Zoya Solanki (Sonam Kapoor) – born on June 25, 1983, the day the Indian team won the cricket World Cup – is, in some crucial ways, the spiritual counterpart of Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children (born on August 15, 1947). Like Salim, “mysteriously handcuffed to history”, Zoya, too, signalled an arrival: of new stories and spirit – a birth with the glow of reincarnation. Like Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Zoya Factor (also adapted from a novel of the same name by Anuja Chauhan), flirts with the unknowable – what is luck if not magic by a different name?
A junior copywriter at a Mumbai ad agency, Zoya is filled with enthusiasm, insecurity and self-doubt. As a result, she’s prone to self-loathing, piling blunder on blunder and, well, running out of luck. It’s quite clear that Zoya is a type, and in Kapoor’s portrayal, she’s a stereotype. Many Bollywood screenwriters follow the ‘some-is-all-rule’ where some traits of an individual rule all her mannerisms.
So it’s not enough that Zoya is, at times, incompetent at work – she has to be inept in her personal life, too. (At a plush five-star hotel, the poor thing can’t even unload cereal on her bowl properly; she has to do it so clumsily that the jar, on the verge of collapsing, shakes dangerously.)
Amid this predictable mess, only one thing stands out: Zoya sporadically breaking the fourth wall and addressing us, as if others have become so exasperated with her screw-ups that she has nowhere else to vent. Only if the screenwriters, Pradhuman Singh and Chauhan, had inconvenienced themselves to think more, Zoya would have seemed more of a person.
Zoya gets entangled with the Indian cricketers when they, during an ad shoot, discover that she’s their lucky charm. Chauhan’s story has several flights of fancy, but this isn’t one of them. Many cricketers are known for their life-long affairs with superstition. The film is even aware of it, referring such quirks in dialogues: “wearing left pad first” (Sachin Tendulkar), “keeping a red handkerchief in the pocket” (Steve Waugh, Virender Sehwag). Don’t be fooled though: this is the maximum investment that The Zoya Factor has in the game.
Throughout the movie, Zoya reiterates her disinterest – bordering on contempt – for cricket. Which is refreshing – cricket fans are so loud, so numerous (I’m one of them), that they can do with some reality check. But the makers, pivoting their entire film on it, can’t afford the same indifference. The cricket matches in the movie are shot with such gross incompetence that it feels like you’re watching a different sport altogether: the bowlers lob the ball in the air (as if it’s a shuttle cork); it travels to the boundary with similar inefficiency; the shots look like a result of shoddy CG work.
Besides, it’s quite evident that the filmmakers have absolutely no knowledge of the sport. In one match, the Indian team opener Shivi (Abhilash Chaudhary) gets bowled (but the bails are intact) and in the next ball survives a similar run-out. (Do the makers not know that there are 300 balls per innings, such that even luck can be spaced out?)
Here, when a bowler is on a lucky streak, he doesn’t just get a hattrick, he gets it in the first three balls of the match. When a batsman strikes gold, he doesn’t just hit three sixes on trot, he hits them on, well, the first three balls of the match. (He then gets out; the captain Nikhil (Dulquer Salman) walks in, and he finishes the over with the next two sixes – even book cricket is more restrained.)
Salman, in fact, is the only highlight of the film. Unlike most leading men of Indian cinema, he impresses you by doing… so little. A stray smile here, a snarky remark there – there’s no scene-chewing insecurity, no desperate urge to prove that he’s the hero, just ambling through life like it’s one giant sunny morning. Salman and Kapoor (so consistently awful that she makes bad acting an art-form) in the same frame look like cinematic yin and yang. Salman looks so assured, so self-aware – some smiles of his seem to be winking at the ridiculous set-up – that he emerges unscathed from a movie like this (even when the climax involves a ludicrous twist).
At a runtime of 134 minutes, The Zoya Factor doesn’t tell a compelling story, has no insight about the game (or the business that it has become), or the curious intersection of the country’s two most abiding obsessions: cricket and (divine) luck. I read the novel when it came out and found it to be utterly mediocre. The movie makes it look like a nuanced portrayal of urban confusion. The story’s moral, then, is quite simply this: as long as you find a way to latch on to Bollywood, you’ll always win. It’s the audiences that lose Friday after Friday.