Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Zoya Factor: Review

Early reviews of The Zoya Factor seem to agree that the film is either ‘breezy’ or ‘frothy’. As someone who isn’t averse to a light breeze (or a little froth), I found myself reasonably charmed by its opening half hour, in which adwoman Zoya (Sonam K Ahuja) meets up with the Indian cricket team, on tour in Sri Lanka, for a campaign. But then Zoya, upon receiving a list of instructions on how to behave with the Indian skipper, looks straight at the camera and says, “Is this Nikhil Khoda the captain or prime minister?" And the charm dissolves apace.

In scene after scene, The Zoya Factor builds to the point where a punchline is demanded. And just about every time, it comes up short. Romantic comedies live and die by their wit. If Abhishek Sharma’s film has shades of Notting Hill, it’s missing those horses and hounds. Writers Anuja Chauhan, Neha Rakesh Sharma (screenplay) and Pradhuman Singh (dialogue) try everything: daydream jokes, Baahubali jokes, post-dentist cottonmouth jokes. To use a sportsperson’s metaphor, they float like butterflies instead of stinging like bees.

The central conceit of this film (based on Chauhan’s eponymous novel) is that Zoya, born on the night of India’s first World Cup win, is a cricketer's lucky charm. All she needs to do is breakfast with players on the morning of a game, and they invariably win. Her luck rubs off sensationally on the out-of-sorts national team in Sri Lanka. Against the wishes of captain Nikhil (Dulquer Salmaan) – who’s fascinated by her but irritated by the press ascribing their wins to luck – she’s offered a position as official mascot for the duration of the upcoming World Cup.

Ahuja does well in delineating the contours of Zoya: under-confident, romantic at heart, somewhat of a goof. But the film overdoes her simple-mindedness, making her fall for a paper-thin conspiracy by Nikhil’s jealous teammate, Robin (Angad Bedi, always angry). You can see the film root about ineffectually in search of conflict. Salmaan’s easy charm actually works against the film – when it’s time for Nikhil to be angry with Zoya, there’s no edge to the antagonism.

It doesn’t help that The Zoya Factor hasn’t the slightest feel for cricket. The on-field action, even edited down to a few key movements, looks preposterous. These are national teams, but they look like club sides, which begs the question: why not set your cricket film at a less exacting level, where wildly swinging batsmen and military medium bowlers might not be so out of place? Worse, though, are the narrative contrivances that reveal the film’s fundamental misunderstanding of the sport. Would a bowler who asks his captain for song recommendations before starting an over ever play for his country again?

There’s a smarter, sharper film somewhere inside this one, with insightful things to say about fandom and celebrity and superstition. As it stands, however, The Zoya Factor offers little cheer to those invested in the return of the Hindi romantic comedy or the halfway-decent post-Lagaan cricket film.

This review appeared in Mint. 

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