DIAL M FOR FILMS
THE NARRATIVE SPINE: WHY IT IS CARDINAL TO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY
ZOYA AKHTAR AND REEMA KAGTI IN CONVERSATION WITH SMRITI KIRAN
Smriti Kiran: I love talking to Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. They infuse me with energy, drive and a sense of motion that is deep and devoid of the anxiety that comes with a panicked rush. Their stories have the same effect. Layered, unhurried, marinated in their milieus, characters simmered for days, the landscape lived in and at the core is a profound thematic foundation. They are two of the most exciting writers-directors in the industry. They launched their production house Tiger Baby Films five years back to tell stories that share their values and politics, that range from epic to indie, alternate to queer to Indian to inherently female. I have always been more interested in artists who take pivots that empower because they create pathways where a way forward seems impossible, alter philosophy, change lives and make things happen that are otherwise unimaginable.
In this session for Dial M For Films, Zoya and Reema speak about the key difference between what the story of a film is and what it wants to say, being writers first, bringing in their perspective with naked honesty as that is what makes their stories unique, discovering instead of inventing characters, theme passes, the painstaking rigour of building authentic milieus and co-writing Farhan Akhtar’s next film.
Smriti Kiran: How is what a film wants to say and what a film is about different from each other?
Reema Kagti: I can explain through examples. Gully Boy, at the face of it, is about a young boy who starts making his own tracks and breaks the glass ceiling. But for us, it was really about class. That was the main theme of the film. Zoya, do you want to take this forward?
“That’s what we do: we create an invisible wall between each other because of where we come from.”
Zoya Akhtar: What a film is about and what it’s wanting to say are always two different things for me. When it just remains at ‘this is what the film is about’, then it has nothing to say. There’s always something lacking. So, what is a film like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara about? It’s about three boys on a road trip that proves to be cathartic for them and changes their lives forever. But, what the film is actually trying to say is carpe diem – seize the day. Gully Boy is about a boy from the slums who makes it as a rapper. Thematically, it is about class and what it says is that art transcends class.
So, when you’re an artist, it doesn’t matter what religion, caste, nationality you belong to. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. Nothing matters. You cut through the borders, the walls, you cut through everything when you’re an artist because that is what connects: humanity. That is what it’s trying to say. But the film is about a rapper from Dharavi who makes it.
Reema Kagti: To use one word to explain it: subtext. It’s always nicer if you try to layer your writing for the audience to read between the lines. Most of the time that is the takeaway of the film. It’s not really about the story as such.
Smriti Kiran: Zoya, what about Luck By Chance?
Zoya Akhtar: Luck By Chance was about these two strugglers, two actors, who come to make it big in the film industry. Both of them come in from the outside. It’s actually a film about self-esteem. It’s a film about how you view yourself, and if it has an impact on your destiny?
You have Farhan’s character, Vikram, who believes that you make your own destiny. There’s no such thing as luck. There’s no chance that you wait for someone to 0just give it to you. For him, you go in there and you make it happen. His attitude just shifts things in the universe, where he does get a lucky break. It is sheer luck, which he doesn’t really believe in.
Then you have another character, Sona Mishra, played by Konkona (Sensharma), who believes that if it’s meant to be, it will be. If you’re destined for it, then it will happen. Your cards are dealt. You just have to hang in there and things will happen if they’re meant to.
Both of them have a very different sense of self-esteem. Am I worth it? Am I not worth it? One says, ‘I am worth it. I’m going to make this happen.’ The other feels that people will decide if I’m worth it. But there is a googly there. The boy makes it, but he makes it feeling restless and eventually unhappy. The girl seemingly doesn’t make it – according to the world, but finds herself in the process and says that nobody else can define her success. She reaches a form of contentment. She has made it. To me, that’s bigger.
Smriti Kiran: Does the writing process begin with the story or what you want to say?
Zoya Akhtar: I have had various experiences: Luck By Chance began with an incident at a party that I had once attended. I was standing with a group of male actors and we were discussing another male actor who wasn’t there. Everyone liked him but somebody said that he wasn’t going to make it because he’s very content. He’s already content with what he has. I said, ‘If you’re already content, then you’ve made it. What more do you want if you reach that level of contentment, that level of happiness? How does it matter if you have one more crore in the bank or one more home? It doesn’t matter.’ Of course, everyone laughed at me. But it just stuck with me. So, the germination of that film came from there. It began with what I wanted to say.
Zindagi (Na Milegi Dobara), on the other hand, began with Reema and me just wanting to go on a road trip. I just wanted to be in Mexico in a car with three people.
Reema Kagti: Luck By Chance was an ensemble. So, Zoya just said, ‘I want three boys, no hair and makeup, in a car.’ That’s how it started.
Zoya Akhtar: Exactly! When we started writing it, we found the theme through the journey. Talaash started with a weird ghost story incident, and, again, we found the theme through the journey. So, sometimes it’s this way, sometimes it’s that.
Reema Kagti: There are no hard and fast rules, it could be anything. I get triggered by newspaper articles. You can get triggered by just a feeling. Do you know what I’m saying? All kinds of things can come at you.
Zoya Akhtar: Sometimes you just like the milieu. I just like the idea. For example, I just want to make a dysfunctional family film. I had a beagle named Zen. He was a philosopher for sure, he was studying us. One day, Reema just said, ‘What if he saw the whole family? What if we saw these bunch of Punjabis, this upper crust of society, through a philosophical dog?’ A dog who would be like National Geographic.
Reema Kagti: A dog who is the opposite of Desmond Morris. He studied animals. But this is a dog who studies people.
Zoya Akhtar: So, if he is studying this crust of society, what could happen? The moment this happened, the theme of the film became ‘projection’. When you meet all these people, especially Indians, we all have this habit of saying ‘everything is okay’, irrespective of the class. Whatever shit is going, let’s pretend to be all good. Let’s hide the dirt under the carpet. It just spills onto bigger things. It just goes on; that’s just who we are. So, we looked at it that way, and the theme came out of it.
Smriti Kiran: When you discover the core theme of the film through the writing process then both of you take it and do a ‘theme pass’ on the narrative. What is a theme pass?
“In my experience, nothing goes into somebody’s head if you tell them once. You have to slowly keep cooking it.”
Zoya Akhtar: With Gully Boy, we realised that we wanted it to be about art transcending class. We wanted it to be about the class issue. We didn’t want to say it like ‘Tumhara class kya hai?’ So, we layered it. We made sure that the father says things such as ‘people like us don’t have dreams. We don’t have the ability to dream; we just do what we have to.’ The father’s behaviour in the house becomes a particular way because he is the king of that castle. But this changes the minute you take him out of there: he has had an accident and is in the hospital. The manager of the boss, not the boss himself, walks in and the father becomes completely servile, completely different. The son is quiet. The manager just says that it has been paid for. It’s subliminal and consistently there.
When he gets the job, he’s briefed by the manager that he has to be outside at all times. So, as a rule, we never entered spaces that a person like Murad (played by Ranveer Singh) wouldn’t be entertained in. You see that he would not be able to enter the club. He will not be able to enter the home. He would always be on the outside, on the periphery, unless it was an institutional space. So, all the spaces that he could enter, whether it was the college or hospital, it all had that government-y architecture. It had that particular kind of look. These were spaces that would entertain him.
Now, the minute he started becoming an artist, we used the device of Sky, played by Kalki (Koechlin), who came from another world, to show that suddenly it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to her who he was. She broke that barrier. So, when he asks her, ‘Why are you with someone like me?’ She says that it doesn’t matter where he came from.
The biggest scene in that respect was the one where he’s driving the girl in the car and she starts crying. That’s what we do: we create an invisible wall between each other because of where we come from. Say, it was you in the car, in such close proximity to another person; if that person would have started crying, you would have stopped the car and asked them the problem. But Murad can’t bridge that gap and cannot cross that barrier. Those are the things that we actually did a theme pass with.
Reema Kagti: When you’re writing, whatever you decide to be your theme or whatever you want your film to be about, you can’t just say it out in one scene. You have to keep repeating it in little, little ways. You have to vary it so that nobody gets bored.
In my experience, nothing goes into somebody’s head if you tell them once. You have to slowly keep cooking it.
So, what we do is that once you finish writing a scene from beginning to end, and you’re really focusing on trying to make the characters work, make the scenes work, you take a step back and look at it purely from the perspective of whether or not the theme is coming out. Do I need to re-look at it? Do I need to tweak stuff?
Zoya Akhtar: You can’t keep telling people the same thing to remind them of the theme because that would just pakao people. You have to find interesting ways of doing it. His father, previously, already said to him, ‘Do you want to be on the same level as him as a graduate?’ He thinks about it once he’s in the car. He’s already feeling shitty. We never said that it was New Year’s Eve till the countdown happened. Everybody was like, ‘What are you doing tonight? What are your plans?’ You would think it’s a normal workday. He’s sitting alone inside the car, and he sees all these kids that are obviously much more privileged than him. Suddenly, the countdown begins and it’s the New Year. It is then that you realise he’s sitting there all alone, and that makes you feel something. So, you have to make people feel the theme.
Also, little things like the bouncers at the door who throw him out before he makes it, and then the bouncers at the end, when he walks into the club. The first time you see him, he’s not the leader of the pack. You start the film with Moeen (played by Vijay Varma). It’s just subliminal. Someone like Ranveer (Singh) is out of focus. Moeen is in focus till he needs to be there. So, he is the leader of the pack. When he goes to meet Sher (played by Siddhant Chaturvedi), you see Sher walking in front. It just gives you a sense of alpha. Only at the end, when he’s walking into the club, his friends are all behind him. It’s not a big thing but it makes a difference.
Smriti Kiran: Reema, what was the central theme in Talaash?
Reema Kagti: I saw it as a suspense drama. For us, the central theme was the apathy towards marginalised sections. The second theme was about dealing with your inner demons.
Obviously, there’s Kareena’s (Kapoor Khan) character, Rosie, the hooker, there was Tehmur (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Nirmala (played by Sheeba Chaddha), that track, which we used to keep coming back to the theme. There was also a younger prostitute character (Mallika) played by Aditi Vasudev. We were trying to come back in different ways to emphasise how society really doesn’t care about people who live on the fringes.
Zoya Akhtar: They’re invisible. They may as well be ghosts. We don’t look at it as a complete sense of apathy towards them. The point of it was that she was left to die. There was an accident, and they just left her. They could have picked her up and taken her to a hospital, but it didn’t matter. She actually died and no one gave a shit. It didn’t matter. So, that’s where it started.
Smriti Kiran: When you are writing, how do you build and layer your characters?
Reema Kagti: We just talk. A lot. We talk a lot more than we write.
Zoya Akhtar: We actually do talk a lot. We both have studied literature. We both read a lot. It’s really an amalgamation. We also research a lot. So, if I’m going to be writing something about a rapper, or if we are writing something that involves a hooker from the street, we will do extensive interviews. We will meet people and talk to them. We’ll pick out little nuances, little details, and little things about their lives and put that in with what we want to do with the character and where we want to take the character, which benefits our story. We use references from books that we read. Everything is a khichdi. We are also scavengers. So, we steal characteristics from people that we meet all the time.
Reema Kagti: I think all artists do that. It’s very disguised. So, don’t worry if we ever pick you up, Smriti! It’s also that we both like well-rounded characters. Even if you’re writing a person who you want everyone to like, you have to give them some edges. You have to give them certain negative qualities for them to become real characters. Otherwise, they’ll just be boring and so unreal. The idea is to try to get as lifelike as possible. In real life, everybody has good and bad in them.
Smriti Kiran: Authenticity of the milieu, the world your story is set in, is critical to the theme landing. Apart from reading books, researching and meeting people, are there other tools that you use that can possibly give you a more authentic idea of the space?
Zoya Akhtar: You have to reach out to different people. There is no choice. Like, we used to go to the Khar police station, where we made friends with some cops who took us to the Police Gymkhana. We were having beers with them. There’s no other way. You know, one of my characters came from them because we would never be able to pick up this stuff. They told us about this Nepalese guy who works as a barber. They know that he gets a lot of dope because he works in a hair salon. So, they just go there and threaten him. They’re like, ‘We know you’re Chinese. We’ll deport you.’ He’s like, ‘But I’m not even Chinese.’ These kinds of things. We never know. So, the cops have told us all of this.
Reema Kagti: Even the shoes! I love that. We would have never thought about it.
Zoya Akhtar: Oh! We went to Divine’s house once. He has a cupboard full of these expensive sneakers. They were under lock and key. They were his treasure. So, these are details you can never think of. You have to conduct extensive interviews. You have to hang out.
Also, the language in Gully Boy was so, so specific. Vijay Maurya, who is a genius dialogue writer, knows this world really, really well. Once he had done a pass, he and I sat down with four other actors – Emiway (Bantai), Rahul Piske, who plays Chintoo, Kaam Bhaari and one more person. We sat with them and went through the dialogue.
“We are also scavengers. So, we steal characteristics from people that we meet all the time.”
Two of them, Altaf and Piske, would be on set all the time. At one point, Ranveer said, ‘I want to say, ‘What are you going to do by saving your money?’ Give me a way to say it.’ So, they thought about it, and said, ‘Paisa rakh ke kya karega? Rakh ke double karega?’ There’s no chance we would have thought about this. It’s just slang, a manner of speaking. You have to have that. It makes it fun as well.
Reema Kagti: For Talaash, I met a bunch of ladies of the night, so to speak. There is this whole concept of hierarchy in the payment system. I was interviewing one of the girls; she was sitting with the pimp. When she told me how much money she makes every month, I got a heart attack. Because, according to me, you can make that working in a call centre. I turned to the guy and was like, ‘How can you pay her so little after the kind of work that she’s doing?’ And he was like, ‘Vo kya hai na madam, artist ke hisaab se hota hai. Ye nayi hai toh iska 80-20 chal raha hai. Ye jab badh jayegi, toh isko 80 aur humein 20 jayega.’ I would have not thought of that. I used that in the chatter around the brothel in Talaash. But I would’ve never come up with that on my own.
Smriti Kiran: How do you strike a balance between the core theme and other themes running through the film?
Reema Kagti: Every film has multiple themes. But the best ones always have one theme that is at the core of it. It’s difficult to balance it in that sense.
Zoya Akhtar: Letting go was the theme of Talaash; just leaving, or friendship is the theme in Zindagi, which was at the core. Family is a theme in Dil Dhadakne Do, where you are stuck in a place where there’s water all around you. You can’t just leave family. You’re on a ship, which serves as the metaphor.
There is always a theme in what’s going on. But then what are you saying about it? What is a particular story saying about that theme?
Smriti Kiran: What happens when you’re writing for someone else who is going to direct the film? How does the vision align?
Zoya Akhtar: This is the first time that we are doing it.
Reema Kagti: Zoya has been rather bossy. Even when Zoya and I are writing, whoever is directing takes the lead. The director has to own the script. It has to become their own. You have to go with what they want.
Zoya Akhtar: The last word will rest with the person making it.
Smriti Kiran: Zoya, you’d said in an interview that all your work becomes derivative if you do not expose yourself if you do not take your clothes off as a creator. What did you mean when you said that?
Zoya Akhtar: Honestly, every story is done, every genre has been done, and every take has been done. The only difference in any given thing is your perspective of it, or what you feel, or how you see it because the only thing different is you and your take. If you start making exactly what’s done before or what you think the audience wants to watch, I don’t think you want to come up with something even remotely original.
Reema Kagti: Basically, you’re plagiarising Godard. He said this in 1940, by the way, that there are no new ideas in the world. It’s only how you present it.
Zoya Akhtar: It’s true. The only difference is how you view it because you are not anyone else. Your experiences, education, heartbreaks, privileges, politics, and values – these make you. So, you are the only filter or lens which is going to be new on a particular story. You better be honest with it. You better be truthful to that story. It’s the only way that’ll set you apart from anybody else.
Smriti Kiran: You’d also said at one point that if something bothers you, or if you feel, no matter which stage of production you are in, that something is not working, or if you have doubts about something even if they come up at the last stage, you must absolutely look at it and change it, or let it go.
Zoya Akhtar: I’ve learned that the hard way, where my instinct was saying something is not correct and I didn’t do anything about it, and it didn’t work. So, I know now that if something I am talking about – maybe something in the script, something in a dialogue, maybe a song or a piece of music, or a crew member – is not working, I would fire, change, or alter.
“Your experiences, education, heartbreaks, privileges, politics, and values – these make you. So, you are the only filter or lens which is going to be new on a particular story.”
Smriti Kiran: Do you want to give us an example of something that didn’t work for you as a creator, which may have worked with the audience; that you might do differently if you were doing it today?
Zoya Akhtar: In Dil Dhadakne Do, we had discussed that maybe Kabir Mehta (played by Ranveer Singh) owns horses. So, we had one option of the aircraft that he was attached to or a farm, where he’d work with horses. He’s a rider and just wants to create a farm and have a space like that. We let that idea go. I think that would have worked better.
Smriti Kiran: Zoya, it took seven years for your first film to get made despite the fact that you had a foot in the door. What were those seven years like, and why did it take so long?
Zoya Akhtar: I can look back and tell you that the kind of story I wanted to tell was not something that people subscribed to, at that point. Today, if I took a script like Luck By Chance, I think I’d have easily cast it the way it was. I don’t think I would have a problem casting it. But, I think, the story scape was very different. It was a very different vibe at that point. For whatever reasons, people didn’t want to play that character. That’s what I think.
Reema Kagti: Around the mid-2000s, the Hindi film industry was still, by and large, producing very conventional films. 15 years later, things have changed so much that you couldn’t imagine that this was the way things were earlier.
Zoya Akhtar: This was the case even nine-ten years ago. I’m saying that this is what I like to believe in. I was new. I hadn’t directed anything before that. I don’t know. A lot of people tell me it was tougher because I was a girl. I didn’t feel it.
Reema Kagti: Yeah, even I don’t adhere to that. I think it was really her choice of work. If Zoya wanted to do a much more conventional film, she would have succeeded easily.
Zoya Akhtar: If I wanted to make a love story, I would have made a film much faster. But having said that, all my friends who came from outside the industry directed before me.
Reema Kagti: Including me.
Zoya Akhtar: Including her, including Ruchi Narain, everyone made a movie before me.
Smriti Kiran: You worked as an EP on Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.
Zoya Akhtar: Yes, I was the EP on Honeymoon Travels, on Lakshya, I worked on Dil Chahta Hai. I kept working. I kept writing, I wrote another film that got into prep and that fell through as well. I mean, it’s a sordid story. I’m going to write a book one day.
Reema Kagti: A sordid story that ends well!
Smriti Kiran: What is the hardest part of being a director?
Zoya Akhtar: The hardest part is getting someone to get into your vision, to be able to sell your idea. I honestly sometimes think that directors who are writers with a script or an idea to pitch have it easier. I think it’s tough for people who only want to direct, who aren’t writers themselves.
“When you’re a filmmaker, you’re a politician and a diplomat.”
Reema Kagti: Also, people might read the script, but still not get what you’re trying to say. They won’t get the real sense of how you mean to treat it. So, it’s really about listening, being able to express that as a first time director to get people on board. In one small word, it’s casting.
Zoya Akhtar: Directing is hugely people management. Yes, there is storytelling. There is the craft of storytelling in terms of a visual medium. One thing is: are you a storyteller? Are you clear about the story that you’re telling? Are you clear about what you want to say? What is your perspective and angle on it? That’s one chapter.
The next chapter is that you want to take the story and tell it in a medium that’s visual. I find it really weird when directors say, ‘I don’t care about the visuals’. What do you mean? Why are you doing a film then? Do a podcast. I’m saying that you have to be able to take the craft of this medium and do that. That’s where your craft comes in.
What people don’t talk about is the handling of egos. The handling of the cast and balancing them. I not only mean actors but also producers, the people that you are selling to, every single professional that comes in – from your DP to your production design to your music directors. Everyone’s an artist, so they are all funky on a level. The better the artist, the quirkier they are.
So to be able to take them, handle them and bring them together and balance it all out between 200 people every day at work, in a completely crazy, pressurising situation, is actually the art.
Reema Kagti: Yes, for me it’s still going on.
Zoya Akhtar: When you’re a filmmaker, you’re a politician and a diplomat. You have to know it somewhere. You have to juggle it. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to know people, you have to have a little sense of psychology to get the best out of them.
Smriti Kiran: There are people who don’t write but only direct. There are people who only direct but don’t write. Why did you feel the need to write your own material and direct it as well? Do you feel that something gets lost in translation when you direct a piece written by someone else?
Zoya Akhtar: We both began as writers. Reema was actually published in Tinkle Comics at the tender age of eight. Was that it?
Reema Kagti: Yes. I got paid 15 bucks.
Zoya Akhtar: So, Reema was a professional from the age of eight because Tinkle Comics took her story and published it for 15 bucks. Even I was writing from the time I was a kid – stories, ideas, and essays. I was good with stories, and I was a big reader. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was 19 years old, in college, I got a job as a copywriter in advertising. So, I was writing before actually wanting to direct. That was a given. Directing, weirdly, for both of us, came when we saw Salaam Bombay.
Reema Kagti: We didn’t even know each other.
Zoya Akhtar: When I wanted to make movies, I started working towards that. There’s no rule that you have to ride on or follow.
I worked with Ruchika Oberoi on my Lust Stories script. She’s a great writer. She wrote it. I bounced it off Reema, of course. But it was her idea and she wrote it. I also worked with another writer (Ensia Mirza) on Ghost Stories. You work together and come up with things. You bounce it off each other. It’s a different experience, but an important one because you’re taking material and saying that you like it, now how do I make it my own? So, that collaboration is very different.
With Reema and me, it’s like ‘I’m changing this,’ But with another collaborator, you have to be a little careful, a little sensitive. You have to talk it through. It was different and interesting.
Reema Kagti: She’s like, ‘I can be totally insensitive with Reema. That’s fine!’ For me, when I’m writing and giving it away, it’s very weird. For example, I didn’t direct Made in Heaven. Even with Fallen, Ruchika Oberoi is directing a couple of episodes. It’s weird both ways, you know?
Zoya Akhtar: But it’s crazy. With Made in Heaven, we had many directors, and very good ones too. One of the directors, Alankrita Shrivastava, was also a co-writer on the show. She was like, ‘You can’t change any scene without talking to me’. It’s like we have a control freak in the house, everybody! But it’s weird.
This is the first time that we’re going to give what we have written to someone else. So, Farhan’s got to handle it.
Smriti Kiran: There are boutique production houses doing incredible work like A24 and Array Now, Hello Sunshine and Plan B in the west. It’s very exciting, very interesting and very cutting edge. What are you looking to do with Tiger Baby?
Zoya Akhtar: We definitely want to tell good stories. They have to align with who we are in terms of our values and politics. The stories have to align with what we want to put out there. We are interested in the female gaze. That needn’t only be films about women. We are talking about the gaze on anything. We are interested in alternate stories, queer stories. We are interested in big, commercial stories. We want to take what we want the world to be, mix it in the commercial milieu and put it out there. As filmmakers, we are a hybrid of indie and mainstream. I think that’s the kind of stuff we want to tell. We are intrinsically inclined towards Indian stories, which we eventually, hopefully, want to tell to the global audience.
Smriti Kiran: Is there a way that people who would want to work with you can get in touch with you? Is there a system that you have put into place so that people know?
Reema Kagti: There are people in Tiger Baby who read for us, take the conversation forward even if we’re away shooting or doing something else. There are people to get in touch with.
Zoya Akhtar: There is a website now, which we’re coming up with. So, people can just write to us in terms of jobs or whatever. To be honest, the best thing to do is to go there and leave your stuff, to go there and leave your CD. Of course, if you can manage to meet us, you should because that always makes a difference. Though it gets really hectic because everybody wants to meet you. If we started meeting everybody, we wouldn’t do any work. It’s true. So, you can leave your CV there because every time we start looking for people, that’s where we start scanning. That’s how I met Shakun.
I needed a DA, and I asked Excel to give me their file of resumes that had come in. Shakun was one of the people who I called in for an interview. That’s how I met Shakun Batra.
Smriti Kiran: I didn’t know that Shakun was your DA, and he was stolen by Farhan.
Zoya Akhtar: Yes! He was mine!
I think he was just super bright when I met him. He wanted a job. I didn’t meet him because he came into the office. I met him because I wanted a DA. We have a file, and we always look at resumes. People whose resumes I like, I call them for an interview and pick one. That’s how I met Shakun. I hired him and he got kidnapped by Farhan! He stole him. That’s what happened.
Q&A with Dial M For Film Participants and Viewers watching Live on Facebook
Chintan Sarda: Could you explain how you plot since your films are so character-driven? Do you let the characters surprise you or do you know exactly who the characters are before you go into writing?
Reema Kagti: You never know. You have to find them.
Zoya Akhtar: You find them in the process. They are not surprising you; you are surprising yourself. You’re in control and making them do whatever you want them to do. But we always lock what we want the end of the story to be. We know that we want this to reach here. Then when we start charting the journey. It finds its own space, and they grow along the way. But we have to have a destination in mind.
Reema Kagti: I don’t know how else to put it, I love my characters. You want to do your best. Even if it’s a negative character, you want people to understand them. Or if it’s a very positive character, you want people to understand the chinks in that person. None of it happens on just one level. That’s the big thing for aspiring writers. You have to keep layering your work. It has never happened in my career, at least.
Zoya Akhtar: That’s the only way – writing draft on draft. Sometimes you realise that this doesn’t work, that a character isn’t working. So, you say, ‘Let’s change this person.’ Then it has a domino effect. It’s a process, yes.
Reema Kagti: The only two writers that I’ve heard of who successfully just kept coming out with perfect scripts in the first draft itself are Salim-Javed. In fact, Javed saab keeps asking us ‘What do y’all do? How can you write so many drafts? What are y’all writing?’ He says that he might have gone to a second draft sometimes but never to a third. So, he asks us, ‘How do you guys get to thirty?’ But it just takes that. When we say that we’re nearing, we just pretty much go over and over from scene one to the end, just going on and on with the characters, with the themes, with what we want to say. You just keep trying to subtly bring it all out in different ways.
That’s also the thing about film: you need to repeat things. But then if you’re repetitive, people are like ‘Boring film!’ So, how do you keep mixing it? How do you keep it interesting but at the same time harp on the same thing in a different way?
Reema Kagti: We knew that we wanted Zindagi to be about this road trip that three guys take. So, then we started building up their three stories…..
Zoya Akhtar: And it was in Mexico because we really wanted to go to Mexico.
Reema Kagti: Zoya wanted to go to Mexico! I wanted to go to Spain. Also because Mexico looks a lot like Assam, where I’m from. I was like, ‘This is not exciting. Spain is exciting.’
But, you just start like that. There’s no order to anything. You’re just talking about scenes; then halfway through, we felt like we needed one thing to kind of tie all of it together. So, that’s when the idea of each one having an adventure sport that they’re going to spring on the other two and the other two have to do it came about. When we were doing that track, we somewhere came up with the theme of dealing with your fears, seizing the day.
Zoya Akhtar: So, we had this trip, we had these three boys and we were going to set it in Mexico. We were also going to have a catharsis that happens to all three of them. Reema has an Australian friend, who had made a pact with two of her girlfriends that they would go running with the bulls. And the minute we started talking about this trip, we were like, ‘So, this could be a pact that ends with running with the bulls’, which is why the movie moved to Spain. We could then actually use adventure sports as the link, which also has a direct bearing on each one of them and their existential fears, and it’s cathartic.
It was interesting to not use a testosterone-driven male space. We wanted to do it in a more poetic and cathartic manner. My brother is a skydiver and has done more than 200 solo jumps. A very close friend of mine, filmmaker Homi Adajania, is a deep-sea diver. When they talk about it, it’s poetry. When they talk about it, it’s like freedom. It’s like meditation. And it was interesting to be able to take that and not just have this kind of machismo constantly on screen, but instead use adventure sports in a much gentler, more spiritual fashion to create this. That’s how it started.
Reema Kagti: But to arrive at this, we actually had to meet with people and speak to them.
Zoya Akhtar: We never jumped off a plane. I will never do that.
Reema Kagti: Yeah, I’m never going to jump either.
Ananyabrata Chakrovorty: Is the theme the moral of the story minus the opinion of the filmmaker? For instance, ‘honesty’ instead of ‘honesty is the best policy’ or ‘good vs evil’ instead of ‘good over evil’?
Reema Kagti: I wouldn’t say it’s the moral of the story. It’s really about the subtext. For example, if you take Aspi and Zara’s (played by (Abhay Deol and Minissha Lamba) track, I don’t know if you’ve seen Honeymoon, they suddenly reveal to each other that they are superhuman. Now, obviously, I don’t really mean to tell that superheroes exist. That was my way of saying the perfect couple doesn’t exist. That was the subtext. I believe that makes it clear. So, it’s a little different from the moral of the story.
Kritika Dhawan: When you are writing a new script, developing new characters – especially being a duo – how do you find a common voice? Have you removed some section of a screenplay or character in the past because you couldn’t come to an agreement?
Reema Kagti: Sure, you do that. You can’t decide the minute you come up with an idea whether or not it is good. You pretty much have to sleep over it. Once you sleep over it, if both of you like it and come back to it, then you’ll know it’s a good idea. If one person likes it, and the other is iffy, then you know that it’s a bit iffy.
Zoya Akhtar: And if you’re iffy, then why are you iffy. Also, we have worked enough to have that kind of trust to know if it works or not. As I said, it’s quite easy to say that if I’m directing the film that we’re writing, then I’ll have the last word. If she’s directing, then she’ll have the last word. If it’s bothering one of us, then there’s something wrong with it.
Akanksha Arya: When do you decide that you have reached the final draft and that you now need to dissociate to gain perspective on what you’ve written?
Reema Kagti: Yes. It’s also very important to give your script to other writers. Have them look at it because you’re really close to it. You’ve been with it for far too long. Try to gauge if they are seeing things the way you mean it. Give it to other writers because that’s where you can get the best feedback.
Zoya Akhtar: When you’ve done that, take a break from it. Give it to people you trust and get a bunch of feedback in. For me, it’s basically my entire family.
Akanksha Arya: With respect to Gully Boy, why did you choose to have a brother for Murad? What were you trying to do with that character in particular?
Zoya Akhtar: Why did I choose a brother for him? It’s not so deep. I just needed to have a sibling. We cut out one or two scenes of his, right?
Reema Kagti: Yes. See, the situation that he is in – if you’re the older child, you’ve got a younger brother that you’re trying to protect, it makes them more vulnerable as opposed to being the only child.
Zoya Akhtar: He could have had any sibling, but the brother was just nicer because we didn’t want another female presence in there. There was a grandmother, there was a mother. The brother being younger and just impressionable, in that sense, was just nicer. There was no major reason for a boy and not a girl as the sibling.
Sanyukta Chawla Shaikh: In all your films, I’ve noticed that there are a few long pieces where you take a mood through – the drive in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara where Hrithik (Roshan) sees the wild horses, or in Gully Boy, where Murad is driving and the girl cries in the backseat. How explicitly do you put them down in the script? Also, are you ever worried about the audience getting bored of such sequences, or wonder if they’d get it, and that maybe you should finish it quickly?
Zoya Akhtar: With both the sequences that you mentioned, we knew exactly what was going to come there. I knew that I would be using that poem. We wrote that in. We don’t really go into it, and producers don’t really ask me.
Reema Kagti: I see where you’re coming from. As a writer sometimes, you write because you know instinctively it is going to take this much to justify that idea or thought. Everybody can’t see that. So, you have all these sequences even though we wrote them.
These are also sequences that on the edit table have been fought over by Zoya for their length. People are constantly suggesting snip, snip, snip. She has had to put up a fight to get the length that she wanted.
Zoya Akhtar: The horses were in the song. Nobody’s asking you to cut the song.
If you’re writing for a director, you need to get that director on the page. If that means showing them a reference of what you mean, then you talk them through it and narrate it in a way so that it gives them the mood. If the director bites, the director will sell it to the producer because eventually what you’re talking about is only the treatment. That is something the producer will see only 0.1% of, whereas you’ll see the remaining 99.9%. You have to sell it to the director if you’re writing for a director. Sometimes that could mean you show them examples, visual references from somewhere, you pull out an image and say that it could be like this, that this is how it will lend to the scene.
Reema Kagti: Firstly, you have to be convinced. A lot of the times you don’t have to react to everything that people say. It’s very important that you make changes that only resonate with you because if you don’t agree with something, it’s difficult to justify that.
Zoya Akhtar: I wrote the Gully Boy scene word for word. Of course, I didn’t write the poem because that’s what my father (Javed Akhtar) wrote, but I knew what it was about. I knew that there’s going to be a poem here. I knew that poem is going to eventually become his first song because, besides the fact that it defines what class is, it also revealed to me the artistic process. When an experience hits you or touches you, makes you awkward or weird, or simply aware of the reality you’re in, that’s what you write about. Like, I write about heartbreak. I write about things that no one makes songs about. I went to a party last night and had great fun with my friends – that’s not what you write about. We write songs about things that move you, touch you, things that you see. So, he writes what he sees in a poem. He records that poem which goes to Sher, and he says, ‘Let’s put something to the music.’ Then it becomes Doori, the song. That was a part of the process. I already knew that. It was written.
When we’re talking about songs, I sometimes also know the mood but I haven’t decided what I want in terms of the visuals for it. The picturisation of the song in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara came in when I started working with my DP, Carlos Catalan. The song comes directly after Laila, Katrina’s (Kaif) character, kisses him. The way I saw the relationship was that he’s the sleeping beauty, and she is the princess. She kisses him and he wakes up.
So, when I was talking to my DP, I told him that I want this to be the kiss of life. I want this to mean that he’s woken up. It meant that he suddenly starts seeing things that are mundane – the sun through the leaves, a jet plane streaking past, light hitting his face, a scarf flying, his hand, and his reflection in the water. He’s noticing like he has suddenly woken up.
I did a recce in Spain with my DP and production designer. There are wild horses spread all over there. Sometimes, while driving in the country, you just look at this pack of horses running in the fields, and it’s stunning. You’re like, ‘This has to go where it means something.’ It can’t just be anything. It has to mean something.
When the horses come in the sequence, and he looks at them running, it’s just freedom. It just speaks of freedom. For me, at least. I don’t know if it translated but that’s what it meant. It has to also come in contextually at a moment where it will make you sore. It’ll make you feel what you’re trying to say subconsciously.
Reema Kagti: A scene from Gully Boy which I absolutely love is when Murad goes to Sky’s home and uses her washroom. We had written the scene where he goes to the bathroom and starts measuring space.
Zoya Akhtar: He was supposed to wash his hands and then walk away.
We were working in a model apartment. They didn’t have water supply. Ranveer was like, ‘I don’t have any water.’ So what he did is that, which I thought was so moving he wiped his hands and just put the napkin back as if he didn’t want to ruin anything; like he didn’t want to mess anything up.
It’s such a small gesture, but it speaks volumes. For him, this place is perfect. He didn’t want any blemishes. He just added to what we had already written. He brought that, and I thought it was simply beautiful.
Pratiksha Dhakras: How do you balance your stories in your films in terms of putting across the theme well and remaining highly entertaining at the same time?
Zoya Akhtar: You can’t bore people. I mean, you don’t want to. I’m sure that we may reach a stage where we make a really boring film. I’m not saying that will never happen. But nobody intends to do that. So, you have to engage. When I say engage, I don’t mean people have to laugh. They have to be hooked. They have to feel for the character. They have to feel for the story. They have to be sucked in – like the dramatic tension if you’re doing a drama; the thrill if you’re doing a thriller; the suspense if you’re making a whodunit; whatever you’re doing, it has to grip you.
I just read this quote (by Frank Capra) today: ‘There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.’
I think it ends over there. If you’re going to start preaching or giving a lecture on what your film is about, you’ve lost people.
Reema Kagti: I have a very simple way of going about this. Would I enjoy it? Maximum, the other person that I would think of is Zoya. Would Zoya like this? But that’s about it.
However close you are to script, at some point, you have to step back. Read it very objectively, and be like, ‘Would I like this?’
Zoya Akhtar: Like, the skydiving scene in Zindagi. I have the world’s best footage. I’m not joking. I was in love with it because it’s so gorgeous. From my DP, Carlos, to the editor, everybody was like, ‘You have to edit it.’
Reema Kagti: It was a feature film in itself.
Zoya Akhtar: I was like, ‘But it looks amazing.’ Finally, my mother came and said, ‘I am bored to death. I beg of you, please cut the scene. I want to kill someone.’ So I had to edit it.
Sometimes, when you fall in love, people around you should tell you the truth.
Reema Kagti: At their own peril!
Sumixna Chetia: Do you create your characters first and then move ahead with the narrative or the other way around?
Reema Kagti: It needs to happen simultaneously. You can’t think of one without the other. You can’t just think of a character in isolation. You have to think about what’s going on with the rest of the story; where is he coming from and going to?
I think a more correct answer would be that it kind of happens simultaneously.
Zoya Akhtar: Having said that, Safeena (played by Alia Bhatt), in Gully Boy, was a character that Reema had written in another script. When I read it, I fell in love with Safeena.
When we started writing Gully Boy, I told her that I wanted Safeena. So, we took her out of Reema’s script and put her into the film. We made her fit into Gully Boy. We later added things to suit her in the film, But the character originally belonged to another film.
Reema Kagti: There is no one-size-fits-all answer. But at some point, it’s a good thing to probably step back and just be like, ‘Do I like this even if I hadn’t created it?’
Kaushik Negi: You incorporated all forms of graffiti in the film. What was the reason behind putting it in the film?
Zoya Akhtar: Graffiti is a massive, massive part of hip-hop culture. Things like B-boying, beatboxing was not originally in the film because it was about a closeted poet. The main story just had writing and rap culture.
I definitely wanted to touch upon and doff my hat to certain things that are a part of hip-hop culture, say, B-boying, which I used in the video of Mere Gully Mein, and the graffiti, which I used in another song. I love that. It’s an extension of the form. It’s also about expression. It’s about telling the truth. It is political. It’s a rebellion. It’s breaking the law. It’s street.
That had to come in somehow. It was nice to use that with Sky. It was nice to take it there because a character like Sky, though seemingly far removed from Murad’s world, did share a commonality. They were both if I can say this, left. Her concerns may be different. Murad is not thinking about fairness, about Fair & Lovely. She writes ‘brown and beautiful’. That’s not his reality. Or when she’s talking about body dysmorphia, where she’s looking at these skinny models or planting more trees. Those aren’t his concerns. These are where she’s coming from. But he can see that she is on the same side as him. Despite her concerns being different from his, they are on the same side.
I felt that it gave them a connection. They were on the same page, in a sense; very differently so because she’s privileged. But it connected them.
Nitin Gupta: Do you go back and forth with the research process once you have moved on to writing the screenplay?
Zoya Akhtar: You do go back, pull things in. There are times when the characters aren’t working and you suddenly decide that I want to change this character’s profession, or I want to change where this character is from. So, you go back and you do the research. Take something like skydiving. I know skydiving, but I don’t know what the hell they do. I know deep-sea diving, but what does that mean?
I started researching it in the middle of that. You come upon those blocks and you need that information. Sometimes it’s not information. Sometimes you have the information, but it’s bloody dry. You talk to those people because only those little things, those little details can make it wet.
If I’m talking to a stockbroker and one of Ritesh’s (Sidhwani) cousins is. I called him up and I asked him what is a typical thing that somebody like him would say. He said, ‘You will sell your Santro for a Ferrari, man.’ I won’t have that kind of lingo, the way they look at things, the dialogues. So, you research every process. It just makes things wetter.
This can also mould, morph or change the idea as we go along. But you have to know. It’s not that you’ve made a film where you’re showing murder to be bad and then by the end of it you claim that it is okay. That can’t happen. You have to know what you’re doing. You can’t know this in the shooting process. You have to know this before you start shooting.
Reema Kagti: It happens. When you’re really in touch with your idea, you really have to sift through suggestions and feedback – you have to see what is good, what resonates with you, what’s bad and what doesn’t work. It applies to yourself and what you’re thinking because the whole process of writing takes a couple of months. You completely change from the time you started till the time you finish – you’re a different person. Your thinking will change. It’s better to just listen and to try to imbibe the good ideas even if it means that your theme is changing.
Tipu Sultan: Do you guys think that there is a chasm that exists between stories that are being told and the maturity of the audience?
Zoya Akhtar: You can slowly keep doing something and the palette will gradually shift. Today, there’s exposure with OTT platforms. You can watch content that’s global. You’re seeing all kinds of filmmakers. I just don’t mean Netflix and Amazon, but also MUBI. It’s incredible. Then we have the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, and they are really doing things to push the conversation and the narrative of cinema.
Today, it’s different from when we started. You can make a movie on a phone. Sean Baker made Tangerine on his iPhone. You have enough festivals that are interested. You have enough things to come out. It exists. But if you have to say, ‘What can we do?’ I’d say that there can be a level playing field in terms of promotions.
The media plays a huge part. They need to be able to cover it. They need to give attention to this. Say, a movie like Eeb Allay Ooo! It’s absolutely incredible. I had never seen Shardul Bhardwaj in the film before. I didn’t know who he was. I couldn’t get over his performance. I spoke to him on the phone, and after COVID we are going to meet because he’s just incredible. But, honestly, even though it was at MAMI, was pushed, even though it was picked up for the We Are One Film Festival, the media has not covered it. I haven’t seen it. The media has not picked it up.
MAMI created a conversation. I was in a panel discussion with Anupama Chopra, Kabir Khan, Vishal Bhardwaj and Vikramaditya Motwane, where we spoke about the films that were playing at the festival. Beyond a point, that’s all we can do. The media has to pick it up. They have to cover this stuff.
Reema Kagti: it’s not just the media. Even what the media is covering is somewhat being dictated by the audience. Traditionally, there will always be art that is very commercial, that’s completely accessible to a mass. Then there is niche stuff, where what was niche 20 years ago will suddenly become commercial today. These are cycles that exist in the relationship that the audience has with films.
Zoya Akhtar: It is changing. It will keep changing. People are emerging; artists, filmmakers and stories are coming. It’s a process. But the bottom line is that theatres have to give it space. They have to show these films.
Reema Kagti: We’ve touched on this a little earlier. Like, back in 2005, it was probably impossible to make an independent film or a film that didn’t follow all the beats of a commercial film. Today, it’s completely possible to make any kind of film. You have to be very careful about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you have fallen in love with a small, niche idea, and you’re hoping you make 300 crores from it, that’s not going to happen. But the fact that you made this film; it had a release to a niche audience; those people watched the film and reacted well to it is, to me a success in itself.
Avi Grewal: How much role does the audience play while you’re writing? Do you worry about how certain parts which are left open might be interpreted?
Zoya Akhtar: Yes, we do think about that without losing the feeling that we want to convey. We try to make it as simple as possible.
Zindagi ends with the boys running with the poem playing in the background, and it just goes to black. We had test screenings, and everybody asked us if they’d died. We had focus groups screenings, and 80% of the people were like, ‘Kya vo mar gaye?’ Then you wonder, ‘Let’s just put a bloody song.’
Reema Kagti: Put a montage. Life went on.
Zoya Akhtar: You can’t have them coming out of a movie thinking that they’re dead because that’s really not going to work. So, yes, you have to think about the audience, but not to the point where you start predicting that the audience won’t like it. We never think about what the audience will like and not like. We think about: this is what we want to say because this is what we like. Now, how do we say it in the best way so that they get it? That’s the difference. Honestly, we don’t know what the audience likes and doesn’t like. We know what we like.
Reema Kagti: In the writing stage, you can only refer to yourself. And maximum, like I was saying because Zoya is a part of the process, I think it’s just ‘Will Zoya like this?’
Zoya Akhtar: If we like something, in terms of the audience we just figure out if they will like it and if they will understand what we like. We don’t do what we think they will like because they keep surprising us. So, we don’t know. We just have to do what we like.
Sudhanshu Saria: When you have done all your passes and everything is perfectly on theme, do you ever intentionally take certain stuff away so that it doesn’t feel too cohesive and reflects the randomness of life?
Zoya Akhtar: Not at all. Because, if you start going out of your way to make it not cohesive, it’s not going to work for it. What’s the point of that?
Reema Kagti: No. It has to be cohesive.
Nikita Despande: How important is outlining the plot in your process, and at what stage do you prefer to do it?
Zoya Akhtar: Outlining the plot is the most important.
Reema Kagti: Yes, it’s upfront.
Zoya Akhtar: We don’t start writing the screenplay until we have a plotline.
Meenakshi Shedde: It was thrilling to see the international response at the Berlin International Film Festival for Gully Boy. I was in love with the lead protagonists where a male protagonist is writing songs and the female protagonist is training to be a surgeon. I think it was so courageous to have protagonists in a big Bollywood film who are Muslim in such a right-wing atmosphere, especially when you know that there’s money riding on the film. Were you conscious of that somewhere at the back of your mind?
Zoya Akhtar: Divine (Vivian Fernandes) and Naezy (Naved Shaikh) were the two touchstone rappers for the film. Divine is a Christian, and Naezy is a Muslim. They are both minorities. They were the biggest influences on the film. We were definitely going to make the protagonist one of them, and we chose for him to be Muslim because we know it in a closer way.
Having said that, I always have Muslim characters in my films. I grew up in the age of Amar Akbar Anthony. That’s what I grew up watching. That was part of my education, my experience, my world. As was Reema’s. We’ve continued with that.
In fact, so many people asked me that. But the truth is that my producer, Ritesh Sidhwani, never asked me that. It didn’t come up.
Reema Kagti: During the writing, it did happen. Zoya did bring it up. I don’t know who had brought it up that the characters were Muslims. She was like, ‘Is it going to be okay?’ I said that it would be okay, that we should write it. It wasn’t about being Hindu or Muslim. It was about coming from a marginalised part of society.
Zoya Akhtar: Representation is really important. It needs to be seen. People need to be seen as human beings. It’s very easy to say that they are Muslims, that’s why they are like that.
The bottom line is that when you’re in that strata of society, you’re all in that position. Everybody’s just kept in that position. You’re distracted by many things. But the truth of the matter is that you’re being kept in a position. It didn’t matter. You want to see people as human beings. You want their problems to resonate with you. Actually, none of the actors, none of the crew, none of the distributors mentioned it. Nobody cared.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.