Eminent Indian filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s new film, “Gully Boy,” had its world premiere at Berlin as part of the Berlinale Special screenings strand.
Set in Mumbai’s Dharavi area, one of Asia’s largest slums, the film is loosely based on the lives of street rappers Divine and Naezy, whose music Akhtar first heard in 2014. Akhtar is known for her successful dramas set among the world of the hyper-wealthy in films such as “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” (2011) and “Dil Dhadakne Do” (2015) or in elite Bollywood circles such as her debut feature, “Luck by Chance” (2009). “Gully Boy” marks a significant departure in milieu for the filmmaker.
“It’s not so much the theme as the world and the music that is attractive to me,” Akhtar says. “Thematically, the same kind of story that I end up making, which is coming of age, finding your voice, it is similar. It is the world that is different and the context that is different. I am a huge fan of hip-hop music.”
Akhtar saw a video of Naezy and found the music very authentic. She began following his work, attending his gigs and eventually met Divine as well. “It just went from there and became a film,” says Akhtar.
“Gully Boy” stars Bollywood A-listers Ranveer Singh (“Simmba”) and Alia Bhatt (“Raazi”). “Apna time aayega” (“Our Time Will Come”), the anthemic single from the film composed by Dub Sharma and Divine with lyrics by Divine and Ankur Tewari and vocals by Singh and Divine, was released in January and has racked up some 30 million views on YouTube.
Akhtar is one of the few women filmmakers in the male- dominated Indian industry. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Akhtar has not had to face the sexism that is endemic to the industry. “Coming from a pretty privileged, advantaged space in India, and I was born into the industry, so I think maybe that could have made a difference to my experience,” says Akhtar. “I have never been discriminated against on the basis of my gender, honestly.” Akhtar’s father Javed is a poet, screenwriter and lyricist, mother Honey is a filmmaker and screenwriter and brother Farhan is a filmmaker and top actor.
“You do encounter mild sexism,” says Akhtar. “I mean, this is a sexist society and the industry is part of the society.” Akhtar chooses to ignore these instances. “Eventually your work speaks and everybody shuts up,” she says.
Akhtar says women have been making films in India from the 1930s, though the numbers were few. The explosion in content platforms has created more opportunities for filmmakers, Akhtar says. “They were very few, but they always existed,” she says. “I think there are more women coming out and more women wanting the job and there is as much opportunity there to get it. Every year the percentage increases, and it is amazing that it does. And also, a lot of women that are in the business are making money at the box office. That makes a huge difference.”
Next up for Akhtar is “Made in Heaven,” an Amazon Prime Video series focusing on the lives of wedding planners, co-created by her and longtime collaborator Reema Kagti (“Gold”), that is due in March.
“Gully Boy” is a co-production between Excel Entertainment and Tiger Baby Prods. C Intl. Sales (“Hotel Salvation”), the sales arm of boutique production house Cinestaan Film Company (“Cold War”), will represent the film in Berlin. Cinestaan AA Distribution (“Baahubali 2: The Conclusion”) will release the film in India and traditional Bollywood territories on Feb. 14.