Zoya Akhtar: Male stars drive audiences in

Zoya Akhtar, one of the trio of Hindi film directors participating in Ticket2Bollywood on October 6th & 7th in NYC

On the occasion of her return to New York this weekend for the two-day Ticket 2 Bollywood event of panels and sessions (together with Imtiaz Ali and Madhur Bhandarkar), here’s an interview I did with Zoya when she was in New York to attend the Engendered Film Festival in August 2009.

This was right on the heels of SRK’s detention at Newark airport, and you’ll hear her thoughts about that, as well as her reference to the “road movie” she was planning to make in Spain, which became Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

For more details on this weekend’s (yes, tomorrow and Sunday) event about the state of today’s Hindi film industry, go here.

And to see why Zoya’s such a great interview, read on…

Q: How is it being back in the city?

ZA: I love New York.  I studied at NYU and I just love the city.  I’ve come here after years and so much has changed.  I had a heart attack when I saw Union Square.  What have they done!  But anyway, it’s always good to be back.

Q: With this recent detention of Shahrukh Khan at the airport, did you find yourself thinking “What if it happens to me too?”

ZA:  Yeah, because it’s happened to a lot of people and it’s a bit ridiculous at this point.  If Bill Clinton comes to India, he’s an ex-head-of-state – we’re not gonna make him take his shoes off; we’re just not rude like that.  It’s just ridiculous.  Shahrukh Khan, he’s an actor, ok, whatever, but Abdul Kalam, who’s the President of our country!  People are pissed!

Q: Tell me a bit about your experience studying here.

ZA: I went to school in Bombay and studied Literature at St Xavier’s.  I worked with Mira (Nair) and after that with a director called Dev Benegal and I just decided I’m gonna do this and I upped my game.  Because I used to come to NY every summer, just to party, when I said “I should just come.”  I got into NYU and did this diploma in film production and it was FANTATSIC.  It was great fun, there were students from all over the world.  It was an intensive course because I had to do it in a short period of time, we were working from 9am to 10pm.  I made tons of friends and we shot films.  We just ate and drank films and it was great fun.  And we were living in NYC in the Village, how bad could it be?

Q: But you had a leg up, given your family background… did your classmates hate you?

ZA:  No, no it wasn’t the family, they didn’t even know about that.  But it was the fact that I’d worked in films and commercials before and I did have an edge as far as experience.  Some people didn’t like me very much, but I had great friends.

Q: The other night, when you were asked when you think India will see something mainstream about gay characters like Will and Grace, you said a year and a half…

ZA: I want to be able to shoot it in two years probably.  I’m gonna do a road movie now, it’s a coming-of-age story about three boys, so I want to do that next year, but I’m developing a script based in Bombay city and that’s totally engendered.  I wanna’ do that as my third film.

Q: …and the main characters will be male or female?

ZA: Male.

Q: Do you think we’ll get to a point with mainstream film where we’ll see more women in roles as the main drivers of the plot?

ZA: See, it’s driven by the budget.  If the budget doesn’t go in, they don’t go in, so if you don’t have a strong male in a movie, you’ll only get that much money to make it, and then you can only tell a particular kind of story, and you can’t sell the film for that much because people just bloody don’t go in.

Q: Why do you think that is? Why do we find men so interesting?

ZA: I don’t know, but even here in America, a Tom Cruise film will go for X amount, and a Nicole Kidman film will go for Y amount.  It’s as simple as that.  I don’t know, but male stars drive audiences in.  So, go figure.  I have no idea.  It’s like an anthropological question. I think about it and I don’t understand it, but that’s the way it is.

Q: As a woman, does it frustrate you?

ZA: No, I mean, it’s not frustrating because there are too many bigger battles to fight, you can’t get stuck in it.  But it’s definitely interesting.  I wonder what’s the dynamic that makes the male story more interesting than the female.

Q: How important – in terms of promoting films – has coming to the US become to the business?

ZA: I think it’s gonna become more with the kind of films I want to do.  I think I’m gonna be very aware of how we’re promoting it in the US because the market’s opening, and the kind of stories we’re gonna start, maybe not the road movie yet, it’s commercial and it’s my kind of sensibility but it’s still in a very mainstream format, but the other film I was talking to you about will need promotion.  The market’s big and it’s not just the Indians here.  I think even the US audience is changing, they are interested in knowing about other cultures and other people and it’s cool.

Q:  I noticed you got a special thank you in the credits at the end of The Namesake – why was that?

ZA: Because Mira’s the first film director I worked with and she’s a very, very, very close friend and she’s my mentor, my chick!  She always calls me if she’s shooting in India and she needs anything – casting, crew – so she must have called me and I must have done it if she’s given me a credit.  No big deal.

2 thoughts on “Zoya Akhtar: Male stars drive audiences in

  1. “So, go figure. I have no idea. It’s like an anthropological question. I think about it and I don’t understand it, but that’s the way it is.”

    To me, it’s pretty clear why this is, as it would be to anybody who has thought about the general media landscape at all critically – it’s the sexist view women’s stories aren’t as important or as interesting as men’s that motivates the lower pay of female actors. So maybe Zoya is being diplomatic with this answer here, because I’m surprised she wouldn’t be able to figure it out.

    1. She briefly repeated a variation of this statement (e.g. to paraphrase: Money talks, and the money from ticket sales only really happens when there’s a male lead in the story.) again this weekend at the two-day event where she was one of the main draws. I’ll be posting more of what she and Imtiaz had to say.

      But more to your point, it was interesting to see Rani Mukherjee on Anupama Chopra’s show this weekend defending – to some extent – the practice of the film industry disposing of women actors much sooner than men. Speaking about the notion of “The audience wants new pairings, fresh pairings” she said, basically, what director is going to thumb his nose at what the audience wants, do only what he wants to prove a point, if no one will come to see his film.”

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