The Zoya Factor movie review: Sonam-Dulquer starrer is a fun but faltering swipe at hyper deshbhakti and superstition
The Zoya Factor is about an ordinary girl catapulted into extraordinary circumstances when some Indian cricketers start seeing her as their lucky mascot
castSonam Kapoor Ahuja, Dulquer Salmaan, Angad Bedi, Sikandar Kher, Sanjay Kapoor, Manu Rishi Chadha, Abhilash Chaudhary, Udit Arora, Narrator: Shah Rukh Khan
On the face of it, The Zoya Factor is about an ordinary girl catapulted into extraordinary circumstances when some Indian cricketers start seeing her as their lucky mascot and she simultaneously becomes romantically involved with the team captain. There is more to this Hindi-English film though, as there was to the bestselling English novel by Anuja Chauhan on which it is based.
Director Abhishek Sharma's The Zoya Factor stars Sonam Kapoor Ahuja as Zoya Solanki, a junior copywriter in a top-notch advertising agency. Zoya hates cricket but her father (Sanjay Kapoor) and elder brother (Sikandar Kher) are as mad about the game as the rest of the country. Her sibling, Major Zorawar Solanki, once considered her lucky for his street cricket team because they would win each time she ate breakfast with them before a match. Zoya recounts this story to national-level players while on an ad assignment with them, setting off a chain of events that results in her being deemed their good-luck charm as India goes into the World Cup.
While the public and media go bonkers over this overnight star, on a parallel track Zoya and team skipper Nikhil Khoda are falling in love.
The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan worked because it used a giddy romance and an intentionally over-the-top tale of superstition to place the spotlight on the ridiculousness that is Indian cricket fandom, the latter ultimately becoming a metaphor for so much that is wrong with India as a whole. If you are among those inclined to consider the story improbable and exaggerated, just look around you at the mumbo jumbo pervading our lives and espoused even by public figures, ranging from fear of mirrors breaking and cats crossing our paths to the insistence on entering an important venue with this foot first and not that.
The film adds to the nuttiness with an understated layer of dismay at the hyper-deshbhakti now dominating the Indian public discourse that was not yet our reality when the book was released about a decade back.
The result is a largely entertaining swipe at superstition and a non-preachy endorsement of hard work over irrational gimmicks. The Zoya Factor does not always have its act together, but it is never less than crazy fun.
Curiously enough, where the film does not hit home is in the writing of its heroine. If it is called The Zoya Factor, you would expect it to be focused on Zoya, yet the character is given little depth and expanse in the screenplay by Pradhuman Singh Mall and Neha Sharma, which is a particularly disappointing turn of events considering that Chauhan herself gets an "additional screenplay" credit. Like many Hindi film writers, this team too sidelines their female lead as the narrative rolls along, instead pivoting The Zoya Factor's second half primarily on Nikhil Khoda, his colleagues and desi mania.
It does not help that at first Sonam overdoes Zoya's ditsiness. She gets better as the character appears to mature, becomes a tough-as-nails businesswoman in a fit of fury and glams up for good measure, but by then Zoya has taken a backseat to Nikhil in the narrative. Still, coming as it does after Neerja, Veere Di Wedding and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, this role feels like a step back in her filmography.
Since The Zoya Factor's writers and director have chosen to invest more in Nikhil Khoda than in Zoya, they were wise to cast Dulquer Salmaan as their hero. DQ, as he is known to his fans, is already a superstar in the Malayalam film industry and has also ventured into Tamil and Telugu cinema with great success. His unassuming handsomeness, acting versatility and instinct for good scripts have earned him a huge audience following, box-office success and critical acclaim since he debuted in 2012. Along with stars such as Fahadh Faasil, Nivin Pauly and Parvathy Thiruvothu, this has made him one of the flagbearers of the ongoing Mollywood renaissance led by directors such as Aashiq Abu, Anjali Menon, Dileesh Pothan and Lijo Jose Pellissery. His two films in Bollywood so far - Karwaan and now The Zoya Factor - reflect the same desire to be commercially viable without being conventional that has been the hallmark of his career path till now.
Dulquer is incredibly likeable as Nikhil Khoda, complementing his good looks and astonishing proficiency in languages (very impressive Hindi diction, Mista!) with an easygoing acting style so charming that I found myself drawn into even the film's cricket matches despite being - like Zoya - a cricket hater. (Aside: it is disturbing to see all-round nice guy Nikhil getting slightly rough with Zoya in a scene in which they have a showdown. This happens in passing but merits a mention in a society that tends to normalise intimate partner violence in real life.)
The film overlays its themes with a sense of humour that is hard to resist even when it is being unabashedly silly. A guest appearance by Anil Kapoor proves to be a hoot. And when the going gets grim in Zoya and Nikhil's lives, a nameless faceless commentator clearly modelled on Navjot Singh Sidhu belts out a steady stream of Sidhuisms, exulting over a "vaahiyaat (horrid) ball" that turns into a six, packing his remarks with cultural and current affairs referencing, an unrelenting flow of similes and rhymes such as, "Saare manjhe khiladi ho gaye out, India is going to lose no doubt" (words to that effect). A big shabaash to Anant Singh for his writing of the commentary, which is voiced by Sahil Vaid and Singh himself.
Despite the light touch, make no mistake about this: this film means serious business. In an era when several significant Bollywood personalities have chosen to turn pro-establishment and sing hosannas to the present government and its boss, it takes courage to mention any opposition neta with respect, but The Zoya Factor does - right at the start. In an era when the mob is gradually being normalised, Zorawar cautions Zoya about pedestalisation by those who, as he puts it, are capable too of setting her on fire in the name of "deshbhakti".
"Shraddha" and "desh" later trip off the tongue of an individual who is willing to sell his soul and his desh for personal gain. In this troubled era that The Zoya Factor inhabits, director Abhishek Sharma does not do any of the things several of his industry colleagues have been doing in films peddling an aggressive nationalist agenda through sports and/or war.
So yes, The Zoya Factor trips up on a very crucial front, but where it works, it works well, being funny and thoughtful all at once, in addition, of course, to being an opportunity for over two hours of DQ gazing.
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