Ask Zoya Akhtar what would she pick between writing and direction and her response is writing. “It’s my first love, it comes easily to me.” She talks to Lounge about the film that has been a part of her life for the last seven years. Edited excerpts:
Luck By Chance was supposed to be the second Excel Entertainment film after Dil Chahta Hai came out in 2001. The script was ready in 2002. Why did it take so long?
I just could not get a male actor. The people I approached and the people I wanted were very iffy about the role that Farhan (Akhtar) played. The character is a bit of a hustler, he does not have that many scruples. When I was writing the script, the audience was different and a lot of actors’ mindsets were dictated by what they think the audience wants. They felt that he was not very heroic. That has changed now, though. Meanwhile, luckily for me, Farhan grew up and was perfect for the part (laughs).
Did you have to update the script when you started directing in 2008?
The industry changed, so I had to update the script, but I did not change the story. Characters remained the same. When I wrote the script initially, starlets and strugglers were using pagers. There was no corporate leaning in the industry. I had to freshen that.
Filmy fortunes: Hrithik Roshan (top) plays superstar Zaffar Khan while Farhan Akhtar (above) plays Vikram, a struggling actor from Delhi who gets a break in a big-budget Bollywood film; and Zoya Akhtar on the sets of Luck By Chance.
Does Luck By Chance have any autobiographical elements?
I think it does. It is totally not my story but I see where I reflect in it. I have been a part of the industry since I was a child, but both Farhan and I have always been on the fringe. A lot of my friends who work in the industry today are outsiders. They all came in and made their mark here. I see the outsider perspective. A lot of the script is fiction and a lot is picked from (the lives of these) people. The film has got a bit of the fly-on-the-wall feel.
It has also been my own experience that you have to hang in there and believe in yourself. If you are talented, hard-working and focused, things may work for you, but sometimes they don’t. Everyone, even I, need a break...at some point. Having luck makes that possible.
Excel Entertainment is known for the way it styles actors—the Aamir Khan look in Dil Chahta Hai, Shah Rukh Khan in Don. What are some of the special things we should look out for in Luck By Chance?
It is important to have that sensibility. Aamir was playing somebody younger than he was in Dil Chahta Hai and we needed to work that look in. SRK in Don was a dude and he needed to look slick. The point is not to make people look good, but to make them look real.
In this film, Rishi Kapoor looks different, so does Konkona (Sen Sharma). Farhan looks different from what he did in Rock On!!. Hrithik Roshan has a different hairdo. Juhi (Chawla) went blonde—the typical Bombay, bleached, brown-blonde look. She suddenly got more into the character with that look. So yes, we like to work with the physicality of the actors.
How would you describe your film—a good-looking film with a story that is relevant to the urban middle class or a gritty take on what happens behind the scenes in Bollywood?
I don’t look on it as an exposé on Bollywood. It is a story about people. One’s a struggler and another is a starlet who does bit roles in movies and is waiting for her big break. You are taken on this journey through this industry because this is a place I know. I think I have shown the business of Bollywood as it works; everyone is looking out for their own back, everyone’s a juggler. It’s like a big circus. You do see how certain people function and how the business rings through this journey, but first and foremost, it is a film about people.
Isn’t the title too colloquial?
That’s why I like it. Because it is very Bambaiya. It is a colloquial term for unexpected fortune. It came from my dad actually, when he read the script and I just loved it.
What matters more—the director or the script?
Writing is a much simpler process because you can describe and evoke with words. But as a director, you have to be able to take that mood and emotion off the script and translate it into a visual medium. Actually, I think, if the script is good, even if it is badly directed, chances are it will be an okay film. But if it is a bad script, however well you direct it, there is no hope. There are a lot of my dad’s older scripts which were big hits, but were badly directed films. I am not going to name them.
You assisted Mira Nair while she made Kama Sutra—what about her style of direction that impressed you?
I like how she works with her actors. That taught me quite a bit. She has a strong sense of aesthetics, and uses colours and textures well. From Farhan, I learnt to be calm. He is very sorted on the sets, and very by-the-hip. He always has a plan, and if something is not working according to it, he will dump it and go with what is. He is instinctive and goes with the flow.
You have worked with Farhan in different capacities, but this is the first time you have been in the director’s seat. How different was this experience?
Farhan and I have worked together for years. We give each other a lot of space. But, of course, it was tough this time because he was the actor and I could not rant to him about my problems. But that’s where Ritesh (Sidhwani) came in. He was my punching bag.
I have another script—Kismet Talkies—which is ready, but I am not in the mood to direct it right now.
Luck By Chance releases in theatres on 30 January.