You debuted as a writer-director 10 years ago with Luck By Chance. How has the journey been?
It has been a very sweet ride. I have done four features, two short films and one web series, Made in Heaven, which will be available on March 8. With time, it definitely becomes easier to do things. I will keep trying different styles. When you have an interesting story, you wonder how can you tell it most effectively.
What was the process while building the characters of Gully Boy?
Ranveer (Singh) has a penchant for rapping. He is also very conversant with the Mumbai lingo. It was very easy for him to get into the part. He was aware of the gully rap scene before I did. He had met some rappers and wanted to meet more. He nailed his dialogue and dialect. He got into the studio and started working on his music with DIVINE. He prepped it well. He worked with me for the rest of the acting preparation. Alia (Bhatt) too did her homework and worked on her dialect. Both of them were my first choices for their roles.
Your casting choices are often interesting…
I work with an amazing casting director called Nandini Shrikent. And this time, along with her, there was Karan Mally working on the casting. I’m very specific with my casting. Even if it’s a two-line part, I want an actor. That changes the game. You can’t just cast anyone in any role.
Is there a theme that the movie tries to explore?
The class system. It needs to be felt.
Being a writer-director, do you have more clarity regarding what you want on the sets?
Reema (Kagti) and I wrote the movie together. I work with seriously good and top of the line professionals. It’s a collaborative effort. Of course, eventually the vision is the director’s, in terms what he/she wishes to convey. But they are professionals who come with great ideas that help a director shape that vision.
Does gender matter when you are behind the camera?
Gender comes in, in my politics, movies and value system. There is a very strong female gaze in terms of that. It influences not only how I treat women but how I wish men to be. That’s how I am and how I look at male and female characters.
How did you go about making Lust Stories, a short film, in the confined space of a Mumbai flat?
The script was written by Ruchika Oberoi, whose movie Island City I had loved. I wrote her a mail saying that since I was busy working on Made in Heaven and Gully Boy, would she like to collaborate. She came up with the germ of the idea and wrote it. It was new for me to work on something that I had not completely written. When you don’t write a script, as a director, you approach it in terms of visual storytelling.
What were the challenges of working on Gully Boy’s album?
For the album, we have altogether 54 artists, including the singers, writers, beat-boxers, producers and others. They are all independent artists but I had a great music supervisor in Ankur Tewari. It was very exciting to work with people from the age-group of 16 to 30.
How much do box-office figures matter to you?
Figures matter to the producers and to the people in trade. In case of others, they either like the movie or they don’t. I loved Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). I don’t care how much money it made.
Does this approach change now that you have launched the production house Tiger Baby?
My life has definitely changed. Reema and I are interested in producing and mentoring. We are keen on expanding and doing different kinds of cinema. So we will be working more.
How has been the experience of doing a web series?
It’s a totally different beast. We had to write eight hours of content. This also allows that much time to tell a story and build characters. We wrote it with Alankrita Shrivastava. I enjoyed the process and I’m happy to do more.
Now that there is so much discussion in the industry around women-related issues, what does it change for you?
It needs to change for the world. I’m part of a privileged minority. I say privileged because I come from a family that has never treated me differently than my brother (Farhan Akhtar). My true privilege is the opportunity, confidence and freedom I was given. I hope people understand that about women and let them be.
Coming from a family of writers, have you thought of publishing your work?
I don’t think I would ever publish my poems. I wish to collaborate with my dad (Javed Akhtar) on a feature film. I am also trying to get my mother (Honey Irani) to collaborate with me for a web show.