Currently, Gully Boy is the toast of the season. It struck a chord with the audiences and critics alike, for being an underdog story where every character had a strong part to play. Ignoring this week’s release, Total Dhamaal, I watched Gully Boy again and was left mesmerized yet again. Spectacular performances aside, the movie was strong technically – especially the script. Written by its director, Zoya Akhtar with her long-time collaborator, Reema Kagti, Gully Boy made me sit up and notice an interesting pattern in Zoya Akhtar’s filmmaking.
Apart from Ayan Mukerji and Shakun Batra, Zoya Akhtar is the only current mainstream Bollywood director, who explores human relations and emotions beautifully. But I noticed something unique to her voice in all the movies she has directed. I call it the Zoyaverse. Arguably, though the credit must be shared with her co-writer Reema Kagti, I decided to call it Zoyaverse as I feel it is her voice as a director that creates this world.
If you are wondering what I mean by Zoyaverse, I essentially mean the strong and well-written women that drive her stories, whether they are central characters or not. These may not always be perfect, positive characters, but are flawed, just as humans are. In all her six movies till date, the Zoyaverse is a beautiful aspect of her filmmaking.
1. Luck by Chance (2009): One of the underrated movies of that decade, Luck by Chance was Zoya Akhtar’s directorial debut. The movie gave us a glimpse into the glitz and glamour of Bollywood and how two outsiders (Farhan Akhtar and Konkona Sen Sharma) make their way into it. Zoya gives us the first glimpse into Zoyaverse – in the form of Neena Walia (Dimple Kapadia) and Sona Mishra (Konkona Sen Sharma). Neena is a fading yesteryear superstar – pushed into the trade in her dark childhood – she nudges her daughter into the same world. She acts as a strong catalyst to debutante Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar). Sona Mishra is the other strong character, torn between her love for an ambitious boyfriend and her own urge to make it big. These are strong and independent women, burdened by their circumstances.
Dimple Kapadia and Konkona Sen Sharma
2. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011): Her second movie was branded as Dil Chahta hai - revisited and a free TVC for Spain Tourism! Interestingly, a movie headlined by three men with focus on their friendship and bromance, also had interesting female characters. Imran Qureshi (Farhan Akhtar) had internal battles with his mother (Deepti Naval) over the identity of his father. A spirited freelance Scuba instructor Laila (Katrina Kaif) helps a disciplined Arjun Saluja (Hrithik Roshan) break away from monotony. The dilemma of Kabir Dewan (Abhay Deol) created by his possessive and suspicious girlfriend, Natasha Arora (Kalki Koechlin). Now, even though the characters are smaller, Zoya does not let them get reduced to the backgrounds. They may be flawed but help in carving the path of the story.
Clockwise: Kalki Koechlin, Deepti Naval, Katrina Kaif
3. Bombay Talkies – Sheila Ki Jawaani (2013): In her short in this anthology, Zoya Akhtar gives us a 10-year old Vicky (Naman Jain), who is chided by his parents for taking interest in hobbies which are deemed to be ‘girly’. An innocent Vicky is pushed by his father (Ranvir Shorey) into Football training, while he craved to dance. And dance to his idol, Katrina Kaif’s Sheila Ki Jawaani! Delicately handling a sensitive topic, Zoya makes the audience question the definitions of masculinity. She tries to explain how a boy longing to dance in skimpy clothes should not be treated as queer. With Vicky, she gave us a fleshed-out character of a boy, with effeminate qualities.
4. Dil Dhadakne Do (2015): A movie which made her detractors label her stories as ‘only about the rich and elite’, DDD was much more than that. With a brilliantly cast ensemble, it was an engaging movie that touched various topics – infidelity, ambition, failing marriages and the fake facades families create. Among the four leads, Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah) and Ayesha Mehra (Priyanka Chopra) stand out. Neelam is stuck in an unhappy marriage with a cheating husband. She portrays a happy face for the World but is shattered and helpless within. A scene where she gorges on a tray full of desserts, after her husband calls her fat, is one of the best scenes where her vulnerabilities are in full display. She puts up with a failing marriage and advises her ambitious daughter to do the same. But Ayesha is her alter-ego. She stands up for herself and decides to walk-out of an unhappy relationship. It is interesting to see how Zoya Akhtar layers her characters – they are never one tone. This makes them confused, flawed and real.
Shefali Shah in an angst-filled scene where she gorges on desserts
5. Lust Stories (2018): In her short film, Zoya Akhtar presents a passionate affair between a housemaid Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar) and Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam). Sudha is a demure, young domestic help, who for a while assumes her boss’s sexual advances to be love for her. Zoya barely uses any dialogue, mostly letting Sudha’s eyes and the claustrophobic apartment do the talking. It is through her eyes and demeanor that one understands Sudha’s angst and her feeling of betrayal. It is a complex character, which could make one question her morality. But Zoya makes the audience empathize with her, instead. The most heart-warming moment is when Sudha eats a sweet in the end – signifying her acceptance of her fate!
6. Gully Boy (2019): Amid MC Sher, Moeen and Murad, two women stand out in this Gully – Safeena Firdausi (Alia Bhatt) and Razia Ahmed (Amruta Subhash). The usual template in underdog stories - we see a supportive girlfriend, appearing sporadically in a scene or a song. But not in Zoyaverse. If Safeena is Murad’s backbone, he embodies freedom for her. If he calls himself a building with no watchman without her, she says her love for him is because he lets her be herself. Also, while Safeena is a ticking timebomb, Zoya does not leave her as an ill-tempered, possessive girlfriend. Her angst is driven by her own internal battles – against patriarchy, a conservative family and the need to break free. Just as Safeena finds refuge in Murad, his mother Razia pins her hopes on her son. Her son is her beacon of hope, after her abusive husband remarries. Another interesting feature of the two characters is their docile and petite frames, camouflaging their inner strength and willpower. Again, in a story about the rise of a boy against all odds, it is not common to see strong supporting characters. The last I saw such a strong female character in an underdog movie was Divya Dutta in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. But hey, it’s Zoyaverse!
Amruta Subhash and Alia Bhatt
Zoya Akhtar may not be the only gifted filmmaker of this generation. But, the ability to let her stories work with a woman standing behind the man, is an ability very few other filmmakers have.