Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara has had an aspirational value for many a youth that have found joy in wanderlust. It’s one of those buddy travel films that don’t really age – they rather grow with you. As the film completes 10 years of release, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti talk about the making of some of the film’s most memorable sequences, the possibility of a second catharsis for the main characters and how the film helped Zoya grow as a filmmaker.
AC: It’s lovely to see how the film sets up the premise even before the opening titles. Imran travels in Economy, while the other two travel in Business and First Class. How did these details come into place?
RK: Yes, we did a lot of research. For ZNMD, we had no idea what Hrithik [Roshan]’s character does. Initially, we were like, “he goes to the office,” but what does he, as a person, do in the office? Because we have zero interest in finance and things like that. So, we researched it.
ZA: Ritesh [Sidhwani]‘s cousin is a huge banker, and I would talk to him. He is a broker. Even some of the lines such as, ‘Trade my Ferrari for a Ford Fiesta’ – came from them. I can’t make that up, so one has to talk to people. We knew we wanted to have different economic backgrounds, because Arjun grew up somewhere without that money. We don’t see it but it comes from his behavior. Whereas Imran is a middle-class kid, he is a copywriter right now. He doesn’t really care about money but has a bit of a cultural aspiration, an intellectual aspiration. He is possibly that kind of a person who wants to meet his father because he is a painter, whereas his step father was the kind of person who would work in an office job and that’s not what he would aspire to do. So you have to create different psychologies, and part of where you come from, who you are, what your upbringing was like, and what your privilege or non-privilege was – it’s all a part of that psychology.
AC: I want to talk about two of my favourite scenes in the film. The first is the scene after the first dive – when they are sitting on the boat, there is silence, Arjun is crying and we hear poetry for the first time. What was it like on paper? How did the two of you write it?
ZA: It was Reema’s idea. She said, “He should just come out of the water and start crying. Especially when you have that experience.” My friend Homi Adajania is a deep-sea diver and he used to train. So he was our guy for research. He helped us in writing the scene, what we need to think and what the training is, etc. For me, Laila taught him to breathe. She just put that pause in his life. He was like the Sleeping Beauty and she was the prince who kissed him, but in terms of the bigger picture, she taught him to breathe – she literally made him breathe. I think when that dive happens and he comes out, it’s almost like being reborn, it’s like, ‘You’ve gone down to the core essence of my breath and I’m in this world.’ And yeah, it was weird even with Hrithik because even he was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do in that scene!” because there was no dialogue and you just needed to be. Finally, the boat was rocking and it was evening and the camera was handheld by Carlos Catalan [cinematographer], so it was going in and out of focus. We even used that take because it was really special.
AC: The other scene is when Imran meets his father, and asks him why he never looked him up. He then starts to cry. Farhan is so good in that scene. Zoya, what was your brief to him?
ZA: I love working with Farhan [Akhtar] because I don’t have to brief him. It’s very easy for me because we’ve grown up together and I know exactly what buttons to push and where, with him. In the case of this film, he was on it from the very beginning; he ended up writing the dialogues too. While he wrote, we kept talking about the characters and situations.
So, by the time he came on set, I didn’t even have to look at him – he knew exactly what he was doing. And I think this scene was very personal for him at some level, because he was in a zone, I remember. In the script, he was supposed to cry a bit later but on shoot, he started crying at the most incredible moment. It was just organic. He was very quiet that day; he was in his room with his headphones on. I don’t know what his process was, and why ask if you’re getting what you want?
RK: While we were writing Imran, we always had Farhan in mind. It was easy to merge the two. That happened organically from the writing stage, from the word go.
AC: Zoya, you said that this film helped you grow up as a filmmaker. How did it do that?
ZA: It’s like you’ve gone past the excitement of your first film, where everything is new and everything is amazing and now you better push the boundary more. And, it’s closer to Dil Dhadakne Do for me: multiple storylines, very layered, everyone’s kind of grey. ZNMD was more wholesome, much simpler. When we wrote it, it was fun, but when I came to direct it, I kept thinking whether this was going to be silly. These were men in their 30s, doing pranks and we were laughing at them, but was it just us who were going to find this funny?
When you think like that, you have to make an effort to convey what you’ve written on paper, cinematically. You have to make sure that the design, the performances, the sound of it, the way the camera moves, everything evokes the kind of emotion you want it to evoke. And I think that was a big exercise for me.
AC: The working title of ZNMD was Running With The Bulls. Tell me about that sequence. How did you shoot this?
ZA: There were only two shots of CGI during that sequence. One was when Hrithik falls down and the other was during the last shot. Everything else is live. A very close friend of Reema’s had actually done this: they were a group of friends who had a pact that they would run with the bulls together. That’s where we got it from. And it was wild because we were shooting there.
We shot all the wide shots during the live bull run and then we had the same location [for the rest of the shoot]. So we had to have bulls – they had to come in a massive van. There was a bullpen and a gate. We also had 200 professional runners. And then we had the extras, and after that, we had the actors that were padded around. Then you opened that gate and the bulls started running and you kept a safe distance. But by then the actors had become comfortable and they were getting very brave. So I got a lot of shots with them and the bulls in the same shot.
AC: Where do you both see the characters now? Are Laila and Arjun still in Morocco? Are they living happily ever after? What happens to these people?
ZA: We’ve actually started talking about where they are now. We have a few ideas but if we told you, we won’t make the sequel.
AC: Are you officially thinking about a sequel?
ZA: We started thinking about this since the 10-year anniversary came up. But we need to get a story that’s going to stand on its own legs, if it’s got enough meat. I think 10 years later, they are ready for another catharsis. They’ve hit 40 and it’s time for catharsis again. If we find something that works on its own, then why not? But we won’t do it to just make a Part 2, that’s not good enough. Abhay [Deol] said that he has a story worked out and wants to narrate it. Let’s see how that goes.