Zoya Akhtar: On ‘The Archies,’ representation in cinema, and batting for equality

The filmmaker talks about her upcoming projects, the need for diversity and inclusivity in films going forward, and why including the LGBTQIA+ community in the workspace will open your mind up

May 25, 2022 05:45 pm | Updated 05:48 pm IST

Filmmaker Zoya Akthar

Filmmaker Zoya Akthar | Photo Credit: Abheet Gidwani

The hype around both of Zoya Akhtar’s upcoming projects is palpable to say the least.

First comes the second season of Made in Heaven, the hit drama revolving around the lives of two wedding planners in Delhi, that comes after an agonising three-year wait. 

Next up is one of Hindi cinema’s most wildly inventive takes ever; a live-action musical adaptation of the iconic Archies comics set in the 1960s, with a host of new Indian actors, that has generated much curiosity. 

Along with her collaborative partner Reema Kagti — the duo run production company Tiger Baby Films together — there’s no denying Zoya’s immsense influence on the Indian film landscape, since her directorial debut with Luck By Chance in 2009.

With films such as ZNMD, Dil Dhadakne Do and Gully Boy, the NYU graduate — who hails from one of India’s most prestigious film families — has been instrumental in ushering Bollywood into a modern-day progressive space, with characters and storylines that have resonated with a new generation of movie-goers across the country.

Recently, the filmmaker took the stage at Procter & Gamble India’s #WeSeeEqual Summit, where she shared insights on ‘shaping today’s generation for an equal tomorrow,’ alongside other leading personalities and advocates.  

Excerpts from an e-mail interview with Zoya, on the sidelines of the summit, about the importance of representation on and behind the screen in breaking biases, shattering stereotypes in her films, and more:

Were you always interested in the idea of a desi version of Archie, Betty, Ron, and team? 

I’m currently shooting The Archies as a feature film, and that hopefully will be out next year. I am excited to have the chance to bring the comics to life; they were a large part of my childhood and teenage years. The characters are iconic and globally loved, which is also why I am a little nervous. I have to make sure the film stokes the nostalgia of a generation that grew up on the comic, and yet resonates with young adults today.

There’s a lot of anticipation over the second season of Made in Heaven. How was it to revisit the drama again?

We just wrapped up shooting recently and are now editing that; it should be out soon. We had a lot of fun creating, writing, shooting and producing these projects, and now look forward to releasing them. We also have another show called Dahaad which will be out soon. 

You are known as one of the progressive voices in Indian cinema. After a decade in the industry, do you feel a sense of responsibility with what you create on-screen?

On-screen representation is important because, in our country at least, films are the biggest and possibly the only form of pop-culture that we have. It’s very important that we see ourselves represented in our popular culture; to know that we exist in this context, and that we exist in this society. Only when we see ourselves represented, do we feel normalised and a part of the fabric

I’m born and brought up in India, but I have come from one corner of this society. if I don’t see someone like myself out there, then there’s no paradigm for me and I’m going to feel isolated. I’ll feel alone, like I don’t belong or fit. I will look at myself as an anomaly — but I’m not — there are many women like me.

Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti of Tiger Baby Films

Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti of Tiger Baby Films

Only when we see ourselves represented, do we feel normalised and a part of the fabric. So representation is extremely important, and that can only happen when it is diverse or inclusive; because that’s how societies are — they’re not homogenous.

On her experience at the #WeSeeEqual summit:
As a corporate in power, P&G, with #WeSeeEqual has created a conversation around a very relevant topic: gender
It’s nice to be with like-minded people, and they are not just sitting there and talking about the problems… they are actually creating solutions. They are going out there, making that effort, putting their money where their mouth is, and putting out a consciousness that is needed in this society
I think the politics and value system – as a company – has to be a particular way, and you have to care about enhancing something and making a change. And I mean, kudos!

There’s been a lot of talk on inclusion of people belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community both on and off-screen in Bollywood, but do you believe there has been any tangible change? 

Of course, including the LGBTQIA+ community into your workspace will open your mind up. In any kind of work — let’s take a business like mine — where we are telling stories for a vast mass, the more diversity that we have, the more people we reach. 

The more points of views and perspectives we have, the more people we will connect to. Just sticking to one kind of person narrows your chances of communicating with a larger mass. It’s not out of kindness or charity that we need to include various communities; it is actually a smart business decision to have diversity in your office or space. 

What we need to do is represent them more in stories, and empower people to come up with their own stories in my business. I would like to have more LGBTQ stories out there, and have more LGBTQ actors out there. 

At the end of the day, it’s a definitive orientation or choice of the person. But we are all human and equal; what my choices are and what they are not, is irrelevant. It’s just one aspect of me, and that aspect cannot define a human being. We need to be able to break that, and find the similarities that exist between people.

A couple of years ago, Frances McDormand’s speech at the Oscars brought to light the concept of an inclusion rider that would provide for a stipulated diversity in casting and production staff. Do you think Indian cinema could ever introduce such an idea?

I got onto a set very early, when I was 19-20 years old, as an assistant director. I come from a place where there was no concept of superior-inferior agenda; my brother and I were brought up completely equally. I was not conditioned to a gender bias, nor did I have any prior experience of sexism. When I entered the room, I was equal in my head, and in my demeanour. 

I think that that kind of creates its own reaction to you, when you don’t wear your gender on your sleeve. Also, people knew my family so I suppose I didn’t deal with any form of harassment.

When I started directing (Luck By Chance), my brother was my lead actor, and he was an established filmmaker already. So, I had certain technicians ask him if the shot was okay, and he had to be like, she is the director. I had taken a Steadicam operator to the side and said, ‘I don’t think we can work together if you won’t speak to me.’ And he (the cameraman) responded saying, ‘But you’re like my sister.’ I said, ‘I’m not your sister, I’m your boss!’ We subsequently became friends, because it was a chat without any angst involved.

Zoya and Farhan Akhtar

Zoya and Farhan Akhtar | Photo Credit: RAJEEV BHATT

Representation is when your identity or personality is validated in any kind of popular culture. It is not just women; other communities, disabilities and even men are also represented badly many times. In the 80s and 90s, you never saw tenderness, you never saw consent. But we had molestation scenes. That affects the psyche of a nation. You saw women that had no right to express how they felt, and that definitely makes a difference. So how you’re representing is key, as people need to know they’re not alone.

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