How her love for storytelling has shaped her career.
By Nimarta Narang
Having just watched The Archies (2023), a movie that almost looks like a 1960s fairytale, I realised that I was basically living in one as I made my way to a New York City midtown hotel to meet the Zoya Akhtar to talk about her new film. As I took the 25-minute walk during the infamous NYC fall season, I reflected that this was a day I never saw coming and didn’t even know that I could dream about. This was a woman who had directed so many Hindi movie greats, spanning the bitingly-witty Luck by Chance (2009), the Millennial anthem Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), the family-favourite Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), and the fireworks-worthy Gully Boy (2019). She’d also directed the likes of eminently-popular TV series, Made in Heaven (2019- ), whose second season released this year. Zoya’s fifth directorial film, The Archies, debuted on Netflix on 9 November 2023 this year, with a retro-themed marketing campaign that went viral on social media, and with many praising its cheerful and colourful take on the iconic American comics.
“I love New York. The city always treats me well,” Akhtar told me as we sat together in the restaurant lobby. Not to fall into the habitual need to comment on how women public figures looked, but she seemed energetic and refreshed even after having just arrived in the city. She tells me how she came to New York years ago to do a diploma in film production, and claimed it was the best year of her life. She even edited Gully Boy there in 2018.
It made sense to me, then, why her films always had a sense of adventure and journey embedded into them. Akhtar shared that she had a very specific childhood with artist parents who went through a divorce, and that she’d travelled the world from a very young age. She paints an eloquent picture of the kind of background that led to her becoming a die-hard fan of The Archies since she was young: “I grew up in an India that wasn’t liberalised. The few things that we got from America when we were growing up in the 80s were certain Hollywood films, and The Archies comics. They were a mainstay for everybody.”
When asked about how she felt adapting a beloved IP that had such a huge fan base across the world, she confides, “I like being excited. I also like being a little scared of how I’m going to approach something. I always get nervous in the beginning, but I’m never nervous when I’m making a film. When I have to push an idea and sell it, I’m the most confident person in the world.” When Netflix came to her with the project, they had asked her to do a ‘wholesome’ angle as the US had already done a contemporary, darker version of Riverdale. “This is why India responded to the [wholesome] tone, because it had community, family, [and] friendship…it was innocent.”
For those who have watched The Archies by now, you will agree with me that the film is absolutely gorgeous. The softer tones are reminiscent of a childhood where everything was pure and exciting. It looks literally like a storybook that has come alive. “Everything that came back to me about the comics was the warm feeling it gave you. I thought, why don’t we create something that feels like a loving hug?”
From then, she figured out the specifics of the film through research. She wanted to set it in the 60s in a community that we haven’t seen much of in films – the Anglo-Indian community that was mostly Christian, so that she could use the original character names. What surprised her from her research was that a lot of people that she spoke to had families that migrated to England but at heart they remained Indophiles. “They insisted, ‘we’re Indian, we can’t just leave India behind!” she recalls. “As for the aesthetics of the film, we used photographs of that period, and a mix of storybook aesthetics and comic-book framing.
I turn the conversation to her writing process in this and other films. “I try to sum up in one phrase what each film is about,” she explains. “For example, for Luck by Chance, it was ‘self-esteem.’ For Gully Boy it was ‘class,’ for Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara it was ‘carpe diem.’ Archies was about idealism, and everything lent itself to that – everything is pretty, the values are correct.” Sharing the writing credits for this film’s story with Reema Kagti; Zoya emphasises how important it is to have writers who share a value system but bring different backgrounds to the table. “I’m an urban kid, and I grew up in a house full of artists, with liberal parents and great schools and colleges,” she reveals. “Reema grew up in the Northeast of India, in a farm where not everything was accessible, and her family structure was very different. We both come from different worlds, and it makes the world we write all the richer for it.”
At this point in our conversation, a South Asian waiter interrupted our conversation to tell her that he’d sent a special gift to Zoya’s room as a token of appreciation. Zoya, unfazed, graciously thanked him and seamlessly jumped back into our conversation. I was astounded. It dawned on me that I was talking to one of the most prolific storytellers in Hindi cinema, and she was giving me her full and undivided attention. Even across the world from our respective homes in Thailand and India, we were still Indophiles at heart. And clearly, cinephiles.
I asked her whether a project like this came at the right time during her career. “It came at a time where everything [in film and TV] is so complicated. For example, we loved making Made in Heaven (2019- ) and Dahaad (2023), but they are adult narratives. This is the first time we’re doing something for kids. And it’s very simple; which makes it scary.” She explained that with this type of narrative, there aren’t the same high stakes or drama to grab audiences as easily, which was the challenge. “I needed something like this; a time when life was simple and it can be easy. When time can move by slowly.”
It also helped that the newcomer actors she worked with for the film exuded so much energy and enthusiasm that it made her feel like she was reliving her debut film experience again. The actors include Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana Khan; the late Sridevi’s daughter Khushi Kapoor; Amitabh Bachchan’s grandson Agastya Nanda; Vedang Raina, Mihir Ahuja, Aditi Dot, and Yuvraj Menda.
“I realised that you can work so much that you forget how lucky you are sometimes. It was the first film for all of them, and I remembered when that was my scene. When I first wanted to be a director, and when I discovered that when I was directing, everything was amazing. The cast were contagious and infectious. I want to hold on to that feeling that I’m lucky to do something I love.”
When I ask for final advice for aspiring filmmakers, she tells me, impassioned, “Write your truth. Everyone tells me that I only do ‘feel good sh*t’ and I tell them, ‘I like feel-good sh*t!’ Write what you want to read; make what you want to watch. Ultimately, filmmakers might keep going back to the same theme, but the battles will be different. When you write your truth, the story, plot, and characterisations will resonate, and the rest is just juice.”