Anuja Chauhan’s journey into Bollywood

About 13 years ago, advertising executive Anuja Chauhan found herself on an ad shoot for Pepsi with Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, R Madhavan and Surya. The plan was to shoot a multi-lingual commercial with the stars over a span of four days. “We had an insane number of shots to be done in one day, and were compromising a lot. I felt so helpless and out of control, because I had written something and we were shooting something completely different,” she remembers. On her way back to the hotel, she decided to write a book because ‘‘no one could mess it up’’.


Thus was born the love story between Zoya Singh Solanki, a young advertising executive and the dashing captain of the Indian Cricket team, Nikhil Khoda. And Chauhan, after 17 years at the ad agency JWT India — having created memorable slogans like Pepsi’s Yeh Dil Maange More and Darr ke Aage Jeet Hai — decided to pivot to a full-time literary career in 2010. In the years since, she’s written four more bestsellers — Battle for Bittora, Those Pricey Thakur Girls, The House That BJ Built and Baaz (the story of a fighter pilot who falls in love with a colleague’s sister).

Anuja Chauhan’s journey into Bollywood

This September, Chauhan, 48, is all set to make another career jump. The Zoya Factor has been adapted for screen with Sonam Kapoor and Dulquer Salmaan in the lead and director Abhishek Sharma at the helm. The author is credited with ‘Additional Dialogues’ for the film. “While I haven’t met Dulquer, I’ve interacted with Sonam often. The first time I met her, she pulled out all my books which looked old and well-read. She asked me to sign all her copies,” recalls Chauhan, who is working on two original web series that are ‘all hush-hush for now’. But that’s not all. Battle for Bittora has been optioned by Anil Kapoor Films while YashRaj Films recently picked up Baaz and Hotstar has announced a series based on Those Pricey Thakur Girls.

It began with Shah Rukh

The Zoya Factor’s journey from book to screen has been a long one. Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment had first optioned the book. “On that Pepsi shoot, when Shah Rukh had gotten to know that I [was] writing a book, he’d said ‘I’ll make the film’. He had called dibs on it even before I had finished it. They were excited but eventually nothing happened. The book was languishing when Pooja and Aarti Shetty (of WalkWater Media) got in touch, saying they wanted to make it,” says the author who relocated to Bengaluru from New Delhi five years ago.

No lotus-eater
  • Laughing over the romantic notion most people have about a writer’s life and process, she says, “Writing is a job and it’s as unromantic as any other sort of work. When my kids were younger, I’d start when they left home at 7 am and keep writing until they returned at 4 pm. I am not so regimented now that I am working on a web series, but I write a regular magazine column just to keep that deadline muscle toned; you don't want to become some flakey, lotus-eating type.” Her move to the Garden City has also helped. “I get so much respect now when I go to Mumbai because people think living in a 'jungle' must mean that I am wise,” she says laughing, adding that she is “happy to live in a ‘jungle’ with my animals, many gardens and great weather. It's a lovely township…And you have just enough space to not feel crowded”.

Chauhan credits her time in advertising for having honed a writing style that seems tailor-made for screen adaptions. “When you write ads, you're visualising things and have to put the audio and the video together when you're creating it.”

“Once you have a style, it stays,” Chauhan explains, quickly adding, “But it’s not easy because you have to trim the fat for a film and my books have so many layers and characters. This is why I was so happy that for The Zoya Factor I was brought in only after someone else had already chopped it. All I had to do was put a neat bow on it.”

Anuja Chauhan’s journey into Bollywood

Of weird gurus and reality

Chauhan was initially adamant that she didn’t want to be involved with the adaption of this book. ‘‘I was so manically possessive about every little detail… I was also a little sick of it. At the time, I had spent one year writing the book and I wanted to be done with it. Also, I had started writing Battle for Bittora so, in my head, I had moved on. And I still had a full-time job.” Perhaps the delay in getting the film green-lit helped, for she was excited about revisiting her first novel. Once Dulquer was cast to play Nikhil, there was some talk about tweaking the character to suit the Southern star. They ultimately didn’t. “We thought that his character could be from Kerala but when I heard him speaking Hindi, I realised that we didn’t need to do that. His Hindi is perfect.”

After hours
  • A book for all seasons? A Suitable Boy and I really liked all the Agatha Christies. There isn't a single one I haven't read and reread. I also reread Susan Howatch, and the romances of Meg Cabot. And there's Catch 22: it's so funny — you can open it from anywhere and you giggle.
  • Literary character you love? Yossarian, from Catch 22.
  • Last book that made you laugh? The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Shroud. He’s so funny, so old and so irascible.
  • What are you reading now? Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. It's so depressing; I have no idea why I picked it up.
  • And web series… your pick? Fleabag. I loved the first season of Stranger Things but subsequent seasons had me scratching my head. Among Indian shows, I love The Viral Fever’s Kota Factory. I also enjoyed Made in Heaven but kept wishing it had a smidgen of romance somewhere.

The cricket team that Nikhil leads is one that’s desperate to win the World Cup. After all, the book was written before Team India lifted the World Cup in 2011 but apart from this little detail Chauhan believes that The Zoya Factor is more relevant now than it was then. “It's quite weird because of the state of the nation today, with the kind of superstitions, blind faith and the worshipping of Godmen and all these weird gurus. The idea that superstition makes Zoya the mascot for the team seems less far-fetched now.”

Working on the dialogues for the film gave Chauhan a taste of what it would be like to collaborate with others once again. When she quit advertising, she imagined herself being a ‘nightie-person’ who spent her days writing books that she had complete control over. But the very safe, creative and constructive atmosphere with Pooja, Aarti and Abhishek for this film has readied her for collaborations with others and a new medium. “I am currently working on the Thakur Girls adaption. It’s all very exciting. Maybe if OTT platforms were around in 2006, I might not have written any of my books,” muses Chauhan.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2021 10:29:00 AM |

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