Writer Anuja Chauhan is all pumped up for the release of big-screen adaptation of her first book, The Zoya Factor. Here she is in conversation with Titas Chowdhury on sketching slightly different protagonists for the film, lead actors Sonam K Ahuja and Dulquer Salmaan and her upcoming book-to-screen adaptations
You wrote the final few drafts of the film The Zoya Factor and there were also a few changes made in the film. How receptive were you to them and how did you keep your biases aside considering the book is your baby?
Oh, it was a little hard! Luckily I wrote the book long ago and that helped me stay a little detached. If I had to do it right after writing the book, then it would’ve been difficult. The gap of some 10 years helped me achieve some distance with the material and I could be more dispassionate about it. Most of the ruthless stuff was done by the makers like throwing out some favourite characters and scenes. In fact, I get so nervous when I see readers talking about their favourite things. I say to the makers, ‘This is not fair, guys!’ It’s quite sad and horrible. (Chuckles). But I think that Abhishek (Sharma) has really kept the soul of the book in the film. The premise is pretty much in place and the story is pretty much the same. But we’ve kept a few things different so that even for the readers, it feels fresh. The book consists of about 500 pages and this is a film of about two hours and I think we’ve picked the right bits.
The characters of Zoya and Nikhil were originally sketched by you. How, according to you, did Sonam K Ahuja and Dulquer Salmaan fit the bill?
They fit the bill very well. I know that there are a lot of questions on Sonam’s physicality. She did put on a few kilos for the movie and she got her hair curled. I always believed that she understood the character very well. That Zoya-ness has come through very well. Dulquer worked really hard on the cricket bit. He has the correct voice and he has that nice, brawn and broody intensity which we needed. Nikhil’s character was written in a certain way in the book and we made a fair amount of changes to that. In the book, I made him too flirty, which might now feel wrong. That’s something we worked on. When I first got the draft, I went, ‘No no no! What is this? Why is he flirting with a journalist? Nikhil Khoda is not supposed to flirt with a journalist!’ These are the things about Nikhil that made me sit up and think.
With Zoya, nothing of that sort happened mostly. They got her personality very well. In the beginning, however, I was troubled by certain things that made her look really stupid. She is not a stupid girl, she knows her job and is really good at it. There were things like that which needed to be tweaked because they were integral to the film. I was like, ‘Just for a few laughs, don’t make her flirty and don’t make her stupid!’ During moments like that, I used to push back on. They are these two people who have chemistry and then they bounce off each other. If Nikhil is a flirty guy, then he’ll not be attracted to a girl like Zoya in the first place.
How did you cement your trust on the people who had the rights to a world that you had created?
This was my first book and I didn’t really understand anything about these things. Now I am smart enough. After writing more books now, I am more informed on the contract, the rights that I give away and for how long I give them away. I trust Shah Rukh (Khan). I was working with them all the time. He was the only person I knew properly in Bombay. There were many people who wanted the rights of The Zoya Factor but I wanted to sell the rights to him out of the sheer trust that I had in him. As far as Pooja (Shetty) and Aarrti (Shetty) are concerned, I was charmed by how much they researched on it. They really, really liked the book. That is why the book went to them.
In an interview, you had said that had the digital boom taken place in India 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have written books. Why did you say so?
Some of the things that we are seeing on OTTs have layered and nuanced writing with well fleshed out characters. I’ve very often in my life woken up in the morning and sneakily read a book before brushing my teeth and going out for work. That’s my ultimate guilty pleasure. Now I find myself doing that with OTT platforms. There is so much intelligent and layered writing, it literally feels like reading literature. There’s much more English in the writing right now. I don’t know what laws they will change in future but as of now, you can get away with pretty much everything. All of that really makes OTT quite a tempting space.
Are you writing something for the digital space?
Yes, I am! I am writing for two shows, one is for Pooja and Aarrti and one is for Hotstar.
Any update on the screen adaptation of your books, Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Battle For Bittora and Baaz?
Those Pricey Thakur Girls is with Hotstar. They are currently developing it and I’m helping them do that. Then there is Baaz with Yash Raj Films. They have it and I’ve been commissioned to write the screenplay but they seem to be going really slow. The last time I chatted with them was in January. I haven’t heard from them since. Battle For Bittora is with Anil Kapoor Films Company. They are developing it. A few years ago, they had it all set up with Sonam and Fawad (Khan) and Shashanka Ghosh. Everyone was really excited about the casting. And then there was some problem across the border aur humaara Fawad chala gaya.
Now that your books are being adapted for the big and the small screens, will your writing style change in your upcoming books?
No, I don’t think it is something that concerns me and I don’t think anyone can or should write like that because it’s not healthy for your writing process. But I do have that feeling in my head that people who are reading my current books have read my previous books too. I don’t have that pressure when I’m writing where I’m thinking that this might be made into a film. The pressure is not to not write books like the others which I’ve written so far. There should be something fresh and no repetition.
Are you writing a book currently?
I’m writing but life has become very filmy lately, which is why writing books has taken a backseat. But I have a big birthday coming up next year and I definitely would want to crack out a book before that.