Wannabe show boat meets dreamboat in The Zoya Factor, a movie that both suffers from miscasting and benefits from perfect casting.
Abhishek Sharma’s shambolic romantic comedy, based on the bestselling 2008 novel by Anuja Chauhan, gives top billing to Sonam Kapoor, but all the attention is hogged by the name that follows hers in the credits.
Malayalam star Dulquer Salmaan made a hard landing in Hindi cinema with the aimless road movie Karwaan in 2018. Karwaan did little to bolster Salmaan’s crossover ambitions despite his fluency in Hindi, and the unevenness of The Zoya Factor threatens to derail his second Bollywood outing too. Yet, Salmaan’s camera-friendly manner and outsized charm stand out in a movie that mashes together romance, cricket and advertising in the hope that at least one of the themes will stick.
As it happens, at least two pay some form of dividend. The old-fashioned Mills and Boon-style romance has its moments despite the mismatched leads. The irreverent approach towards a sport that has become a quasi-religion in India is both a departure and a relief. The advertising portions are poorly handled, and apart from providing an excuse to plug brands throughout the narrative, tell us little about the crass commercialisation of cricket. “The Pepsi Factor” this isn’t.
Sonam Kapoor plays, for the nth time, the Queen of Klutz. She is Zoya Singh Solanki, who considers herself unfortunate despite having a loving father and brother, living in a sprawling house with four television sets, and possessing a fashionably mismatched wardrobe.
Zoya is a grunt in an advertising agency that handles the account of brands endorsed by the Indian cricket team. Assigned to handle a photo shoot of the men led by Nikhil Khoda (Dulquer Salmaan), Zoya blurts out her big secret: she is a lucky charm when it comes to cricket. India lifted the World Cup trophy when Zoya was born, and her presence ensured that her brother Zorawar won every one of his gully cricket matches. Could Zoya’s lucky streak be escalated for Nikhil’s team, which is on a losing wicket despite its talent? Might not Zoya’s presence at the breakfast table prove to be the talisman that the team needs to win yet another World Cup?
Yes and yes. There have been flimsier reasons to bring potential lovers together. Zoya soon has it all. Nikhil and his boys win all their matches, and he is burying his lips in her collarbone. Two villains arrive in the form of scheming team player Robin and his selector uncle Jogpal. They drive a wedge between the lovers by overselling Zoya’s importance and hammering Nikhil’s confidence.
The melodrama that follows the souring of ties between Zoya and Nikhil proves to be a waste of time. The best bits in the 136-minute movie replicate the spirit of frothy fun from Chauhan’s novel. The Zoya Factor was written at a time when cricketers had already been deified and the sport was elevated to the quest to find a cure for HIV. Yet, Chauhan’s novel paradoxically worked as a throwback to the days when losing a match didn’t mean the end of the world. Her low-key treatment of the cricketers and the game itself, and the cornball sentiment that characterised the ardor between Zoya and Nikhil, pulled the novel through its agreeably silly premise.
The question of the role played by chance in cricket is rushed through in the movie. What’s luck got to do with it? Ask Sonam Kapoor, who has the meatier role despite being far too seasoned to be playing the ingenue. Kapoor’s limited skills especially show up in her comedy scenes, and Salmaan easily pushes her into the shadows during their sparring moments. Zoya’s perennial dithering and mushiness when Nikhil comes into view undercut the attempt to insert a feminine presence into the macho world of cricket.
Other members of the cast fare better than Kapoor: her real-life uncle, Sanjay Kapoor, as her father; Sikander Kher as her protective brother; Angad Bedi as Nikhil’s nasty rival; Manu Rishi Chadha as the dastardly cricket board director who cares more about his nephew than the game. Two unseen commentators who roll out droll humour during the matches also leave their mark in a movie whose major achievement is to act as a reminder of the time when cricket used to be fun and games rather than an act of war.