After Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, his 2018 action-drama on India’s Pokhran-II nuclear tests, Abhishek Sharma is back into his comfort zone — comedy — with The Zoya Factor adapted from Anuja Chauhan’s book of the same name. However, the director who’s known for his light-hearted films like Tere Bin Laden and its sequel, and The Shaukeens, is treading uncharted territory of romance with the Dulquer Salmaan– Sonam Kapoor rom-com that explores the conflict between luck, superstition and hard work.
The film revolves around Sonam Kapoor’s ‘Zoya’ who becomes the lucky charm of the Indian cricket team which is led by Dulquer’s character, Nikhil Khoda. Excerpts from an exclusive chat with the director who is of the belief that fortune favours the brave while luck is an excuse for failure.
We had taken the book for development five to six years back. That time I was not on board as director, I was working on something else. Producers, Pooja (Shetty Deora) and Aarti (Shetty) were developing it with writers Neha Rakesh (Sharma) and Pradhuman Singh. They wrote some drafts and at a certain point, Pooja thought it is important to get a director on board and she asked me if I would be interested. I liked the idea because I had read both, the novel as well as the script by then. I thought it would be a good challenge for me to do a romcom. I have never attempted this genre and I love to switch genres. I took it over and then we worked on the screenplay and also got Anuja involved in the last couple of drafts.
Since it’s a cinematic adaptation we have taken a few creative liberties but we have made sure that the soul of the book is intact and that is the key reason why Anuja was involved. When it comes to adapting a book, you don’t want to short-change the narrative of the book. You have to make sure that the spirit of the book is correct and that is why creator herself sat on the script and we made sure it is subscribed to the book.
What really attracted me is the central theme which is there in the book and the film. This country is a lot about superstitions, then we also have those who believe in hard work, we have facets of both sides, so it is interesting to see that as a conflict in a love story.
Was attempting romance for the first time a challenge?
I come from a theatre background, I have tackled comedy and drama during my theatre days but somehow I had never attempted romance on stage. This is a completely fresh genre for me. I had never worked on it on any medium. It is a very different film from both, Tere Bin Laden and Parmanu. It was challenging and exciting because there was no comfort factor and I was getting into uncharted territory but I enjoyed it thoroughly. The producers gave me all the required support and the actors also made my life easier.
How did Dulquer and Sonam come on board?
Sonam was a no-brainer because while writing the book Anuja thought of her, I guess, and when we read the book everybody’s first choice was Sonam. Also, when we were casting, Neerja had just happened. Even from a commercial standpoint, Sonam was quite strong. She’s a great combination of creative and commercial.
Dulquer was a more difficult casting. We were looking at the usual suspects, in Mumbai, to cast opposite Sonam. I can’t name anyone. But we didn’t approach anyone because I was not sure whether anyone would fit in. Dulquer’s character is very dynamic, there is love interest but at the same time, there has to be freshness about him. He is playing the captain of the Indian cricket team, so there should be no baggage. One must feel that he is a cricketer. While we were looking at a few young boys, Aarti told me about Dulquer, and she was generally speaking about how good an actor he is and how he should be in Hindi cinema.
At that time Karwaan had not come out and we weren’t sure about his Hindi. But when I met him I realised his Hindi was too good. I don’t dub my films, all my films are sync sound whoever I work with. He speaks fluent Hindi and he doesn’t have an accent. And as an actor he blew my mind. He has become one of the biggest stars in the country because of his talent and multi-linguistic skills. He is a sensation and he can be great for Indian cinema. Among male actors I have not seen anyone pan India like him. He has the potential.
Did Dulquer undergo training in the sport?
Dulquer was very excited to play a cricketer. He has never played an athlete in cinema and we bonded over being physically lazy (laughs) because both of us have not been athletes or sportsmen in life. He worked really hard for almost a year right from learning to holding the cricket bat in the right way to learning the sport.
Dulquer and Sonam have not known each other well, so how was the working chemistry between them?
Chemistry is something which is at the performance level. I can assure you that two people who are best of friends can have terrible chemistry on screen and we have seen it. Sometimes husband-wife don’t have chemistry on-screen without naming names. When there is a performance, everything is about timing. Both characters have to come across as one unit. That comes through the performance, it is either there or not there. It was during the workshops that I was very convinced that they had great chemistry.
Presenting the conflict between luck, superstition and hard work must have been a great subject to play with?
Quite a few things like that nimbu-mirchi seen on the poster are presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner. I don’t believe in luck. I somewhere subscribe to Nikhil Khoda’s (Dulquer’s character) view. Somewhere luck is an excuse for failure. If you are extremely successful, hard work has to be the reason and not luck. Fortune favours the brave. Hard work takes you places.
Sonam personally does believe in certain superstitions and luck. I do not. That is the conflict and we can live with that conflict. That is what the film is exploring and would make it interesting. It is for both, believers and non-believers to watch and decide for themselves that what is the real thing – luck or hard work. I enjoyed working on it because the subject gives me enough scope to put some satire in it. It was a very challenging and yet very satisfying film to make.
Now my only concern is the audience turnout, I am hoping for a decent number on the first day. But I am very sure about word of mouth. It is not just a masala film, everything has been integrated so well – romance, comedy, sport, satire. It is an intelligently written film, and it is a good looking film.