For filmmaker Zoya Akhtar, 2019 has been larger than life. The 46-year old director is riding on a high after her Netflix film Lust Stories earned an Emmy nomination, followed by the box office hit Gully Boy, a film about an underdog who makes it big in the world of rapping starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, becoming the official entry from India for the Oscars 2020.
CNBC-TV18.com caught up with Akhtar on the sidelines of the MAMI Word to Screen Market 2019 in Mumbai to get her thoughts on the booming video streaming culture in India, making films for an evolving audience, and why regional works struggle to become successful on-screen adaptations. Q. In 2019, you’ve broken the status quo not once but twice. On one hand, your Netflix series Lust Stories received an Emmys’ nomination. On the other, we’re seeing that more than a decade after a mainstream film like Lagaan made it to the Oscars, we have Gully Boy winning an official entry. What does that tell you about not just evolving tastes of Indian audiences but also the way Indian films and stories are being received worldwide? Zoya: I think that suddenly there is a platform for our stories to be watched worldwide. I don't think that space was available earlier. Now you have platforms that allow you to bring a formula, that allow you to tell different stories, and allow you to tell them differently, to use a different syntax. So, all of that is bound to find an audience somewhere on the other side. It's a very, very good day to be in the film industry is all I can say. Q. Sticking to Gully Boy and its journey to the Academy Awards, how did you go about making a mainstream film that will appeal to a larger audience while staying true to your vision? How much compromise did that involve? Zoya: I think Gully Boy is like me. I'm born and bred in the Hindi film industry and I've got that commercial base, it's in my bones; I grew up on commercial cinema. But at the same time, because my mother (former actor Honey Irani) was studying films and my dad (Lyricist Javed Akhtar) is a poet, and they come from very different disciplines, there was a lot of literature and poetry in the house. We watched a lot of foreign films. So, I think there was always been an indie vibe and I’ve worked only on independent films till ‘ Dil Chahta Hai’. So Gully Boy is a mix of commercial and independent and I think it has a kind of tone that comes very naturally to me. Q. How has the advent of the streaming culture changed the process of writing and directing for films? Does that impact the process of writing? Zoya: I think is unbelievable. (When you write for platforms), you are liberated, you don't have to pressure of the box office on your head, you don't have censorship, you don't have you don't have to cast necessarily big stars so you have to cater roles for them; it's liberating on many, many levels. You have no time bounds like TV where one episode has to be 22 minutes or 24 minutes; here one episode can be 25 minutes, the next one could be 30 minutes.
There's so much world content that people are watching that their palate is slowly changing. Suddenly you put your show out, and your show is next to ‘Powder’ and that show is next to ‘Mad Men’. So you're on a shelf with everyone and that way your audience will grow. You will consume and your work will be consumed.
Q. I’m essentially talking about big-cinema films going on Netflix and then having to compete with non-film content. Does that change you write for your films or does it put more pressure on you as a filmmaker? Zoya: No. I think it's actually fantastic. It's actually not putting pressure, it's actually taking pressure away. Q. As a director, how do the nuances of writing and directing a series differ from a film? Zoya: It’s different. On one level, it gives you a lot of time to develop character. So it's a slow burn. You don't need to go chop, chop, chop, get to the point. You can actually take the time to evolve a character, layer a character or peel a character.
I anyway have a problem containing my script, so for me, it’s natural to go long format. I like my arcs and I like people to come in and go out. But at the same time, from a two-hour narrative you have to look at an 8-hour narrative, and know that it connects and holds and the payoff that started here ends there.
Q. What kind of literary work are you looking out for at MAMI Word to Screen and beyond? Zoya: You can always come and look for something specific, you can tell people like I'm looking in this genre, but I think you should be open. Because if you're only specifically looking for a black and white dress, that’s all you be looking for. So if you go into a store, and you say I'm going to see whatever I like, your energy is much more open and things come to you. Q. But most of your work has been about coming-of-age films, be it the Rock On!! franchise or Zindagi Naa Milegi Dobara, a genre in which you’ve done extremely well. So are there plans to dabble in new genres? Zoya: I think I’ll take any genre and convert it into a coming-of–age genre film (laughs). I like it a lot. Q. 2018 was the year of low-budget, strong-content films with the likes of Andhadhun, Stree, Tumhari Sulu doing very well at the box office. But in 2019, we’ve seen that despite the controversies and less-than-appealing reviews, Kabir Singh has become the highest grossing film overshadowing films like Article 15 and Uri. As a commercial filmmaker, how do you reckon with this kind of extremity, this kind of oscillation, in audience tastes? Zoya: It's fantastic because if it (audience tastes) only showed one thing, then only that film would be made and we don't want that. We don't want that one type of movie to be made. We want all types of movies to be made. So sometimes this is going to blow up and sometimes that's going to blow up. Sometimes this is going to work, sometimes that will. Q. Are you satisfied with the kind of talent pool that exists today in the film making fraternity? Zoya: There’s always room for more talent. You can be satisfied but the tide’s going to turn. That's the way it is. It's evolution. I think we have very, very talented people in this industry and they’re all thriving. The game has been upped. So it's good fun. Q. There’s been a lot of talk about regional content/literature but the truth is there have been very conversions from regional literature that have become commercial successes. How challenging is it to make films for a mainstream audience that appeals to a wider set of audiences? Zoya: I'm not keenly looking out for any particular regional work. You can say regional content has not been converted to Hindi cinema, but it's been converted to other languages… Q. But it isn’t catering to a wider audience that is available through Hindi cinema. Why? Zoya: We don’t have access to those stories. If you don't read in a particular language, that anyway negates that, you're not looking for those titles then. Sometimes the adaptations to English aren’t great to read, so people don't really read them. When you look at your pop culture, you look at your news magazines, they’re not really covering that. If there was some great work in Gujarati and if the mainstream media covered it, I would be interested. But if I don’t have access, it’s not going to. That’s what a platform like Word To Screen is doing. It's taking people from the industry and it's putting it with all these literary people, and it’s just bypassing everything in the middle. That's the beauty of this. Q. Corporatisation of Bollywood’s film studios and production houses have always been seen with an eye of scepticism. I want your frank view on the kind of impact—both good and bad —corporatisation has had on India’s filmmaking ecosystem.
But having said that, I do know that sometimes people (production houses) do not really understand the nuance of it (creative process of filmmaking), they want things in a particular way because that is what the market is dictating. That's what's working right now, so let's do everything that the market wants. But filmmaking is not a cookie cutter market. So there are pros and cons to everything you know.
Zoya: The good thing is that things have been streamlined, the money has been streamlined, the delivery dates have been streamlined. I mean, there are a lot of good things. I have to say I can't complain because I'm very protected by my producers. I work with Ritesh (Sidhwani) and Farhan (Akhtar) and I've been protected from my first film. Not because I’m doing well now. It’s always been like that, they really protect their talent and creators. ( Excel Entertainment is an Indian film production and distribution company, founded by Ritesh Sidhwani and Zoya’s brother and actor-director Farhan Akhtar,)