Zoya Akhtar and the Subtle Art of Adapting to Bollywood

Zoya Akhtar and the Subtle Art of Adapting to Bollywood

Full-length features, short films, streaming shows — we rank Zoya Akhtar’s directorial credits

Zoya Akhtar is one of contemporary Hindi cinema’s great filmmakers. Some (like myself) would even say the best. I still remember watching Luck By Chance (2009) hours after I had lost my first job, and coming out hopeful about a career in writing. Not just because it’s a lovely movie about movies – which it certainly is – but also because it’s the sort of intuitive storytelling that emerges from a deep engagement with the world in which we live. This intersection of the personal and the cultural holds true for nearly everything Akhtar has made since then. There’s far more to her gaze than meets the eye.

As a result, a “Zoya Akhtar story” isn’t what we think it is. There are cosmetic and narrative tropes, of course: Dysfunctional families, terrific ensembles, sly class commentary, domineering fathers, rich frames, the politics of entitlement. But Akhtar’s genius lies in seeking the porosity of these seemingly staple themes – and mining the nuance beneath the stereotypes. It’s a tightrope walk that’s as impulsive as it is rehearsed. There’s an illusion that they’re just iterations of the same stylistic palette, but Akhtar’s adaptability is so subtle that it’s almost misunderstood. Even her writing collaborations (like Talaash and the recent Dahaad) are nothing if not studied swings for the fences.

Ahead of Season 2 of Amazon Prime’s Made In Heaven, then, here are eight of Zoya Akhtar’s directorial titles across mediums (anthology shorts, web shows and feature films), ranked in ascending order.

8. Ghost Stories (Short, 2020)

Three out of four directors missed the memo in this awry Netflix anthology – and unfortunately, Akhtar was one of them. Her segment stars Janhvi Kapoor as a young nurse whose paranormal experience with an old patient (the late Surekha Sikri) jolts her out of a toxic relationship (with who else, but a boyfriend played by Vijay Varma) over the course of a few nights. The feminist allegory is wafer-thin, the twist is amateur, and the performances are shrouded in the fog of a connecting ‘theme’. Though the old lady’s flat is loaded with visual detail, the writing is more focused on the form and physical identity of the film. What’s interesting to note is that a Zoya Akhtar misfire isn’t a conventional misfire. It’s watchable, skillful and has its moments – like the dissonance between how the protagonist looks and how she thinks she looks when she’s with her sexed-up partner. But my disappointment is rooted in Akhtar’s decision to literalise the meaning of horror – a chink that’s ironed out in her layered co-creation of Dahaad this year. The lesson: Why look for the supernatural when the natural itself is so scary?

7. Sheila Ki Jawaani (Short, 2013)

It’s strange how cinema penetrates our subconscious mind. When Tota Roy Chowdhury movingly recollects his kathak-loving character’s difficult childhood in Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (2023), there are no flashbacks. We don’t actually see his father mocking his sense of masculinity, or him getting teased by friends for liking a ‘feminine’ dance-form. Yet it felt like I had watched this man’s past – or at least an eerily similar version of it. I had seen scenes of a small-minded man scolding his son for dressing up like a girl and dancing around the house. And then it came to me: Akhtar’s Bombay Talkies segment is that flashback. In the 2013 short, contemporary dance becomes a clunky parable for gender fluidity – it features a 12-year-old boy (Naman Jain) who gets inspired by Bollywood superstar Katrina Kaif. His obsession with her hit number ‘Sheila Ki Jawaani’, and his urge to imitate the popular Hindi actress, shapes the film’s social expression. Though it plays out like a simplistic fairytale unfolding through a child’s gaze, its value additions – like the boy dancing to fund his neglected sister’s history trip – reveal a voice that’s alive to the cruel contradictions of this world. The peripheral characters don’t feel sidelined either; they seem to be occupying their own little films. Maybe it says something that a tribute to storytelling (this anthology marked the 100th year of Indian cinema) often doubles up as an indictment of life.

6. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)

Katrina Kaif, Farhan Akhtar, Hrithik Roshan and Abhay Deol in ZNMD
Katrina Kaif, Farhan Akhtar, Hrithik Roshan and Abhay Deol in ZNMD

This First-World excursion of urban masculinity has grown on me, largely because I’m now old enough to view the characters wistfully and say, “Ah, kids these days.” (And to wonder how three Indian men budgeted a pricey vacation without using Splitwise?) To her credit, Akhtar manages to turn narrative banality into Dil Chahta Hai (2001) with a deep-tan. None of the handsome men come across as types; Spain looks like an elite therapy package; and three very different actors do a breezy job of mining the nowhere land between yaari-dosti days and happily ever afters. I maintain that the bull in the end mows down Imraan and Kabir, while ex-workaholic Arjun relocates to India and successfully becomes an action star for Romy Rolly Productions. Which is to say the writing milks the distinctly Indian romanticisation of male bonding – where most of us who’ve grown up on trendy bromance aesthetics aspire to be these people while projecting our sense of middle-class attachment onto them. The bottom line is that it’s more of a fun escape than a balmy coming-of-age reckoning. You can also tell this is a sophomore film from the way it seeks a commercial footing after the passion-project brevity of the first.

5. Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)

Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma in Dil Dhadakne Do
Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma in Dil Dhadakne Do

I’d like to believe that the “kill-the-rich” genre – which peaked globally with The White Lotus, The Glass Onion, The Menu (2022) and the ‘other’ cruise-ship film, Triangle of Sadness (2022) – was originally triggered by this enjoyable Hindi film. The only difference is that it’s not a social satire parading as a murder mystery; it’s a social satire parading as a compassionate (and perversely convincing) defense of the one-percenters that art loves to hate. It felt like we were finally watching a behind-closed-doors edition of all those obscenely wealthy and dysfunctional north Indian families that once defined our infatuation with post-liberalisation Bollywood. It doesn’t act subversive or smart; it just unfurls with a poker-faced frankness that a majority of multiplex moviegoers aren’t conditioned to detect. It’s a hoot, of course, but it’s also a keenly observed portrait of the messy relationship between wealth and tradition. It also marks Akhtar’s innate understanding of talent: Every cast member seems to be riffing on the viewers’ perception of them as both celebrities and performers. The result is a superbly acted and staged dramedy that, despite a shaky final act, reveals itself as a murder mystery where nobody dies and characters rediscover living. Or, in other words: An Orwellian zoo in the cloak of Mediterranean madness. Also, try not rooting for Anil Kapoor’s rage when he pins his daughter’s abusive husband against the wall. A father’s inherent patriarchy – his desire to protect and provide – is ultimately what awakens him.

4. Lust Stories (Short, 2018)

The most striking segment across the two Lust Stories anthologies, Zoya Akhtar’s film opens with a couple having torrid sex. He’s on top of her, then she’s on top of him. Nothing else exists. Their gasps and moans fill the bedroom. Seconds after finishing, he goes for his morning shower. When she fastens her dupatta at her waist in front of the mirror, the story reveals itself: Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar) is the housemaid, and Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam) is her employer. This is his bachelor pad. Caretaking is her default mode. However, from the way Akhtar seamlessly designs this world, it can be argued that the story does not reveal itself until Ajit’s parents arrive for a visit. Because, after the sex, Sudha seems to be going about her day like an average Indian homemaker: She cleans the apartment, settles in the kitchen, cooks his breakfast and serves him. He barely notices her. After he leaves for office, she rests on the bed for a moment and gathers her thoughts. Despite being ripe with social subtext (an understated companion piece to Konkona Sen Sharma’s short in Lust Stories 2), the film doesn’t flaunt its commentary. It trusts the viewer to find what applies to them. And it finds cinema in the little things: Ajit playfully calling her “dirty” after his shower, Sudha’s dreamy expression while ‘running’ the household, a lingering shot of her hand on his sheets, her face when his marriage is fixed, her reality colliding with his exotic fictions. The film’s heartbreaking silences and muted complexity discloses Akhtar as an arthouse entertainer ensconced within a mass thinker.

3. Made In Heaven (Series, 2019)

Arjun Mathur and Sobhita Dhulipala in Made in Heaven
Arjun Mathur and Sobhita Dhulipala in Made in Heaven

Given Hindi cinema’s penchant for lavish spectacle and the commodification of love, trust Zoya Akhtar (along with frequent partner-in-prime Reema Kagti) to situate her long-form debut in the contours of this transactional tragedy. Made In Heaven uses the inherent fictions of wealth and social status – cleverly manifested by the Delhi wedding-planning business – to explore the fragile realities of human relationships. The triumph of the series is not only that it’s ‘snackable’ as a mealtime watch, but also that it’s tough to tell the flesh from the bone. The lushness of the weddings stays at odds with the palpable messiness of the people involved. As a result, the mainstream backdrop feels like a coping mechanism for the indie-styled protagonists. Their flashbacks reveal newer (and older) pieces of them, constructing and deconstructing them in sync with their episodic conflicts. It’s an intricate piece of packaging – not all of which is seamless (those obvious voice-overs, for example) – for the way it marries the universal to the specific. The heavily curated events inform the continuity of the individual threads but also vice versa, which is a testament to the makers’ sharp reading of societal paradoxes. After all, the term that ‘made in heaven’ is synonymous with – a match – also evokes trials, fire and trials by fire.

2. Gully Boy (2019)

As film critics, we often get asked that maddening question by someone who’s just heard about our job: “So what’s your favourite film?” That’s like asking a ship what its favourite drop in the ocean is. Or an airplane, what its most cherished speck of air is. But lately, I’ve started adding my own caveats: “You mean mainstream Hindi film, in the last 10 years?” Right, Gully Boy it is. That’s my final answer. (Can we speak about banking now?) Every time I watch Gully Boy, I marvel at its balance of energy, empathy, performances, rhythm and lived-in spirit. It’s not all vibes, as is invariably the case when directors break out of their comfort zones. I admire Akhtar’s versatility, yes, control, yes, but mainly her curiosity about a Mumbai that Bollywood enthusiasts never expected her to explore, especially given her image as a Rich-People’s-Problems storyteller. This narrative about a Muslim rapper from Dharavi is significant for many reasons, not least because Ranveer Singh’s career-best turn is barely the best in a film that’s bursting with characters and moments. This is essentially an Artist Story, which is why so much truth bleeds between film-maker and frames, between music and words, between fiction and feeling. I can go on about Alia Bhatt (and Akhtar’s integration of Bhatt’s reputation as a great crier into Safeena’s crafty persona) and Vijay Varma and Siddhant Chaturvedi and the sheer electricity of Singh’s closing act, but I’ll save it for the next time I’m asked that horrific question.

1. Luck By Chance (2009)

Now expand that question to: “So what’s your favourite Hindi film of the century so far?” And this is (mostly) my answer. Is there a fuller Bollywood movie about Bollywood? Akhtar’s first remains her finest and most perceptive film. It’s not surprising, because it is also perhaps her most personal, given her creative lineage. It ages like fine wine, too, as evident from the 20-odd times I’ve re-watched and renegotiated my relationship with it in terms of her evolving career. Luck By Chance is at once a near-perfect ode to, and an affectionate critique of, a film industry that’s constantly torn between heritage and posterity, between art and commerce. It has the most genuine opening credits in modern Hindi film; the meta casting of Farhan Akhtar (in his acting debut) and Konkona Sen Sharma is a masterstroke; the conflicts (especially the nepotism-vs-outsider punchlines) are prescient; the cameos are more than just flashy cameos. More importantly, despite being inspired by real-world experience, the film resists the gossipy tone that most movies about movies tend to use. Its gaze is infectious, insightful, complex and, at times, wickedly entertaining. The narrative opens and closes with the aspiring heroine, not the commercial ‘hero’ who hijacks her life and film – lending credence to the theory that Luck By Chance is in fact the woman’s story all along, one where she unearths the agency to own her destiny. Never has the backseat of Mumbai’s kaali-peeli taxi felt so hopeful.