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In praise of Zoya Akhtar for showing on screen people as they are

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As the maverick filmmaker turns a year older today, I hope she and her team continue to look at and show us as we are—at our most private and public, at our best and worst, and at every other stage that lies in between.

In praise of Zoya Akhtar for showing on screen people as they are
During the table read for Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), held earlier this year as the film completed 10 years, Hrithik Roshan, who acted in it, said, “(Reema and Zoya) don’t write heroes. They write characters.”
He added that he didn’t have to do anything to get into his role and that he borrowed everything from the environment and the people around him. “For me, it was a revelation,” he said.
Talking about Katrina Kaif’s character Laila in the 2011 film, Vir Das, who hosted the online conversation, said, “She feels less like the women I see on screen and more like the women I know personally.”
Both Katrina and Hrithik said the one thing about ZNMD’s script that stood out for them when they first read "it was how real and relatable the characters were." It’s true. In fact, it’s one of the central reasons why Zoya Akhtar’s films continue to feel fresh and relevant irrespective of whenever they were made.
The Hindi film industry is notoriously infamous for creating tropes—the hero, the heroine, the villain, the best friend, the vamp, the comedian—one-note characters that it loves to fit in neat little boxes. But real people, you and me, cannot be pigeonholed. We’re a lot more layered and complex than black, white, and shades of grey. We’re it all—blue, red, green, yellow, pink, brown, and varied shades of every other hue imaginable. So are the people of Zoya’s movie verse.
Take Vikram Jaisingh from her directorial debut Luck By Chance (2009), for instance. Leaving his father’s established business in Delhi, he comes to Mumbai to become an actor. He’s the film’s lead, sure, but not a hero. He’s as frail and faulty as any of us. In his attempt to bag the leading role in a big producer’s movie, he does it all—dupes his competition, licks arses of the right people, even cheats on his girlfriend.
On realizing his mistake, he returns to her to apologize, but only because he’s looking for an anchor, and suddenly finds that he has none. When he asks Sona (the woman he’s cheated on, played by a wonderful Konkona Sensharma) if she doubts the sincerity of his apology, she says she doesn’t. Why not? “Because you’re being as selfish as always,” she remarks. “It has always been about you. Where am I in all of this?” she questions him, teary-eyed. And finally, she adds, “You can’t help it. Can you? Some people are just made this way.”
The renowned painter Salman Habib from ZNMD is another example. He’s 25 when his partner at the time gets pregnant. She wants to get married and raise a child. He doesn’t; he wants to paint and travel the world. So they go on their own paths; he leaves them without looking back ever. When he tells all of this years later to his grown son upon his asking, there’s not a tinge of remorse in him. He narrates his abandoning his only child and his decision to never meet him so matter-of-factly, it’s heartbreaking. And yet, you do not hate Salman Habib.
Then there’s Neelam Mehra from Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), played by a terrific Shefali Shah. She’s a middle-aged wife grappling with a dying marriage and her husband’s many liaisons, a mother who wants the world for her son but tells her daughter to focus on her family instead of her business. Her expectations from her grown children are conventional and patriarchal. She doesn’t bat an eyelash when conniving to get her son married to a wealthy businessman’s daughter to save their sinking business empire or when she dismisses her daughter every time she tries to open up to her.
But there’s so much more to Neelam Mehra. The scene, in which she stuffs her mouth with cake after she confronts her husband Kamal about flirting with a guest on cruise, is so haunting, it’s fresh in my memory as if I watched it yesterday. Another scene that is as evocative is when Kamal tries to get romantic with her on the night of their 30th wedding anniversary and she responds with a straight, pained face, “There is no need to put on an act. No one is watching right now.”
And finally, there’s Murad Ahmed from Gully Boy (2019). His story as he discovers rapping, falls in love with it, and tries to make a name for himself, is so lifelike, you forget you’re watching it in a movie. Murad’s reality is as real as any underprivileged slum-dweller in his early 20s. You do not have to be from his socio-cultural milieu to identify with him, his thoughts, struggles, ambition, and his follies. There are several redemptive characters in the film but Murad is not one of them. And yet, he’s the protagonist—it’s his story, he is the Gully Boy.
A remarkable quality about Zoya’s direction is that she doesn’t glorify. Even if it’s a Hrithik Roshan in the frame, a Farhan Akhtar, or a Ranveer Singh. Her people are layered; she humanizes them but at no point do you feel she’s propagating their behaviour or trying to establish one right and the other wrong. There are no heroes or villains in her films, there are just people.
Zoya’s movies make you feel as if she’s a bystander, silently looking at us go on about our lives. There is a Vikram, a Salman, a Neelam, and a Murad in all of us. We have been them at some point or we know someone who is like them. That is the true legacy of Zoya’s films. As the maverick filmmaker turns a year older today, I hope she and her team continue to look at and show us as we are—at our most private and public, at our best and worst, and at every other stage that lies in between.
 
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