Playing To His Strengths – In Conversation With Ali Abbas Zafar
With successes like Mere Brother Ki Dulhan(2011), Gunday (2014), Sultan(2016) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), director Ali Abbas Zafar sits pretty high on the Bollywood food chain. But when he made his first film Mere Brother Ki Dulhan with Katrina Kaif, Imran Khan and Ali Zaffar (Pakistani actor), people were so unaware about the director Ali Abbas Zafar that many thought it was the Pakistani actor who had directed that film. But today, Ali has made a mark for himself that makes him stand tall in the industry for his vision and talent.
He is all set for his fifth release in Bharat, which incidentally is also his third film with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif. It is set to release on Eid this year and is the official adaptation of a Korean film, An Ode to My Father, which was a huge success there. The film tells the journey of a man and a nation over a period of seven decades Dressed in the classic combination of a crisp white shirt and blue denim, and sipping on some cappuccino, we sit down for a chat that goes into the details of why he made some choices and what he plans to achieve in his future.
Bharat happens to be your third back to back film with Salman, how will you explain your relationship with him?
Salman and my relationship is not that of a director-actor, it is more of an elder brother-younger brother. He understands where I want to push him and why, secondly we both like similar kind of films (no matter what you do, when audience leave the theatre they should have been entertained and also take something positive with them). Cinema is a very strong medium to create a ripple of change with the audience …so when we make our films we not only want to audience to get value for their money but also take back something that will help them in their lives be it in their relationships with others or with themselves. The questions which these films raise in their subtext are very important and relevant like the whole idea of fighting within with Sultan or the idea of peace in Tiger Zinda Hai and journey of a man and a nation with Bharat. Today everyone talks about content, what does that content mean? Content is that emotional core which is connecting with the audience. When I work with Salman, I tell him we can’t just make another film, we need to make something special …
Through your films, you’ve trained Salman Khan fans to see the actor differently, there is heroism but there is also vulnerability, has that been a conscious decision?
That is a very conscious decision that I have taken …I believe when you do a film with a huge superstar, as a director, you need to play on their strengths, you need to understand their fan base. This is something that I do when I take a script to Salman Khan. I write a character that is as big as his stardom or even stronger. So when he reads the character and understands him, he says his audience will feel proud of him after seeing him in those spaces. Then there is a certain style of shooting a superstar, there is a certain style of mounting a film with the superstar, that is a very technical craft. But if you do it with a character through a story and if the audience feels that today we saw a superstar as we liked to see him and he also inspired us, that has been my biggest challenge of working with Salman Khan. His character needs to be inspiring – be it Sultan or Tiger or Bharat or any other film.
This is your third film with Katrina, what makes her special to you?
Katrina Kaif holds a very special place for Ali. They’ve known each other since Ali’s assistant director days, explaining their relationship he says, “It is a very special relationship. We are more like buddies. We can talk about anything under the sun. We’ve stuck around with each other for more than a decade where relationships change every Friday. The reason behind it is also the fact that we both come from middle-class backgrounds. She has achieved a lot of success over a period of time but if you meet her family, her mother, the sensibilities are very middle class. The way she takes care of her family, her sisters. I have the same responsibilities with my family, so there are many common things that we talk about… When people say we work well with each other – be it Dulhan or Tiger or now Bharat, it is because we are very comfortable with each other. If I don’t like something, I tell her and if she’s not comfortable doing something she tells it to me…individually we are very strong professionals, we never let our friendship come into our profession. Yes, she does ask a lot of questions but in those questions, there are those 2-3 questions which make a difference. She’s so special I will always work with her. I find her very fascinating as I see new layers to her, as I’m so close to her.
What was the most challenging aspect of shooting Bharat?
The film spans over 70 years, you see the characters evolve on screen but they have one common thread of emotion going through them , so no matter where you are shooting, which era you are shooting you have to question why are you making the film , it is very easy to lose the plot like while shooting something as glamorous as circus you can go ahead and so so many things but there is an emotion behind this circus also …so the most important thing was always to remember the story and the reason why you are making the film, even if the scale of the film is humongous
A common thread amongst all your films are the strong female characters be it Dimple (Katrina Kaif) in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan or Nandini (Priyanka Chopra) of Gunday, or Arfa (Anushka Sharma) of Sultan or Zoya (Katrina Kaif) of Tiger Zinda Hai…
I have been raised by very strong women, my mom and my aunts. My mom was a teacher, so I have seen her waking up at 5. Getting us ready, make food for the house, go to work. My friends around me are doing very well in their respective fields and personally, somewhere that understanding of women around me has been inspiring for my own journey and that has translated into my work. I also believe that when an audience comes and watches a film, they idolize themselves as heroes and heroines of the films. India has been a country of very strong women from mythology like Durga or Kali or in sports or science or technology and politics ..somewhere the idea is to celebrate that on screen. I’m working on a script which is a women-centric film, but I don’t want it to be a small film. I want it to be a huge film because I think the world is ready to see a female character coming into the limelight and strike a huge cord at the box office.”
All your films till now have been with, how much do you value their contribution to your growth?
YRF is like my home and universe since I never went to film school all my learning happened there… Adi (Aditya Chopra) is like my mentor and my teacher. He understands me, guides me to understand my strengths. You also need people who will criticize you rather than who only tell you how good you are and do it without bias. Adi is that person. He’s been a very special person in my life.”
What has been the biggest learning in your career as a director?
The biggest learning for me as a director has been understanding the emotional depth. Every filmmaker understands his craft a bit more with every film, fortunately, all my films have been successful, Gunday might not have done the numbers as expected by the trade but it was a success for the production house. I was 26 during Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, I’m 36 now … these 10 years have given me the maturity to understand emotions better. I feel that it doesn’t matter how big the film is scale wise, if in the middle of that if you can keep the emotion intact that is where your strength as a director comes into play. Take the biggest of hits in the world, they became successful only when the emotions connect with the audience, my main focus has always been to understand the story, the character and their emotional depth, my real-life experience has also helped me. I also feel that is where my maximum attention has gone.”
You were a rank outsider, who is now counted amongst the better-known directors in the industry, do you feel validated?
Sometimes when your heart is at the right place and your intentions are right, God just makes a path for you. My career is still starting, I’m only 5 films old … there is a lot more in me that I need to do, I have been very fortunate that I can do what I want to do and when validation when comes from the audience is only uplifting. For someone like me who is nowhere connected to films, it validates the fact that everyone can dream and that dream can really hit a high note and that has been proven in different fields like sports be it, Sachin Tendulkar or Virat Kohli, they never came from privileged backgrounds. Even Shah Rukh Khan had no industry connection. When someone asks me what should they do to be successful, I tell them just believe in yourself because that is the only one you can hold because there are no set rules to making it big in the world.
Some of your closest friends revealed to us as to how, on your travels abroad to various film festivals, you would befriend various technicians and take notes from them and apply them in your films?
I feel in life, we just can’t stop learning …it is a continuous process. Knowledge can come to you from anywhere and everywhere. When I talk to people, my instinct is to know how they see the world and that perspective can tell you what all you need to learn. When we start making films, we start questioning a lot of things, when I see films made by other directors, I don’t see it as a director but as an audience. That is why I’m a very forgiving audience. Even if I like just one thing in a film be it humour or action then I forgive the film, I don’t question it, that is my instinct…nothing can be perfect in life, you just have to see what the director is trying to do. While doing so, I see if he is coming and touching me with it…if that happens then I’m very happy.
You are venturing into the digital content with Amazon Prime, what made you take the leap?
There are a lot of stories that cannot be contained in two to three hours. There is a reason for a poem, there is a reason behind a story, there is a reason for a book and there is a reason for a web show. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses. The story I’m making for web can’t be contained in two to three hours and it is a story that will keep going deeper. It is a kind of saga. It is an absolutely original script and more details will be shared post the release of Bharat.
Do you have a wish list of actor you want to work with?
Among actors, I want to work with Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn. The running joke with me is that I’m going to make Avengers with them. Amongst actresses, Priyanka Chopra has been my favourite. I want to work with Deepika Padukone but it is Alia Bhatt who really fascinates me.