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Published: Verve Magazine, Features, March 2009

Luck By Chance (LBC), a film visualised in Goa, worked on for seven years, which finally saw daylight in 2009, catapulted debut writer-director Zoya Akhtar into tinsel-town limelight. Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani’s daughter and Farhan Akhtar’s sister has the Midas touch herself, with a self confidence that appears to be cultivated from over a decade of hard work. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh finds her enjoying the journey

IT IS REALLY TOUGH TO pin her down, but when you do, she is patient, effervescent and a powerhouse of energy. I quiz her on her newfound success – not easy with a debut film. “It is a bit of a dichotomy – I expected the collections to be better; I didn’t expect the film to do so well for me! The reviews and feedback have been amazing.”

Has the success of LBC raised the bar? “Your second film is actually a tough one – it has to be ‘do I just keep doing what I do; or do I have to think of the commercial market now?’ What you work with should keep you excited for two years – and turn you on.” What turns Zoya on is a “clever” movie – like The Usual Suspects or Munnabhai MBBS or Lagaan; or one that really touches you, like Black Friday. “I don’t understand movies where the producer and director ask me to leave my brain at home.”

We discuss the clever nuances of LBC, and Zoya is surprisingly modest. “As a director, you need people who can take your vision and give you ideas that you haven’t even thought of – your crew can make or break your film.” Zoya, who studied film at New York University, post literature and sociology at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, has always written her own work. She finds that to be the secret of the exacting clarity required to take her vision forward.

The 36-year-old movie enthusiast prefers to engage and question norms in the realms of mainstream cinema. “There is no film-maker who wants only a few people to see his film. There is no more art and commercial cinema. The point is to merge this gap and simply make good commercial films.” And is art instinctive or learned? “Both. You have to be a storyteller at heart, but you have to learn – whether it is from a DVD library, film school or working on a set.”

I point out that there is a sense of irony in making a film about struggling Bollywood ‘have-nots’, when you represent the ‘haves’. She retorts immediately, “What do mean by ‘have’? It’s not like I decided to be a director and got a launch on a platter! If you want to do anything that is slightly out of the box, you have to struggle like anyone else. There are perks – you have access to people, but they won’t do something simply because you are so-and-so’s kid or sister.” Which is evidenced by the fact that all the big stars she approached for the lead role politely turned her down; at which point her brother, Farhan, bailed her out. Taking this in her stride, Zoya, who is tenacious and resilient, laughs and hopes the casting will be easier for her second film. On the other hand, having had experience as a casting director, Zoya – who incidentally would love to cast Sonam Kapoor for one of her films – recalls the numerous aspiring actors that hope for an audience. And while she looks at some of them, thinking that they probably won’t make it, she doesn’t say it aloud. “After all, in this industry, you never know!”

Sharp and incisive, she has a knack for creating characters that are extremely likeable despite their inherent flaws or weaknesses. “I truly believe that if you retain a character’s humanity, you can make the character do anything. They are not heroes and villains, they are people. We come from a culture where everything is so black and white – the good are so good and the bad are just bad. It is boring! They work in superhero films or films like Die Hard, but not all the time.”

Zoya Akhtar is one of the many young women directors now holding fort in Bollywood. “There is a place opened up for young directors. The gender is not really relevant. In this industry – you can be a man, woman, dog, alien, if you can make money for them, they will hire you! And it is a secular industry – it is the only one in the country where it doesn’t really matter what your religion is.”

The story of LBC has a message that resonates deeply with Zoya. Sipping green tea, she says thoughtfully, “We are in a place where success and failure are so polarised – the media tells you whether you are successful or not. I have to think of my sense of self – my accomplishment with my first film. ‘What do I feel about it?’ That to me was what my film was about. Success or failure is merely about the choice(s) you make.”

Zoya speak

I revere…Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Mani Ratnam, Mira Nair, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Wong Kar Wai, Woody Allen.
I can’t turn off…The Godfather, Scarface, A Fish Called Wanda.
Directing or writing? Both – Can’t I have both? I want it all!
I’m currently reading…One Bright Summer Morning by James Hadley Chase.
When relaxing…I read or watch a movie.
In five years I will be…living in Goa.
I will be satisfied when…I will never be satisfied! I don’t want to reach anywhere – the journey keeps me going.