Behind the screen

The Zoya Akhtar interview: ‘Are my movies about rich people? What does that mean?’

The writer and director of the travel-based family drama 'Dil Dhadakne Do' rebuffs criticism that she makes movies only about and for the elite.

In Zoya Akhtar’s new movie, the wealthy Mehras bring in their thirtieth wedding anniversary along with their family on a luxury cruise liner – a perfect setting for ties to bind and gag, and secrets and lies to be shared and spilled.

Dil Dhadakne Do opens on June 5 and appears to be Akhtar’s most complicated production yet, featuring a large cast (including Anil Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma and Farhan Akhtar), and several international locations. Yet, the director of the features Luck By Chance (2009) and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and one of the four shorts in the Bombay Talkies anthology (2013) would have us believe that her latest project was smooth sailing. In this interview Akhtar chats with Scroll.in about handling criticism, her love for travel and the importance of catering to the filmmaking process.

You say that all your films have been drawn from personal experiences. How about Dil Dhadakne Do’s dysfunctional family?
It is always a mix of fiction and fact and observation. When you are fictionalising, you come to a situation where a girl wants to leave her husband (as it happens with Priyanka’s character here) and she wants to have a family chat – I find it surreal. So I will call up a friend and she tells me her experience and I say it’s funny, can I use that? That is why it resonates.

Your characters seem to discover themselves only after they step out of their familiar universe.
Not always. In Zindagi, they step out of their routines to go on a road trip. A road trip gives you a lot of space to think. You have hours of nothingness, just driving, and it opens your head up.

In this film, travel as a device brings a bunch of people together. It is the dynamics that ensue that we catch. It is about the thirtieth wedding anniversary of this couple and all the people get together. The events could have been anywhere. The cruise ship is important as a metaphor because it is your family and you just can’t leave and you are stuck. Besides, a cruise ship hasn’t been seen and so visually it is interesting.

Why is travel so important for you and your characters?
I like to travel. I want to see as much of the world in my lifetime. We live in one little corner, ya! There is so much out there – different cultures, morality, food, art – but the people are still the same, humanity is the same. I try to see a new country every year. And it has made its way into my films.

From Luck by Chance to Dil Dhadakne Do, your canvas and your cast have only become bigger.
In Zindagi, though we were constantly moving, there were five main characters. It was tedious moving around the country and driving all day.But since there were fewer actors, we did fine.

In Dil Dhadakne Do, though we were not moving, the ship was. There were 25 characters and a dog. The sheer logistics of the film could be challenging, but I was not stressed at all.

As first films go, Luck By Chance may have been intimate because it was drawn from my own experiences with the film industry, but it was massive. It had 25 actors, big-ass sets, full-on numbers. Today, I can’t believe the boys gave me the kind of money to make that film. The only thing it did not have? Stars in lead roles.

I like scale. I can take any story and scale things up.

Was it challenging to manage so many stars when you were all a captive unit?
The more actors spend time with each other, the easier it becomes for them. They start playing off each other more like a theatre company than stars on a film set.

Yes they are all stars, but each one of them is actually an actor. That is a different DNA. They are greedy for performance and they come in with a different energy. Once you agree to be a part of an ensemble, you become a team player. You cannot come in with your own agenda and ruin it. No, I wasn’t worried about them at all. I had no problems with them at all. People just behave on my set.

One of the stand-out qualities of your films is your emphasis on cinematography and production design – such as the fine crockery in Luck By Chance and the perfectly coloured grains of rice at a dinner party in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.
I enjoy that. I make sure that I work with people in those capacities who have that eye for detail. In Zindagi, I had Suzanne Caplan Merwanji, the best production designer. You don’t have to think twice about what she does, it is detailed, real and beautiful.  I have worked with Neil Patel and Shailja Sharma,, a new art director and set dresser, who can make every table come alive. Then there is Carlos Catalan, my cinematographer, who prefers to use practicals whenever he can. If he wants a certain kind of light, he will ask for it. When you get the best people to work with, they just take things on. You don’t have to do much,

I like aesthetic. All my films are very aesthetic.

Some feel that you make films for only a certain set of people.
I know people say my movies are about rich people. I don’t have anything to say. What does that mean? This is not a critique, but just a reaction.

I have done four films, out of which two were shot in India with people here. You don’t go to watch them. So sweety, you tell me why do you go to watch a film about rich people going abroad?

You watch the film and tell me it does not work for you, I get it. But not like, this is “a rich guy’s story and does not appeal to me”. I don’t wanna listen to that. It is like saying, “I don’t wanna watch this film because it’s got a king, or set in a slum, neither of which I am familiar with.” It’s ridiculous. What about Slumdog [Millionaire]? Didn’t you watch that even though it was about a world we were not a part of? At the end of the day it is about experiences, emotions that work for all of us.

I want to see myself as a director whose films people come to watch irrespective of who’s starring in it. For instance, I would want to watch a Mira Nair film, a Vishal Bhardwaj film, a Mani Ratnam or Anurag [Kashyap] and Dibakar’s[Banerjee]  film … If I like a director I will watch his/her film, regardless of who’s in it. And other thing I want to do is be known for the best catering on the sets.

Why is that?
It makes people happy. We keep changing our caterer frequently in India to avoid monotony. While shooting abroad, some Indian units prefer only Indian food. The rest of us can eat anything. If you take care of people’s food, they are thrilled.

You have co-directed a music video and worked as an assistant director,  casting director and executive producer before making your own films. Which has been the most useful experience for you?
No job is most useful. Casting was very useful as far as directing films is concerned. As an AD [assistant director] under the American system, my job was not a creative one but it helped me get a sense of what it takes to get a movie made, understand the logistics and how to work within a budget. I worked with various filmmakers, picked up various aspects of filmmaking from them and also picked up things I shouldn’t have. My stint at NYU [New York University] film school was the creative learning part, where I studied things and watched movies.

Casting for me was amazing because it broke my ice with actors. I figured how to get work out of an actor. Those auditioning were still in the medium, struggling. I had a camera, an actor and a scene and I was the only person directing. It was perfect!

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