Producers of The Zoya Factor, Pooja Shetty and Aarrti Shetty of Ad-Labs Films Limited and director Abhishek Sharma talk to Team Box Office India about their professional association, acquiring the book rights from Shah Rukh Khan, working with best-selling writer Anuja Chauhan, casting South star Dulquer Salmaan opposite Sonam Kapoor and much more
Box Office India (BOI): Pooja and Aarrti, the rights of The Zoya Factor was with Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment before you acquired it. What potential did you see in the book that you decided a screen adaptation of it?
Pooja Shetty (Pooja): We loved the book when we read it. We realised that it would make for a good film because it was a combination of several big ideas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the rights; they were sitting with Red Chillies. At some point, we were negotiating with Anuja Chauhan for her next book. At that stage, she had The Zoya Factor out and three-four years later, her next book would be published.
Aarrti Shetty (Aarrti): Battle For Bittora! Pooja: Yes, even before that released, we had gotten in touch with her to say that we wanted to acquire the rights for a screen adaptation. While we were in conversation, she called us and said that her term with Red Chillies is getting over and they might not make the film on The Zoya Factor. She told us that if we want, we could discuss both the books. We went to Red Chillies, spoke to Shah Rukh and told him, ‘We love the book. If you’re making the film, then it’s fine but if you aren’t, then please let us get involved in it. We are in touch with Anuja and we’re in love with the book more than anything else that we discussed with her.’ That’s how it came about. He and his team were very gracious. They sent us all the paper work with which we could go ahead and sign up with Anuja. Till today, he’s very supportive of this film. We’re very grateful to him.
BOI: Isn’t he the narrator in the film?
Abhishek Sharma (Abhishek): We don’t want to give out his contribution in the film but there’s a touch of SRK in it for sure.
BOI: Abhishek, your association with Pooja and Aarrti dates back to 2010 with the release of Tere Bin Laden. How would you describe your working relationship with them over the years?
Abhishek: Our association actually dates back to 2004. When I first came to Mumbai, I started working with Mr (Manmohan) Shetty’s company called Adlabs Films Ltd. Luckily we’ve now got the name back. There’s no other company that I’ve been associated with in this way. From a film perspective, we’ve been associated for 12 years. From 2007, we all moved out of the Reliance Adlabs structure and we created a company called Walkwater (Media Ltd) and our first film under that banner was Tere Bin Laden. Before this film, they made a brilliant Marathi film titled Rita. But Tere Bin Laden was their first Hindi film. We’ve worked on three films together. But more than a professional association, it has been like a family bond. We’ve also collaborated on projects that they have been working on and I’ve individually been working on and other things beyond films, concerning day-to-day business.
Aarrti: When the company started, it was the three of us in one office. We don’t share a typical director-producers equation.
Abhishek: It’s difficult for me to encapsulate our relationship into any particular bracket. This is the only association that I know of. It’s like when you’re born in a family, you only know of that family. It is going to be 16 years for me in Mumbai next year…
Pooja: (Cuts in) Just to add to that, in course of that, he has made five films. The Zoya Factor is our third film together. He has done good comedies. We’ve done two comedies together. He has experimented with genres. With each project, we’re also growing as a unit and figuring out how to look at different kinds of subjects and genres that we like and we think we can do justice to. If you look up a list of directors who could’ve made this film, Abhishek wouldn’t have featured in it.
Aarrti: This is a romantic film!
Pooja: Yes! Abhishek has been associated comedies. When I called him for this, he had just started working on Parmanu. For Aarrti and me, it’s about working with somebody we can trust, so that we know that it will go in the hands of somebody who can do the best that he can with the material. The Zoya Factor is an important film for us. We just wanted to make sure that we were anchoring into with the right person.
Aarrti: This is not a regular romantic film. It talks about luck and superstitions. It’s quirky. Abhishek was constantly worried about the romance part of it. But because there were so many other elements, he did a good job.
Pooja: He can now pull off rom-coms too!
Abhishek: I like dealing with different genres but I don’t think anybody else would’ve given me a rom-com. Rom-coms are an off-centre thing for me. I’m from the National School Of Drama. I’ve done a lot of theatre, I’ve done period dramas, I’ve done Julius Caesar and I’ve done comedies. But even in theatre, romance was one genre that I hadn’t attempted. So I was shocked when Pooja called me. I told her that I would try. (Laughs) Like Aarrti said, it had a lot of other elements, which gave me comfort. I knew that romance is one angle where Pooja and Aarrti would help me. The film needed a softer lens and a feminine voice. So Anuja, Pooja and Aarrti helped me understand Zoya and her perspective. Pooja and Aarrti’s aesthetics are really good. They understand rom-coms, the pop and the quintessential look of a commercial film. My strength is in understanding satire, quirks, comedies and the cricket part of the film. As a team, we played on each other’s strengths. If I was doing this film with some other production house, I think I would have struggled hard.
Pooja: You would’ve made it a comedy! It would have come naturally to you.
Abhishek: Yeah, I would’ve taken out the romance.
Pooja: This film would then become something else! On a serious note, it’s very important for the three of us to make sure that from here onwards – and we’ve done some experimental work, some of which have worked and some haven’t - we’re all staying float and staying above board individually and also together. Aarrti and I, as a unit, have to be make sure that we’re supporting Abhishek even on stuff that he’s not doing with Ad-Labs per say. And we want him to support us on stuff that Ad-Labs is doing. I think this is important for our own personal growth and journey. For the next 10 years, the three of us have to support each other for the work that we’ll be doing. If we feel that something isn’t working out, then we’re there to support, warn and tell each other so that there’s some protective element around us.
Abhishek: More than collaborators, we’re well-wishers. We’ve been very strongly supporting each other even on personal issues and other professional issues where we aren’t working together. Maybe that’s why when we collaborate, it becomes even more intense. You can see it. I think Tere Bin Laden has been my best work till now. Hopefully The Zoya Factor will change that. (Smiles) When we work together, it’s more like a music band rather than solo performances. In terms of vision, usually what happens is when you are making a film, it is called the director’s vision. But in The Zoya Factor, it is more like a collaborative effort, like a musical band where everybody’s voices are there, like a shared vision. It is their passion project. They literally asked the universe to get this concept. It was with SRK, it came to them and they were big fans of the book. It is a chick-lit bestseller, it’s a cult. I did not know that much about the book and had not even read it. They just asked me to read it and give their opinion just as a well-wisher. I really liked it. Then they started developing the script and I was part of the feedback process. We were kind of struggling as a unit to get a director on board. We did get somebody but that did not work out and then one day Pooja asked me if I would like to direct the film. By that time I had read enough to get excited about it. Of course, it was out of my comfort zone but I loved that it was a challenge because if I can pull this off, then maybe I can pull off any other genre. This was a genre that I was most scared about because I never thought that I would be able to do a rom-com. If you see any of my previous films, they have been very dry in terms of romance whether it was Tere Bin Laden or Parmanu. But here, that’s the central theme.
BOI: So are you now more confident about directing a romantic film?
Abhishek: Yes, now I am. There are a couple of scripts that I am developing outside of Ad-Labs which I am making with other people and I am more confident in writing a romance track in the script too. Thanks to Pooja and Aarrti, I now believe that I can try this and it can work. I am more confident about it now.
Pooja: We actually had a romantic track in Tere Bin Laden. We had a female reporter in the scene and in six months of writing, Abhishek said that he was going to kill that character. (Laughs)
Abhishek: I was the one who was writing that script. Luckily, in The Zoya Factor, what has happened is that there was a lot of collaboration. I have not written this film. It has been written by Neha Rakesh, Pradhuman Singh (Mall) and Anuja herself because she came on board for the last two drafts. Somewhere, they know better about romance than I do. Tere Bin Laden was a script that I was writing and I was struggling with the love track and then I decided that lets just kill that character. Bhool jao isko. But now I have learnt writing from Anuja because she handles it very well. She has written some kick-ass romantic lines in the film. In terms of the aesthetics, the look, creating that chemistry, I learnt it all from Pooja and Aarrti. They are very good with the romantic angle of how it can look beautiful. I, because of my humour, can go completely off. You will be laughing but will not be feeling the beauty of it. That’s where I learnt this time. So, hopefully, I can carry it forward in some other film.
BOI: Was Anuja Chauhan on the set with you? Was it more helpful to have the original writer onboard the film?
Abhishek: I have a problem and I am trying to deal with it. I don’t call writers on set and the reason is that the writers have created something which then is my job to translate it with the actors. Otherwise, sometimes, actors become over-dependent on writers like they ask them about how they should say a particular line. But I want actors to feel that they are interpreting it their own way. If the actors also say the lines like the writers have written it, there is no growth, no spark, no creation in terms of the characters and no input from their side. That is the reason that I usually don’t entertain writers on set. Writers are not actors. The actor is the main person who has to create that character that the writer has given. They need to work on it and create a character. I wouldn’t say a line in the same way that a Pradhuman or an Anuja would. That’s the key reason. Like in Tere Bin Laden, I was the writer and director and I remember actors asking me how they should say a line. But being the director, I could tell them that I do not want to tell them how to say a line. I think that’s the worst way of directing. If the actor is terrible, that should be the last resort but we have great actors so I did not want that. Having said that, Anuja saw the edit recently and she has given her feedback.
BOI: Has she watched the whole film?
Abhishek: Yes, of course.
BOI: What was her reaction?
Aarrti: She said that she got a very good feeling in her gut, which she gets only when films are good.
Abhishek: She thought that the soul of the film was intact because we did make a few changes. It is an adaptation and at the end of the day, you cannot tell all the 500 pages in the film. But many of the changes were the ones that Anuja suggested during the writing and the edit stage. In fact, after the first cut, she completely rewrote another scene. It is a conflict scene between Zoya and Nikhil, which was written initially from a very different point of view. Then when she saw the edit, she got another idea. She rewrote it and we shot it that way. This was much better. You cannot do it without her because she is not just a screenplay writer on this film, she is the mother ship, she is the author, she is the creator of this world and one has to take her along.
BOI: Coming to the casting of the film, was it a strategic decision to cast Dulquer Salmaan because he has a huge fan-following down South?
Aarrti: Dulquer has been a very close friend of mine for many years, even before he wanted to become an actor. He had come to Bombay to study acting and that’s when I met him first. And he did that as an experiment. At some point, he needed a place to stay and was put up at our nani’s house. He is a very simple guy. For many years, we have stayed in touch and I was happy when his first film came out. I have seen him grow, he is an excellent actor and he speaks Hindi very well, which not many people know. He is very good with languages. That is why suddenly in the last year or so, you have seen him doing films in Tamil, Telugu and other languages. He is able to pick up languages very fast. He spoke Hindi well even before he wanted to become an actor in Hindi movies. The conversation of Karwaan and The Zoya Factor started at similar times. But since Karwaan was a smaller film, it happened much quicker. We took our time before we started shooting. The conversation was up for Abhishek to see his work and say that he was the Nikhil we need. Pooja and I always felt that he could play this role.
Pooja: Also, he was a pleasure to work with. The discipline that Malayalam or the South industry has, the way they support their directors and producers, is great.
Aarrti: Yeah. I never felt like he was a non-Hindi actor on set. He was always prepped with his lines and he was always in sync with the sound and even accent-wise, Abhishek never had to correct him. He was pretty prepared. On the first day Sonam was surprised that he speaks Hindi. She has worked with other actors from South. It takes time for them to get used to the language. Also, we didn’t have the problem of making his character look like he is from the South because he is the captain of Indian Cricket team and he can be from any part of India. The story didn’t have any geographical limitations and we didn’t need to limit ourselves because at some point, he was like there is no need to mention it at all.
Abhishek: In a way, he is a Goan boy in the film.
BOI: That’s why he fits the bill.
Abhishek: He would have fit the bill anyway. Even if I said that he is from UP, he would have worked because he would have gotten that accent. He is like that. He is very hard working but we wanted a neutral accent and Goa seemed okay because we have that track in the film. There is something to do with Goa. I thought that should be his home state.
BOI: The flip side of making a film from a book is that there is always a set of naysayers who believe that a film is not as good as a book. Is that a pressure for you as makers?
Pooja: If those were to come, we will have to take it in our stride. We have respected the material, we have respected the author, we have her consent and support, and when you have that… it’s like when you are making a biopic and if the entire family says the biopic is amazing, that’s when you know that you have done the best you could with the material you had. It’s the same thing with the book adaptation. We have taken Anuja’s support because we loved her work. We brought her back for the additional screenplay; she has seen the work and given us feedback. We have taken every single feedback, as much as we possibly could. From that perspective, I think we have a clear sanction from the mother source of the material.
Aarrti: In the past there were lots of books that I had read and seen movies based on them. People really love the movie if they have no idea about the book but I was like, ‘Oh it’s not as good as the book’ because there are some characters that slip away because it is very difficult to keep every character. Anuja’s book is of 450 pages and it’s very hard to keep every perspective and tell a story because thematically our story is slightly different. When you see the film, it kind of tells you what to take back, which the book doesn’t. The book doesn’t say that okay this is my point.
Pooja: Which Anuja also admits that it’s a book so she didn’t really round it off.
Aarrti: The way Abhishek saw the film, there is an audience take-back angle to it.
Abhishek: I have a stand on this film, which we discussed earlier, which is not there in the book because the book has a different take. It’s a book and it is from one person’s perspective, which is Zoya’s.
Aarrti: In the book she is talking to herself through the audience which we can’t do in the movie. You need to change certain things to make the material more relevant for a film.
Abhishek: The idea is that after people watching the film, new readers will in a way get excited about the book. Because in India the problem is that our readership is very low. It’s a small group of people who have read it but we still want to respect them. That’s why we wanted Anuja to be happy with it and make sure that the cult following of the book is not disappointed. But also inversely we want the book to have a wider readership simply because it deserves to be even more popular. It’s a great material. People can go back to the book and see what Anuja had created as a source material that inspired the film. This is so that the book helps the film and the film can give back in some way to the book.