As The Zoya Factor releases, lead pair Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and Dulquer Salmaan talk to Bhakti Mehta on starring in the film adaptation of the bestseller by Anuja Chauhan, luck versus hard work and the energy they must put out in each role they enact
Bhakti Mehta (BM): The Zoya Factor is about Zoya who is the lucky charm for the Indian cricket team. You both, as actors, have had successful careers. How far do you think has luck played a role in your individual journeys?
Dulquer Salmaan (DS): You obviously have to be at the right place at the right time to get the right movies and the right offers. You choosing to do certain things or making certain choices is something which is up to you. Movies having a good release and facing no major competition is luck. I, however, don’t know how to plan these things according to luck. I think it is something that we can only discuss in hindsight.
Sonam Kapoor Ahuja (SKA): I agree with Dulquer on that. I think there’s a bit of serendipity when it comes to anything in your life, be it love, work or even films. As he said, you need to be at the right place at the right time and things happen when they are meant to happen. But at the same time, you need to work towards your goals and if your intentions are right and you are honest about what you are doing, you work hard enough. Things work out if there is a combination of right intentions, hard work and luck.
BM: But you do believe in fate.
SKA: Yes, I do believe in fate. There is a reason we are born where we are born, we come from certain circumstances, we look a certain way, we have certain energy and we have a certain aptitude. There are prodigies who can play the violin at the age of four. I am sure they had to work hard eventually but they had a natural inclination towards it.
BM: Have you both read the book?
DS: I read it after I heard the script.
SKA: I read it in 2009.
BM: As actors, what did you absorb from the book and what did you plan on leaving out?
DS: I prefer to see it how my director saw it because I have to read it like a film. I felt like maybe in the book, the references were a little older, dating back to 2006 or 2007 or the time when she (Anuja Chauhan) was an advertising executive. Now the cricketers look or dress or are styled a certain way. We have tried to be more current in the film. Those references were in their minds when they were styling me. Generally the discussions that Abhishek (Sharma) and I had were about the character, what he is like, the fact that he is self-made, comes from a humble background, is very principled and hard-working and how he worked his way up. I went with all of that. Everybody has different images in their head when they read a book. I don’t know if I can match all that but I went more with the vision of the director.
SKA: I had read it before and I read it again. I love books and it is very easy for me to read them again and again. When I read the script, I saw that there is a lot of stuff that is not there in the film. As a fan of the book, I was like ‘Oh, this not there and that is not happening!’ Abhishek told me that this is a two-hour long film and I should not expect everything to be in it. But what is great is that Anuja has given her aashirwaad to the film and she was there with us through and through. There are a few things that I incorporated in my character. One is that she is a little overweight. In the film, I was 10 kilograms overweight than what I am right now. None of these people can tell that because they think that I look the same all the time.
DS: How would I know the difference because Sonam never gains weight on her face.
SKA: That is such a guy thing to say. He said to me, ‘You look the same!’
DS: Do women like it when you say that you have gained weight? So I hesitatingly asked her if she gained a bit of weight. But honestly, I didn’t think that she gained any weight on her face or arms or legs. So I couldn’t really tell. It’s not like Zoya wore really fitted clothes and so there was no way that I could tell.
SKA: And then I permed my hair because Zoya has curly hair. He called me jhaadu. The relationship with Zorawar (Sikandar Kher) is still relevant. Her crush on Nikhil Khoda is also very apparent. She is an advertising executive who is going through a bad time in her work life. All these things make her who she is.
BM: Were there any differences in your perception when you read the book for the first time vis-à-vis reading it again after hearing the script?
SKA: There is a lot of voiceover in her books. Anuja uses the tool of an inner monologue a lot, be it The Zoya Factor or Battle For Bittora. I was wondering how we will incorporate that in the film. I had a conversation with Abhishek because this device was not there in the script initially. I told him that we can use a piece to camera and we can break the fourth wall and speak to the camera.
DS: So that you could directly talk to the audience.
SKA: Yes, basically that! I told him that we can try breaking out of the scene. It is definitely hard for your co-stars because in the middle of an interaction with them, they freeze and I start talking to the camera. It is also super hard for you as an actor.
BM: It must be like a button that you need to switch on and switch off constantly.
SKA: Yes, absolutely! But it was an exciting tool for me to use and I used the inner monologue through it, which was fun.
BM: Dulquer, we recently spoke to Aarrti and Pooja Shetty and they told us that you were so disciplined on set that unless you are exhausted after working for hours you do not feel satisfied…
SKA: (Cuts in) That’s absolutely true. That’s so right. I thought he was being weird.
BM: And if it was a light day then Dulquer would feel that the day was wasted.
SKA: Again, true!
DS: (Smiles) I think I am used to doing a lot in a day especially when I am on shoot. I am actually quite lazy when I am not shooting. (Chuckles) But on a film set I feel like if you are just sitting around a lot, it can get quite draining. It is nice to be on your feet and keep doing something because that energy kind of translates on celluloid. When we were there, we were trying to get a lot done in a day and the budgets are smaller. So say if you have permission to shoot in a building, it will be that expensive and therefore, you have to finish it in a certain number of days. I am used to that.
I remember when I was shooting for Solo, we had a small budget and it was in two languages and most days I was shooting for 18 to 20 hours. Coming from that to here, when we do not do many scenes in a day, it feels like, ‘What have we done today? One scene? That’s it!’ (Laughs) It is different for me and I have to get used to that.
SKA: I remember Dulquer was telling this to me that there was this one scene which he was reading and it was like two pages long, so he said that this will take me two days!
DS: (Cuts in) Yes! I was like, guys is this the scene? I can do this before breakfast! (Laughs) But yes, it was also a scene which had a big setup so I guess that is where the difference is too.
BM: Sonam, you have always tried to break the norm with films like Raanjhanaa, Neerja and even Veere Di Wedding. Where does The Zoya Factor fit in your filmography?
SKA: Well, if I had to do a commercial film, this is the kind of film I would want to. It is quite quirky, which appealed to me. And Dulquer is known to pick films which are strong on content, so he would not choose something that is not content-driven. The same goes for me. And I wanted to do something fun, very easy-breezy. I did not want to get in another intense film like Neerja or Pad Man. Those are my last four-five films. I needed something that would be a clutter-breaker for me. I know the audience is used to me doing films which are completely hatke. But this was more for me. I wanted to work with my friends and I wanted to have fun. But, at the same time, I did not want to cheat the audience from what they expect from me and the kind of cinema they expect from me. But I needed this film for myself.
BM: Since you have that conviction, it will translate onscreen too.
SKA: Yeah! I hope so. Honestly, this film is for girls. You see beautiful looking boys (looks at Dulquer) and then you see a girl whom they kind of..
DS: (Cuts in) They connect with.
SKA: Yes, they connect. It is basically a representation of this girl who is like a huge mess; she is very simple and has a simple family life. She has a crush on the captain of the Indian cricket team. She sees him on television and feels that he is so cute. She has a job and her boyfriend is not nice. All these things are something that girls are going through right now, especially the urban girls all over India. I just felt like it was fun with a fairytale ending.
DS: Also, it was kind of a satire which is something that I don’t think you have done before. So that could have been a new genre for you to have explored in this film.
SKA: Yeah, maybe. (Smiles)
BM: Both of you are active on social media..
SKA: Dulquer is not active!
DS: Yes, I am not so active.
BM: But your hashtags are insanely popular.
SKA: Really? What are your hashtags?
DS: So this means that you have never seen my Instagram page. (Laughs)
SKA: I have! I look at the pictures that are there with the baby and all.
DS: I like to have fun with my hashtags. But you didn’t finish your question!
BM: My question is, since you are popular names on social media, how does it help bolster your promotions?
SKA: But firstly, Dulquer, why have you not created any hashtags for us?
DS: (Laughs) I don’t know. I was not thinking about it. And it’s not like I am some hashtag inventor. I just like to have my fun with it. I usually just make fun of myself. But you know it’s a nice way to get through to people because firstly, everybody is on social media. A huge percentage of people and anybody with a phone is on social media. Being on that and being active there, saying to people, ‘Hey this movie is coming out!’ is a great thing. We also have the vlogs that we do as a promotional thing plus the photos that we put up from the interviews, I think it really activates everybody. They are getting curious and we are clearly having fun in the vlogs. They might think that, ‘Oh, these guys are having good fun. Maybe they will be more fun onscreen.’ So I think it helps. It brings a lot of good luck.
BM: An actor recently told me about feeling a sense of takeaway from every character they have played. What would be your takeaway from this?
SKA: Yes, I guess there is always a takeaway from each character that you play. You always learn something. Sir Ian McKellen had recently come to India and he had given a really cool talk where he spoke about how each character that he plays is like going through a sieve. And if there is something going through a sieve, there will always be a little bit that is left behind. In that way each character that I have played, and I can speak for myself here, has left a slight impact on me, some sort of lesson whether it is the film or a specific character or the people that I work with.
DS: I think, yes it happens for sure but it is mostly during the course of that film and then you move on to the next project. I have definitely learnt something or the other from each character. Like I had cricket coaching in this film, which I did as a kid. In my 30s I was getting coached but it was amusing to see younger kids playing cricket in the adjacent pitch and they were playing a hundred times better than I was. Then there were the girls from the Indian women’s cricket team who were just knocking it out of the park and I was like, ‘Wow!’.
SKA: Why were you surprised? Girls are better at everything. (Smiles)
DS: I know that but what I am saying is that the girls were so much younger than me and I am just useless. (Laughs) And I was watching one of the girls and I was like, ‘Wow, I cannot even do 10 per cent of that.’ So what I meant is that there is always something you learn, you imbibe or if you are shooting in a new location, you discover something new. And then there are days when you are doing something heavy or dark or intense when it is really difficult for you and you are putting a piece of yourself out there.
When I was shooting for Solo, there was a scene where my wife is pregnant and she dies during delivery. And in reality, my wife was nearing the delivery date of our baby at the same time. So when I was emoting, it really was a part of me. I was being me. I don’t think I needed any glycerin or anything to break down. I would go sit in the vanity in the few hours between scenes being setup and I was just out of it, just zoning out. I remember Bejoy (Nambiar) coming to me and saying that he didn’t realise how close to real life this was for me. It was extremely hard. But it is amazing when you sort of tap into these emotions that are in you. It is like you are giving up a part of yourself onscreen. And there is also always a takeaway. But I feel like you can look back at all your movies and you can remember what they were but you keep moving forward.