like a game-changer; would you agree? One never knows what changes the game or what works on a mass level to shift consciousness. One can be as woke as possible while they entertain and sometimes it creates a ripple.
What is your biggest motivating factor today? It is to do great work and to have the opportunity to tell untold stories from my country!