Thursday, March 23, 2023

Farhan Akhtar Returns to Direction With ‘Jee Le Zaraa,’ as Excel Turns 20, Reveals Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

Indian filmmaker, singer and actor Farhan Akhtar is returning to direction after a decade with feature film “Jee Le Zaraa,” starring Bollywood A-listers Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Katrina Kaif and Alia Bhatt.

The film is due to start shooting in Sept. 2022. “It’s a road film, a slice-of-life film, with three women on the road,” Akhtar tells Variety. The film is written by Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti and co-produced by Tiger Baby Productions.

Akhtar and his business partner Ritesh Sidhwani run Excel Entertainment, one of India’s most successful production houses, which turns 20 on Tuesday.

Excel is currently celebrating the success of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s boxing drama “Toofaan,” starring Akhtar, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and has a robust slate lined up. Besides “Jee Le Zaraa,” the feature film slate includes action crime thriller “Yudhra,” directed by Ravi Udyawar (“Mom”), starring Siddhant Chaturvedi (“Gully Boy”) and Malavika Mohanan (“Master”), which starts shooting in Portugal Sept. 5; adventure drama “Pukar” by Ashutosh Gowariker (“Lagaan”), which kicks off in November; while Mrigdeep Singh Lamba will commence the third part of the “Fukrey” comedy franchise in Jan. 2022.

In the streaming space, Excel, which already has a successful relationship with Amazon, has two shows with Netflix lined up. “Eternally Confused And Eager For Love” is in the teen romance space, while “Queen of the Hill” is led by two women protagonists.

For Amazon, Reema Kagti’s “Fallen,” starring Sonakshi Sinha (“Mission Mangal”) as a police officer, is in post, the second season of International Emmy nominated drama “Made in Heaven” is in the works as is the third season of cricket themed “Inside Edge,” which is also Emmy nominated. The third season of hinterland crime drama “Mirzapur” is also in the making. “Dongri to Dubai,” the series adaptation of S. Hussain Zaidi’s Mumbai mafia book of the same name, directed by Shujaat Saudagar (“Rock on 2”) is 50% shot.

Excel’s first film was Akhtar’s directorial debut “Dil Chahta Hai,” which released Aug. 10, 2001. The film is about three friends reuniting and the formation of Excel mirrored that somewhat. Akhtar had put in a stint as an assistant director and was working in advertising and his schoolmate Sidhwani, with whom he’d lost touch with, was involved in his family home appliances business. Akhtar was looking for a producer for his script and a mutual friend informed him Sidhwani was keen to join the film business. They met, Sidhwani read the script and was clear that they should own their work, and thus their partnership, Excel, was born.

“Dil Chahta Hai” was fresh in that it told a tale of urban Indian friendship with accessible dialog and situations, with almost no Bollywood contrivances. “I think what instantly happened with that script is the relatability, and you identify with something which is so close, because each of these characters, I think I knew them very closely on a certain level,” Sidhwani tells Variety.

“They spoke our language, the friendship was kind of rooted in some kind of reality. It wasn’t the over the top thing that we were used to constantly seeing on screen, and I think that that struck a chord,” says Akhtar. “Honestly, if I have to now look back 20 years later and see what it contributed, I think it changed language. I think that’s a big thing that it did – people, the characters, spoke like you and me speak. And before that the characters didn’t speak like that in film — you could hear the script — this was the first time I think that the you could hear the dialog.”

“Dil Chahta Hai” was one of the first multiplex friendly films in a country which had only a handful of them in 2001. The landscape was dominated by single screen cinemas and Sidhwani and Akhtar had agreed pre-sales via an agent to 15 territories based on the stellar cast, which included Aamir Khan, Preity Zinta, Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia and Akshaye Khanna. Then, they organized a distributor screening.

“We had no idea you’re not supposed to show movies to distributors, and they were themselves were shocked that they were going to actually see a movie before buying it,” says Sidhwani.

The screening did not go well and all the potential distributors quit the project in 48 hours on the grounds that the film wouldn’t work at the box office. Thinking on their feet, the duo decided to distribute it themselves and formed a distribution company with Anil Thadani. “Dil Chahta Hai” proved to be a theatrical box office success and Excel continued distributing their own product and expanded into acquiring films for distribution.

As a producer, Excel has had several successes including war drama “Lakshya” (2004), rock musical “Rock On!!” (2008) where Akhtar debuted as an actor and continues to enjoy a successful acting career, “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” (2011) which is the precursor of “Jee Le Zaraa” in that it is three men on a road trip, and the immensely popular “Don” action crime franchise, starring Shah Rukh Khan.

“Don 2” (2011) was Akhtar’s last film as a director and fans have been clamouring for a threequel. “About ‘Don 3,’ this question honestly has been haunting us since ‘Don 2’ came out,” says Akhtar. “But it’s one of those work in progress things and it’s very difficult to say yes to something when you’re not feeling 100% about, like currently where the the work has reached. Intention wise – absolutely. Would love to do one. But currently in in theory there’s nothing really to talk about.”


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