In this interview with indianexpress.com, Zoya talks about her experience at the Berlin International Film Festival 2019. She also opens up on why it was the right time to tell the story of Indian underground rappers and the controversy that surrounds “Azadi”.
Q. Gully boy opened to a thundering response at the Berlin International Film Festival 2019. How does it feel?
As a filmmaker when you show your film to anybody, you want it to be liked. You want the reviews to be positive. After watching your film, you want people to feel good. It is interesting when you have a foreign eye that says it is a social critique or about feminism. They pick the nuances of the film. That makes one happy as you realise how there are no barriers.
So, I feel happy and relieved, and now I am really looking forward to the reaction of the Indian audience.
Q. Why did you feel it was the right time to tell the story of underground rappers in India?
I think the scene is palpable right now. It is emerging. I think it was on the brink when I caught on to the underground scene. It was getting bigger. From the time I started, which was 2014-15 to now, it has blown up. I mean Divine and Naezy are big stars. So, I think I just lucked out. I was just at the right place at the right time.
Q. The music album of Gully Boy became an instant hit. Did you expect it?
I think you have to work on it. The music has to fit your story. I like hip-hop personally. It is a genre I am very attached to and have been listening to all my life. But I have always engaged with foreign artistes, never with mainstream Indian hip-hop rap space. There were some nice tracks to dance to, and I would dance to them. However, they were not something I would listen to when I am at home alone.
Then, the first person I heard was Naezy. I listened to “Aafat”, and that was it. It hits you because it is legitimate rap. You know where it is coming from. You know what he is speaking about, and that it is the truth. And, it’s got no bitterness, no cynicism. It’s positive. It’s a mirror to the society, and there is a feeling of ‘we can change it’. That is so intense. So, that is what I got from it. That is what attracted me deeply, and that is what I wanted to capture and transmit.
Q. So did you use “Azadi” to participate in the mainstream political discourse, or it is there because ‘it’s a catchy track’ as Ranveer and Alia call it?
Firstly, you are only attracted to it because it is a good song. But also there is a weightage to it. You can’t just put it anywhere. Azadi is a strong word. It means freedom. Freedom is a sentiment associated with the youth. It is rebellion. It is what you feel at that age, and it is very important.
‘Azadi’ as a slogan has been used way before JNU (protests held by Kanhaiya Lal and others at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016) and it will be used way after JNU. It belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. It belongs to everyone. It’s been used for women’s rights. It’s been used against patriarchy, the caste system and the government rule. It’s been used in various spaces.
When I heard the track, I loved it and I wanted a way to take it and adapt it in my narrative. My narrative is about the class system. The class system in India is very hard, and it is very unfair. It is about the economic disparity, and it is for everyone to see, especially in a city like Mumbai where there are skyscrapers and slums attached. We cross each other’s lives. It’s crazy. My film is set in that world, and that song needed to fit that system.
I could not take Kanhaiya’s words and put it in because that’s not what my film is about. It is not about the caste system, and it is not about JNU. It is about the class system in the city. It needed to fit in. If I had just used it, then I would have been using something controversial for my gain. It would have been in bad taste, and it would be disrespectful. So I adapted it to mine and I am sure other people will adapt it to whatever works for them. It is basically about any community that feels oppressed.
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Q. Would that also be your answer to being criticised for being selective in keeping a few words, and removing a significant chunk that was about freedom from casteism, patriarchy and political oppression?
Yes. Because my film is not about that. And when I make a film about it, trust me I will talk about that. Right now, I am making a film about class and about economic divide, so I am speaking about that. You can’t just add things into it to get attention. You have to be honest to your story. And if you are honest, you will get the attention. I plan to make many films, and trust me I will say many things.
Q. How did you get your father Javed Akhtar to write the other songs? How was it bringing him and Divine together?
Murad (Ranveer Singh) is a poet in the film. He has a couple of poems that I wanted my father to write. In a situation one of those poems becomes the inspiration, and that became the song “Doorie” in the film. So I needed him to write the poem, and I needed him to write what that poem would become. And once that poem becomes what it has become now, the language needed to change. It needed to become more street-kid hip-hop and so Divine came in. He worked on that with my father. The poem is original. Divine worked on the song.