Zoya Akhtar is ready with her third directorial venture, Dil Dhadkne Do, an at-sea rom-com about a dysfunctional Punjabi family on a luxury cruise. With a cast like Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Ranveer Singh, Priyanka Chopra, Anushka Sharma and Farhan Akhtar, can Zoya go wrong? She discusses her doubts with Subhash K Jha.
Why is your film called Dil Dhadkne Do?
I wanted the title to be catchy and easily identifiable.
What are your thoughts as the release date approaches?
Right now, I'm trying to finish the special effects, and since I am not too good at understanding those, I am not thinking too much about what will happen after the release.
In your last film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara you motivated all workaholics to take a holiday. Now in DDD you took your entire cast on a holiday?
It was very special. We had 25 actors and the crew. We were all out at sea bonding big-time. This film is not so much about the actors getting in the holiday mood. My co-writer Reema Kagti and I needed a device whereby we could have the entire family together. The ship is also a metaphor of the bigger journey that every family undertakes. A journey where the family is collectively stranded mid-ocean. You can't get off even if you want to. Family is not something you choose.
The cruise worked metaphorically and visually. I couldn't build a ship and out it on the Versova beach. It isn't about the holiday. It's about the family coming together in one particular space. We could have put the family in a holiday resort. But it wouldn't have been the same.
The entire cast seems to be constantly hyper-excited in the trailer?
(laughs) They have their moments. They aren't screaming at each other all the time. Priyanka Chopra's character is quite mellow. She plays quite against type. Ranveer Singh has done the clean-cut urban boy for the first time. He's posh, for a change. It's really nice to see actors surprise themselves. And Shefali Shah….I don't know what to say about her! She's a blessing. The universe must be in love with me. Shefali is gift from divinity. She makes the family in my film look so real.
Did the cruise setting put the actors in a holiday mood?
It couldn't get any better than this. We were all on a cruise working. Suddenly we would look out into the water and see the sun setting gloriously. What more could we ask for? It was just heaven. The trip was cathartic for a lot of us. We had no internet no phones until we would reach a port. No one called at sea. It was amazing. It made us realize how stressful it was to have a goddamn phone.
Shefali is very happy she was as prominent on the posters as the big stars?
She had to be! She's one of the 6 principal characters. My posters and trailers had to represent the film. Whether it's Anil, Priyanka, Ranveer, Farhan or Anushka…they are all actors in my film. They all wanted the film to turn out just right. And they all loved Shefali.
Apparently the biggest challenge was to get Anil Kapoor to play a patriarch with grey hair?
It took me one whole year to get him on board. It took a lot of wooing. It took Aamir Khan to go to his house. Aamir was like, 'You've to play this role'. There was no Plan B for Anil's role. Aamir has gone and sat on Anil's head until he said yes. Even my Dad and Farhan spoke to Anil. I went and convinced him. And Anil's son Harshvardhan was a huge help. He kept badgering his father until he signed my film. Too cute, huh?
Aamir has apparently dubbed for the family dog in your film?
Nooooo! Aamir is someone I've known for years. Both Reema Kagti and I've worked with him as assistant directors. I take all my scripts to him for consultation. He is very sharp and honest and he understands the commercial language.
The casting of Dil Dhadkane Do (DDD) has been in the news from the time you announced the film. Weren't Ranbir Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor Khan supposed to play siblings?
They were never in the film, though I'd love to work with them. The actors that I have in DDD are the actors that I wanted. Nowadays any actor I meet even for a cup of coffee becomes a source of speculation. If I am seen with an actor I am supposed to be working with him. I went to Deepika Padukone's party where I hung around with Fawad Khan. The next thing I knew he was in my next film. Right now I can't even think of the next film.
So the impressive lineup of actors in DDD was your first and last choices?
Yes, I met these actors. They liked the script. And they agreed to do an ensemble film although at this point of their careers some of them were not inclined to be in an ensemble film. I guess I was lucky. Things just worked out for me.
That's because you have the power?
I've a good relation with some actors. That helps me get the actors I want. But I also have a social space with them. And that gets violated when every social meeting is construed as a professional move. Of course I want to work with many of them. But not in the immediate film. Maybe later…
Who is the one actor that you now want to work with?
Aamir Khan. But I need to write a script that he has to be interested in. Once he agrees to do a film with me I'd be happy to work with him. For now DDD has the actors that the script chose.
How has your father Javed Akhtar contributed this time?
He has written the lyrics. And he is an integral part of the scripting process at every stage.
My family is very different from the Mehras in DDD. But I think there are resemblances. But the values that Farhan and I have been brought up with resonate in the relationship between Ranveer and Priyanka.
You've directed Farhan for the third time. How did you make sure you didn't take each other for granted?
Oh, we always take one another for granted. So far he is been in all my films. But it doesn't have to happen that way.
Were there ego clashes among the stars?
No, they knew exactly what their roles were. So there was no room for argument. Every star wanted to be an actor in my film. When stars do ensemble their headspace changes. They know that no one star has to shoulder the blame. They feel more relaxed. The atmosphere is like that of a theatre company with everyone pitching in and playing off one another. If you ask me, actors are easier to deal with in an ensemble cast. No actor came to me with an agenda.
Still, how did you handle all these formidable actors and technicians?
By working with only those people that I respect. I give them the creative space to do what they think is right because I know they know more about their work than I do. And then I am also honest with them. If I don't know something I say so. I don't bullshit with them.
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara did a lot of good for tourism in Spain. Will DDD do the same for luxury cruises?
I don't know about that. But I hope it certainly does something for the joint-family values. One never knows how film is accepted. One makes the food and puts it on the table hoping people will like it.
Are you hungry by any chance?
(laughs) No but I like food. I am curious to see how it goes. You can't predict anything.
Why so few female filmmakers in Bollywood?
There are lots of women directors Gauri Shinde, Anusha Rizvi, Kiran Rao. And now Nitya Mehra is directing a film for our company. It's a good time for female directors.