Ali Abbas Zafar
It is not easy to get Salman Khan to do your third, fourth and fifth films. But Ali Abbas Zafar, son of an army officer from Dehradun, has managed this trust from the megastar. After the 2016 superhit Sultan, he is all set to release Tiger Zinda Hai with Salman Khan, and has been confirmed for the next Salman Khan home production, Bharat.
Ali was a mere two-films-old film-maker when Salman green-lit his Sultan. "Today, I consider him like my elder brother and have become a member of his household. Salman-bhai and his father Salim Khan have 30 and 50 years of experience in cinema, respectively. They give me feedback."
In the big league
Ali's next film, Bharat, already has Salman in the lead and is being produced by Sohail Khan. Adapted (and Indianised) from the Korean original, Ode To My Father, it will be made on a big scale, and Ali reveals that Salim Khan loved the original and suggested that it be made with Salman. "There are so many father-daughter and mother-son stories in our cinema," says Ali. "But there are very few father and son films. Bharat is a simple, family movie."
Ali's forte is to make a completely different genre each time: his track-record, as of now flop-proof, is of Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011), Gunday (2014) and Sultan (2016). "That way, I can keep approaching every film like my first because I can never get overconfident, or think of doing any part of a film on similar lines as some earlier film of mine," he smiles. "Emotions are the core of every film. Whether the film is a comedy, action drama or romance, that angle should be just right."
In fact, Ali wrote the story of Tiger Zinda Hai way back in 2014 when even Sultan had not taken off. "I read about how 21 Indian nurses had been taken hostage in Iraq, and though our prime minister intervened and got them released, I used the incident to build a completely fictional tale around it - what would happen if they needed to be rescued by our forces? A new world of action opened up. After writing this, I got busy with Sultan. Later, when (producer) Aditya Chopra asked me what else would I like to make, I told him about this story that was close to my heart."
Aditya loved the story and that is when Ali had an idea and asked him whether he could rewrite this as a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger, as his script also had Indian and Pakistani agents. "He told me to work on it and was really impressed by the revised script of what we now call Tiger Zinda Hai. When I took it to Salman and Katrina, they not only loved it as a sequel, but were primarily impressed by a global and very human story."
He is making a sequel to a blockbuster: is there any pressure? "There is a bit of fear," he concedes with a smile. "This year has not been good for films, and my film will round off 2017. The budget is high, and though that's the producer's lookout, my responsibility is to see that he makes money. But my experience tells me that good films always make money. Though I do get nightmares in which a show has no audience!"
About differences between Ek Tha Tiger, directed by someone else, and this film, Ali is candid. "That film had the love story between Tiger and Zoya dominating, but this time romance is on the backburner and the focus is on the action and story," he declares. Deep research has been done on spies and how they operate through several books that Ali gleaned on the intricacies of how RAW, MI, CIA, Mossad and ISI work.
"Salman is no superman here," Ali lets on with a grin. "You will not find 10 people flying after one blow. The action is realistic, and he has to look like a real trained agent in the way he uses martial arts and gun technology, and handles explosions. The action is war-like. Similarly, Katrina Kaif, who I feel is one of our most underrated actors, always excels when pushed. Just look at her in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Raajneeti. She has excelled even in her close-ups when she has no lines to speak."
A matter of chemistry
What about the Salman-Katrina chemistry visible in the few romantic shots we have seen in the trailer? "Oh, both of them have known each other for so long!" grins Ali. "They really do not have to even try, and their chemistry escalates especially if the right script, scenes and music are given to them. Actually, Salman has the knack to create chemistry and anyone would fall in love with him. Look at how Anushka Sharma and he had such a crackling rapport between them in Sultan."
In this respect, Ali terms Salman as someone who is not only focused and satisfied only when he and everyone else give their 100%, but also an actor whose special forte are emotions and romance rather than action. "How Salman handles romance is beautiful and he does it in a sophisticated Indian way. It is not at all obnoxious or cheap and can be watched by the entire family."
We ask him what is the need to show a Pakistani agent in a film in which Indian nurses are taken hostage in Iraq and an agent is sent to rescue them? "Oh, that justification will be seen only within the film," he says. "In any clash between good and evil, it is humanity that suffers, and humanity has no nationality or creed. Humanity is beyond political or even national parameters, and India is a great and secular country because we believe in that," he adds.
Which are Ali's favourite films? "Deewaar, Pyaasa, Sholay, Mughal-E-Azam. A few foreign films like Rambo. My Rambo is this film. I also loved Rocky, and Sultan was my Rocky."
Does he think that not many film-makers today are connected to Indian roots, and this is what explains the dearth of audience connect? "I would just say what my parents have taught me: one must first be familiar with one's nation and roots," he answers. "My films are always connected to our country and that is what makes a mark. If you observe, Satyajit Ray is the biggest crossover film-maker we ever had because he only made stories about India!"