Writer-director Zoya Akhtar on her latest release Dil Dhadakne Do, working with her brother Farhan and why she doesn’t like surprising actors on set.
After Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, your characters have once again packed their bags for a cruise in Dil Dhadakne Do. How integral is travel to your narrative?
I love to travel, but of the four films I have made, only two are based abroad. So travel is perhaps not that integral to my narrative — maybe 50 per cent. In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (ZNMD), travel was imperative. It had three people coming out of their comfort zone to take time out for the trip that turns out to be cathartic for them. In Dil Dhadakne Do (DDD), travel is not that crucial. It is a family drama and my co-writer Reema Kagti and I needed a device to put the entire family together in one place — it could have been a hill station instead of a ship. However, when we thought of a ship, it made perfect sense. Metaphorically, you can’t leave your family, you are stuck with each other. So, in the middle of the ocean, they are all together. (Read Review: Dil Dhadakne Do)
You love to scratch the surface. Was that the temptation behind this family drama?
I don’t think any family is normal. No one in my family or my extended family is normal. My friends’ families are not normal. Having said that, the beauty of families lies in their flaws. It’s the kind of movie where you experience the quirkiness of family life, weird relationships and the many layers to each of them. And, of course, I get to scratch the surface. Otherwise, why make a movie?
At the heart of DDD is a brother-sister relationship. Did your relationship with your brother (Farhan Akhtar) influence the story?
I think so. The fact that they are close, each other’s confidants and they discuss their parents — which I believe all siblings do — these are similar elements. But the conflicts and pressure faced by the two characters (played by Ranveer Singh and Priyanka Chopra) are very different from ours.
How much have you borrowed from real life?
This is fiction but it does come from around you — from other people’s stories, literature and things around me. But then, we are writers and we make up stories. We take certain aspects of life that resonate with the spirit of the relationship.
You have an impressive cast. How hard did you have to work on it?
You have to work on everything. Meeting six actors and narrating the story six times is exhausting. But it came together very well. Today, when I see the four of them — Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Ranveer Singh and Priyanka Chopra — together, they look like a family. They play off each other really well. I couldn’t have got a better unit.
Does Farhan have to be there in every movie you make?
It is fun to have him around. He naturally becomes a part of the scheme of things.
Are you a control freak on the set?
I am okay with not controlling the crew. I will let my director (photograph) or production designer do what they feel is right. But I am not a chalta hai kind of person. I need the scenes to work. I do readings, rehearsals and I go through the whole script with them. By the time we are on the set, there are no surprises for the actors. Also, the actors are not props. They go through a process and we co-create a character together. I write the histories of characters, so every actor knows the world they are coming from.
How important is it to have stars in your films?
It depends on your budget. If the film has a bigger budget, you need stars to sell it.
Does having your brother as producer make it easier for you?
They are not going to produce anything that they don’t believe has the potential. That would be foolish. And it would be foolish to allow me to go ahead with it.
You have again collaborated with Reema Kagti to write the story of DDD. What’s your process?
Our process is that we talk a lot till we have cracked it. By that I mean we should be able to write down the scenes in a line each. This works as a blueprint for the film. Once we lock that blueprint, she writes the screenplay. Then I work on the dialogues and characterisation. We are a pretty well-oiled machinery. We keep improvising each other’s writing. Either we are writing a script for her film or mine. So if the script is for her film, the eventual word is hers. Ditto in case of my film. While working on Talaash, if she did not like my argument, I had to shut up.
When it comes to writing dialogues, you have been getting help from Farhan and your father Javed Akhtar.
My dad worked on the dialogues for my first film Luck By Chance and my short film in Bombay Talkies. He suited that world. Farhan has written dialogues of ZNMD and now DDD. We share a similar aesthetic and sense of humour. Since he is a part of the process from the scripting stage, he gets the gist of the film effortlessly.
You are a world cinema buff. What’s on your current watchlist?
The primary reason why I make movies is because I love watching them. Now I am waiting for DDD to release so that I can spend at least two week catching up on all the movies I have missed. Court is probably the first film I am going to watch. I have watched only half of the movies that were in the Oscar race. I have to watch The Theory of Everything and Foxcatcher.
Where are you travelling to next?
I have some eight destinations in mind. I have to zero in on one.