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Nailing a song like Zoya Akhtar

  • From ‘Baawre’ to ‘Apna Time Aayega’, what went into creating the oomph and playfulness in the best of them
  • Few Bollywood directors can nail a song with as much relish as Zoya Akhtar

Ranveer Singh in ‘Apna Time Aayega’ from ‘Gully Boy’.
Ranveer Singh in ‘Apna Time Aayega’ from ‘Gully Boy’.

Two out of the four feature films Zoya Akhtar has directed are joyful, lyrical dissections of the emotional dysfunction of affluent, urban under-40s. In both these films, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), the men dress and dance as sharply as the women, if not better. The songs are filmed with fluid camera movements, the sets pulsate with people and props. Her best feature film so far, the cheeky insider-who-could-be-an-outsider debut film Luck By Chance (2009), has two gorgeously shot songs. The life of a hip hop performer from a Mumbai slum—his poetry seemingly tweaked to suit mass-y tastes—propels Gully Boy, which released on 14 February.

In a phone interview while she was “snowed under the post-production" of Gully Boy, Akhtar makes a compelling case for the current status of the Bollywood song: “It is a part of us, film-makers and audiences; what we can’t say with dialogues, we say with a song. We tell stories through songs, look at our folk cultures. No matter what changes, the song is here to stay." From the scripting stage itself, Akhtar says she has ideas about what her songs will look like, how they will add to her stories, and how she will break them down to moments that add something to a film. “In Gully Boy, of course, Ranveer Singh’s performance has largely decided what the songs will look and feel like," she adds.

Few Bollywood directors can nail a song with as much relish as Akhtar. Shubha Ramachandra, Akhtar’s script supervisor on Luck By Chance and Dil Dhadakne Do, says: “For most directors, when the choreographer comes to the set to shoot a song, it’s a break. For Zoya, it is as integral to her film-making as every other scene. She is minutely involved in shooting her songs along with the choreographer and the cinematographer."

I went into a YouTube reverie of Akhtar songs, and also watched most of what’s available from Gully Boy. Akhtar spoke to me about the making of some of the songs.

Yeh Zindagi Bhi, title sequence, Luck By Chance

Akhtar and her then second unit director and co-writer on many films, Reema Kagti, captured mundane, peripheral scenes of film sets while the film was being shot in Mumbai—members of the cast in astronaut costumes and winged glittery gowns inside canteens and bathroom corridors, wig-makers and crowded tailor shops, assistants creating makeshift snow, projectors, security guards, and dancers or “extras". It was an artsy opening to a film that lovingly shredded Bollywood hypocrisy and insecurities.

Baawre, Luck By Chance

“I wanted this song to be chaotic, a metaphor for how the film industry works," says Akhtar. Ramachandra recalls that the set was painstakingly constructed at Film City, but the monsoon unexpectedly decided to pour down with full force ahead of meteorological predictions. “For almost two days, the crew was wading through water. The consultant from Rambo Circus who was present on the set said there was too much wind and it could collapse any moment. A lot of things had to be changed, but overall the mad energy of the whole effort translated on screen," Ramachandra says. Hrithik Roshan plays an actor shooting a song in the song, and is at his light-footed, back-bending best. Akhtar worked with choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant.

Senorita, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Shot at Bar El Parquein Alájar, a town in Huelva, Spain, the three woefully confused man-boys in the film dance a Bosco-Caesar version of the flamenco. “The shoot was a big event at the town, I remember that even the mayor was present and was part of it," Akhtar remembers. Again, Hrithik Roshan steals the show, just about letting his feet touch the makeshift stage.

A still from ‘Gallan Goodiyaan’ from ‘Dil Dhdakne Do’. 
A still from ‘Gallan Goodiyaan’ from ‘Dil Dhdakne Do’. 

Gallan Goodiyaan, Dil Dhadakne Do

Gallan Goodiyan is an ordinary song in Punjabi-ized Hindi—usually what works best towards the end of any Indian party. Akhtar says she and cinematographer Carlos Catalán wanted a home-video feel to the song, and the focus-puller of the camera was called to task so there would be no cuts. Rehearsed with precision, the song became a massive hit.

Pehli Baar, Dil Dhadakne Do

A cabin of the cruise ship the film was shot in was replicated in a Mumbai studio for this sexy duet pictured on Ranveer Singh and Anushka Sharma. “I wanted it to be charged with sexual chemistry and flirtation, like an ode to making out," Akhtar says. It proves the point that a director doesn’t need outlandish sets to create engaging song sequences.

Mere Gully mein/Apna Time Aayega, Gully Boy

Two very different kinds of song picturization can be seen in Gully Boy: the polished music video style of Mere Gully Mein and the raw stage performance of Ranveer Singh in Apna Time Aayega. It seems that the Bollywoodization of Mumbai’s slum hip hop poetry rests entirely on Singh. Akhtar agrees, and says she based the shooting of Apna Time Aayega around Singh’s rendition of the track. The original song is written by rapper DIVINE.

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