Reema Kagti was in Class IX at Delhi Public School, RK Puram, when she bunked one day and went to watch Mira Nair’s
Salaam Bombay! at the then single screen Chanakya cinema hall. “It blew my mind. It was quite strange. I went in as an audience, and somehow left as a filmmaker,” she says now. Kagti, who spent most of her early childhood in Assam, in Digboi, where her father worked for Indian Oil, came to Mumbai as a student of Sophia Polytechnic College. She hasn’t left since, starting her film career by assisting actor-director Rajat Kapoor on Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One.
Unbeknownst to her, Zoya Akhtar, daughter of writers Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani, was as moved by Nair’s Salaam Bombay! which she saw in Mumbai in 1988. “That is the film that made me realise I want to direct,” says Akhtar. “But we only found out later,” says Kagti, of the coincidence, of one of the classics of modern Indian cinema uniting two of its finest practitioners.
Since then through hits and some misses; through shouting matches and eventual agreements; through working with Akhtar’s brother Farhan to starting their own company in 2015, appropriately named Tiger Baby, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti have co-written and co-produced some of the most interesting films from Mumbai cinema in recent times. Starting with Kagti’s first film Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007) and with Akhtar’s 2009 movie Luck by Chance, and most recently, the grim study of caste, gender and class in Prime Video’s Dahaad. They can write for each other as easily as they speak for each other. Both have a sense of humour, with Akhtar’s being more acerbic.
They’ve co-written and directed several movies and web series, which have stood out for their strong women, often flawed men, and less-than-perfect families. They have created worlds of privilege and despair, of solitude and togetherness, of love and the lack of it. As Kagti says, “Initially we just do research and talk a lot. Then we start putting the story down methodically, one line descriptions of each scene; we think aloud and either of us puts it down. Once we have the story I start on the screenplay and send pages to Zoya to layer or improve. We do argue a lot and most times the better argument wins.”
They’ve both worked their way up. Akhtar worked with Dev Benegal on Split Wide Open (1999), and with Kaizad Gustad on Bombay Boys (1998). She then did a six-month course on film production at New York University. She met Kagti on the sets of Bombay Boys, a dark comedy on Mumbai cinema and the underworld, directed by one-time wunderkind Kaizad Gustad, with both becoming part of a new generation of assistant directors in Hindi cinema, who brought in a set of skills honed in Hollywood, such as call sheets. (Kiran Rao, who went on to direct her own film, was also part of this group.) “I learnt a lot with Kaizad,” says Kagti. Shot in sync sound, mostly in live locations and with a strict schedule, it was a crash course in direction for her. Akhtar and she went on to work in Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and Honey Irani’s Armaan (2003), in different capacities.
They wrote a short film together that never got made. Then, says Kagti, they instinctively started writing together, in what Akhtar’s father, noted poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar calls a “hectic way of working” where they sit together, but write separately. The two wrote Talaash together and Luck by Chance, they co-wrote Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), and Gully Boy (2019). In addition, Kagti directed Gold in 2018, Akhtar directed segments in Bombay Talkies (2013), Lust Stories (2018), and Ghost Stories (2020). They both collaborated on the web series Made in Heaven and Dahaad. Now even as Akhtar edits The Archies, based on the beloved cartoon series for Netflix, they are wrapping up the second season of Made in Heaven for Prime Video, and Kagti is editing Superman of Malegaon, starring Adarsh Gourav and based on the life of Sheikh Nasir who featured in the documentary.
Their work has consistently explored identity, whether it is masculinity in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, gender in Dil Dhadakne Do, class in Made in Heaven, religion in Gully Boy, or caste in Dahaad. They both bring to the table a wealth of lived experience. While Akhtar comes from greater privilege, given her famous last name, she is also a curious and relentless observer of people. Kagti’s experience as an independent woman— she went to boarding school at Loreto Convent in Shillong, DPS in Delhi and Sophia College for Women in Mumbai—has given her a fair appreciation of life outside the Bollywood bubble.
“I was surrounded by film. We had crew and cast in the house, as well as screenings, discussions. My father and Salim [Khan] were writing so we were always privy to their discussions. My mother [actor and screenwriter Honey Irani] used to have a projector, and we used to get prints from the theatre and watch films,” says Zoya Akhtar, filmmaker
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Both bring immense integrity to their work, never compromising on their innate ethics. Apart from their own talent at writing, they are able to spot the right collaborators for the right projects, whether it was choosing Ritesh Shah (the writer of Pink, 2016) for Dahaad, writer and editor Apurva Asrani to get the representation of a gay man’s inner life right in Made in Heaven, or asking writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava to work on Made in Heaven, or even enlisting the help of rappers Naezy and Divine in Gully Boy. They all end up becoming part of their extended universe of friends and collaborators.
But it’s not that they don’t disagree. “When they’re writing sometimes it seems they will murder each other,” says Javed Akhtar, with a laugh. “But if a third person dares to intervene, they turn on him or her with ferocity,” he adds. “We always don’t agree,” admits Kagti. But experience has taught them to sleep on it now. Neither writes anything that the other doesn’t read at least once. “We always work together while we are researching, ideating and putting the story down. Once we have that we write the screenplay separately. Normally I do a pass, send it to Reema, then she does a pass, and sends it to me. Neither of us is very good in Hindi so we always have to get somebody to work on our dialogue,” says Akhtar.
And they always look at each other’s work, even if they’re not directly involved. “We normally read what the other one is directing. And work on it,” says Akhtar. “We always know who is directing,” says Kagti, and they often fill in for each other. Kagti shot a couple of scenes in The Archies while Akhtar did so in Made in Heaven.
Dahaad, their latest work, stems from their shared interest in crime fiction. Kagti watches blood and gore n large doses, sometimes even while eating, making her mother wonder at the ease with which she does so. Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder, Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, Joe Penhall’s Mindhunter, Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet, Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams, HBO’s True Detective, and ITV’s Broadchurch, are all series she loves. She’ll even watch YouTube crime videos. “But the idea with Dahaad was also to build a strong female protagonist,” says Kagti. Enter Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha), a lower caste sub inspector in a small town in Rajasthan who can break bones as easily as she can sideswipe her mother’s attempts to get her married.
It wasn’t an easy shoot. They shot 35 days before the Covid lockdown began. The break stretched to 11 months and when they returned it was with the same actors and 99 per cent of the crew. It took another 50 days of filming.
The industry is more open to fresh ideas and new narratives, says Kagti. And different worlds, whether it is the super-rich of Dil Dhadakne Do or the chawl youngsters of Gully Boy. “Who would think that Gully Boy is directed by someone who has spent her whole life in a bungalow on Mumbai’s Bandstand? And used to go on holidays only to the US and England,” asks Javed Akhtar. The Bandstand house is the one she still occupies, and as Akhtar says: “It’s seen parties and poetry readings, it’s seen musicians. It’s been through a lot of things. I have my parents to thank for it.”
“Once we have the story I start on the screenplay and send pages to Zoya to layer or improve. We do argue a lot and most times the better argument wins,” says Reema Kagti, filmmaker
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“I was supposed to be this insider, but all my friends who came from elsewhere made their first movies before me, whether it was Anurag Kashyap, Ruchi Narain, or Reema Kagti,” says Akhtar, on being called the ultimate insider.
A writer is like blotting paper, says her father, one has to totally absorb the atmosphere of one’s setting. What he appreciates about them is that even their side characters are not cardboard. “You can see their third dimension, their hurts, their deprivations, their failures. They’re real people,” he says. Indeed whether it is Sohum Shah as the conflicted policeman in Dahaad or Vinay Pathak as the sleazy, nosy neighbour in Made in Heaven, or Anil Kapoor as the philandering, opportunistic, ruthless father in Dil Dhadakne Do, “you feel sympathy even for them,” he says.
They’re both 50 now and the world has changed since they first started in the industry. Women are part of crews now as directors, producers and writers.
Javed Akhtar calls them Siamese twins. Or soul sisters. One who has emerged from seven generations of Urdu poets, another from a former oilman who now runs a farm near Guwahati, Assam. Their tremendous faith in each other has given Hindi cinema some fine stories. And a humane view of the world. Akhtar once said to me in an interview, after Gully Boy was released, that her biggest influence is her immediate family. Her parents encouraged her to be free, to “screw up, do it your own way, but take responsibility for it”. Yet there is a particular standard that they (younger brother Farhan and she) are expected to maintain in their work, whether it is in the language they use in their writing, which means steering clear of vulgarity, or in the way they portray and view women.
Growing up Akhtar may have baked cakes with Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter, an actor who defined Kagti’s childhood in Digboi and whose films she saw at the only two single-screen cinema halls in the town, Janta and Jasoda, but together they provide entertainment that is thoughtful and thought provoking. Are they the second Salim (Khan)-Javed (Akhtar), the writing duo who made Bachchan a star in the seventies? No, call them the first Reema and Zoya.