When Mere Brother Ki Dulhan’s trailer was released in 2011, not many people knew about film-maker Ali Abbas Zafar. A few even mistook him for Pakistani actor-singer, Ali Zafar, who was also part of the film. Ten years down the line, he is one of the few directors with a couple of 300-crore films to his credit. His brand of cinema is larger-than-life spectacle. Making his debut with political drama Tandav, Ali Abbas Zafar familiarises us with his brand of drama, storytelling, and his appreciation for the art of film-making

From Mere Brother Ki Dulhan to Bharat, and now a web debut with Tandav, how has the last decade been?

I’m thankful for where I am today. God has been really kind. I think it’s special because I remember the day Mere Brother Ki Dulhan’s music was launched, and we had a big event. I was so nervous. I ran off the stage in five minutes as I was not used to a huge media presence, and my film had a big star cast, with Katrina Kaif and Imran Khan. Now, I wanted a universal themed story for my digital debut, like how a country and the world react to politics. Politics is a popular theme worldwide, be it Game of Thrones or House of Cards. It has been a hot topic in the past, and I bet it’ll remain a hot topic for film-makers in the future. It is entertaining and dramatic, which is precisely what we wanted to do with Tandav.

You are an alumnus of the YRF school of film-making, how did you adapt to making content for screens smaller than the silver screen?

The story is of paramount importance, and the style of storytelling makes the audience believe in the world that the characters inhabit. I always kept that in mind when I made films with YRF, and outside. When I got the idea of Tandav, I pitched it to Amazon. It has a big canvas, and we couldn’t compromise on the scale.

Where did the idea of Tandav originate?

I got the idea in 2013, just before I started filming Sultan. I had a lot of time on my hands waiting for Salman sir’s dates. I was writing a lot of ideas, and one of them was Tandav. I thought I would make it into a film. As we chalked out the story, we decided to get a writer’s room, and realised the story structure is more episodic and might go into subsequent seasons. As soon as we had that clarity, we went to Aparna Purohit (Creative Head at Amazon), and they responded spontaneously. She said this is something we should attempt because no one else was venturing into a world like this.

You make films that are nearly three hours long. How did you go about directing a web show with nine episodes that are 40 minutes long?

The big films have helped me hone my craft, so everything I learned in my films has helped me shooting the series. Working with Salman Khan helped me in understanding how to scale, how to cast, etc. One of the biggest learning for me during the show was how to be patient as a storyteller. In a series, you need to have characters whose arc can be spread over episodes, and it should keep the audience interested in their stories.

You worked as an AD on Tashan, and you worked with actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. How was it directing Saif Ali Khan, after all this time?

Saif is fascinating to work with. It was great working with him, Zeeshan, and all the other actors. When I met Saif for Tandav’s narration, he was like ‘My God, I can’t believe this. I remember how you used to come and tell me lines. You also shouted at me when I was late on the sets’. Saif is very funny that way (laughs). Saif has changed a lot. I think changes in personal life change you as an actor as well. Back then, he was a big star who had back-to-back hits. Now, he is calmer, more mature, but possesses the same anxiety as an actor. I like the fact that he has an edge. I think he has had tremendous growth, and the kind of projects he is choosing are phenomenal. It is fascinating to see someone in a completely different light after a gap of so many years.

What made you cast Dimple Kapadia?

As a child, I was mesmerised by her and her films. I just lucked out when she agreed to do the show. I could never look into her eyes because I felt underconfident (smiles). When we gave her the narration, she was very clear that we are not trying to typecast her. Working with Dimple Kapadia was an absolute treat.

How did you convince Sunil Grover to play a character that is in complete contrast with his comic image?

When I worked with Grover in Bharat, I saw a very strong actor in him apart from just being a comic face. So I told him I have a character in Tandav which is very unlike him, and if he would be interested?. He was a bit shaken by it, but asked for the script. After reading the script, he loved the character, but felt the role is not for him. I asked him if he can trust me, and we jumped into the character together. And when you see him in the show, it will shock a lot of people. I always say comedy is one of the toughest things to do. It is very easy to hold a dramatic pose or cry, but to make someone laugh is very difficult. So if Sunil can do comedy, for him Gurpal (Grover’s character) is a little different, but easy. There is a great potential to Grover as an actor.

You turned producer with Khaali Peeli. How different was the experience of producing a film?

Production is a completely different ballgame. Honestly, I don’t contribute to the production side, Himanshu Kishan Mehra takes care of that, I only contribute creatively. We did that in Khaali Peeli, and in Tandav. Khaali Peeli was designed for a theatrical release, but it couldn’t get a release, thanks to the pandemic. For Tandav, Himanshu has done a fabulous job as a producer. Production is a big responsibility, we are still trying to get our heads into it. I think we will only know in the future where we stand, but yes, we are still learning.

There are a lot of rumours about your next film. Is it the film with Diljit, or is it the superhero film with Katrina Kaif?

My next film is with Diljit Dosanjh. I shot with him in the middle of the pandemic. Then, I’ve a superhero film with Katrina, and then Mr. India. Because of the lockdown, everything has gone for a toss. We now also don’t know what is happening, so we are just waiting and watching. But I’m completing my film with Diljit for now.

How was the shooting in the middle of the pandemic?

It’s so bizarre. We used to see such things in Hollywood films. A post-apocalyptic world, where everyone is wearing a mask and is not allowed to touch anything. This is our reality now. It is difficult when you go on sets. The faces are covered with masks and shields, and you can’t touch anything with bare hands. We don’t know how to cope with it, but we need to understand how the world will move forward. It is difficult, but we will fight this. We are all in this together.