Ali Abbas Zafar: “When you see the film you will understand that the role is customised for Salman Khan”

Director, Ali Abbas Zafar (not to be confused with actor Ali Zafar), is probably one of Bollywood’s most sought after filmmakers today. He debuted as a director and writer with the smash hit film ‘Mere Brother Ki Dulhan’ and followed this up with another blockbuster with the Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor starrer ‘Gunday’. The ace director has hit a hat-trick with his recently released Sultan that’s breaking box office records.

Ali Abbas ZafarWe caught up with the talented director ahead of Bollywood superstar Salman Khan’s most anticipated film release this year, Sultan. Here’s what he had to say.

After Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and Gunday, hat-trick expectations from Sultan most be sky high. What’s going through your mind right now?

I am numb actually right now. I’ve not slept for a week, because I was still shooting two weeks back in Budapest, so we managed to finish the film and it will be out tomorrow (6 June). I think I am more anxious, I hope people like the film and I hope all the hard work that Salman has put into the film comes out in front of the audience and they can look at him in a new light and that’s what my expectations is.

You wrote the script of Sultan. Whilst writing the script did you always have Salman in mind for the character if yes, what made you think of him?

This is the third film that I have written, the earlier two films I wrote I had written them without keeping any actor in mind. I kept them neutral, because if you keep an actor in mind and then when you go to that actor and he can’t do it for a number of reasons, then you have to go back and re-work everything. But when I started writing the story for Sultan, I shared it with Adi Chopra (the producer of the film) and after reading the story, both he and I were very clear that we will not make this film without Salman. The reason behind it was because of the kind of persona that the character has in the story, fits naturally with Salman’s real life persona. So we were very clear if we make this film we will make it with Salman only. And so that is why this is the first story/script we took to Salman and I said that if you like it I am going to go and thrash it out and convert it into screenplay and dialogue, but if you don’t like it we will just bury this film right here.

So I narrated Salman the script over 20 odd minutes and he heard the narration and said let’s do it because I completely identify with the role and I was like wow and I was shocked that this was the quickest yes I have got from an actor.

So then I went ahead and wrote the script because I knew why and how and for who I was writing the film. When you see the film you will understand that the role is customised for SK

Do you find it easier…? (I didn’t get to finish the question, which was: Do you find it easier writing a script with an actor in mind?)

Yeah, because when you know the actor you are writing for, it always becomes better. Because you understand the person better. You understand how will he walk, how will he talk, how will he see this, how will he react to a situation etc. So when people say are you excited about the film I say I am more unnerved because I see the amount of hard work Salman has put into this film, which I don’t think he has put into any film. It’s because it’s a sports film, it’s physically challenging and he is 50 years old. SoSalman Anushka Sultan at that age to drastically change your body type and he has three different types of body in the film and on top of that it is an emotionally challenged film because at heart it’s a very emotional story between a boy and a girl. So all of that, but I think I couldn’t ask for more from God, because the way he (Salman) has pulled it through is very evident from the response we got from the trailer. People want to see him (Salman) in a different light and showing a superstar in a different avatar is very difficult, but I feel Sultan is that one step forward.

You took time in revealing the female lead of the film, was there a reason for this?

Yes, because in the film the female lead is very very strong and in a Salman Khan film for a girl to have aAnushka-Sharma-Sultan-Poster voice is very challenging. For the longest time I wanted a new girl. I was very clear that no matter what happens I need to cast a strong actress opposite SK because the scenes that they have are very strong, very dramatic and they are in all kinds of scenes. There are dramatic scenes, emotional scenes, comedy scenes and romantic scenes, so I needed a girl who can share that screen space and yet look tall and confident. So once I knew, I was clear that I need to go with Anuskha also because it is a very odd pair. She’s (Anushka) not very Salman Khan kind of a heroine or the leading ladies that you normally see in Salman’s films. So the odd pairing makes it fresh and very relatable and real

I just think that when things are too perfect they start looking plastic so that was the reason to get Anushka.

The film delves into martial arts as well as wrestling what made you bring these two very unique sports together?

Wrestling is very much an Indian sport, if you look back into history wrestling has been here from ages. From the time of mahabharat, to the time of Great Gama Pehlwan, to pre-independence, Dara Singh etc. So the idea was that if today you have to make a rockier raging bull in India we need to pick up an Indian sport and make it fascinating to watch. Wrestling is a sport about technique, it’s a sport where you don’t injure the other person in a wrestling ring. On the other-hand martial arts is a very bruising sport, there’s blood and all kinds of stuff. So it’s a much younger sport. The idea was when times are changing, obviously even your sports will go through evolution and so when you go to mixed martial arts, every martial art artist has a strong form of martial form within him. Some of them are boxers, some of them are wrestlers, some of them are taekwondo fighters and then they use all of these forms to combine it to be in that ring. So when Sultan comes into the mixed martial arts format he predominantly is a wrestler who is going to punch, who is going to kick so that kind of bridges today’s audience and brings them in.

You started out as an Assistant Director in Bollywood in 2007, almost 10 years ago, do you think the type of films the Bollywood industry is making today compared to around 10 years has become better?

Yes, I think our industry is evolving at a really rapid pace. In terms of technology, in terms of the talent, in terms of the creativity and the films that Bollywood is making now is at par internationally with all the western films and even Hollywood. This is because India stands for certain things. It stands for high on emotions drama and it stands for the music. Those are the two really strong points that even the west looks up and says Indians and Pakistanis are really emotional. Asians are emotional and then they do a song and dance because that is where our culture is from. From our weddings to our festivals everything is about song and dance. That is how we express ourselves. However, the new wave and the contemporary wave of new filmmakers are definitely kind of bridging the gap between the east and west and this is coming from technology, from stories, so that’s the idea. Very soon as the world is shrinking with time I think it’s going to create its own buzz.

Would you ever consider doing a remake of a classic Bollywood film and if yes, which one would you love to remake?

Well, I am not really a big fan of remakes because I just think that what has happened in time, should stay in that time and it maintains all its beauty and purity. So I have never thought like that, but if I think about something, I think Mughal-e Azam is one of my favourite films, it’s a beautiful classic. So if I had to do a remake I would do Mughal – e – Azam

Finally, would you be able to tell our readers why they should go watch Sultan?

I think what puts this film into perspective is that it’s not entirely about sport, it’s about what lies within. So when you see the film every person will see their fight in the film because that’s what we are doing every day at every point of time in our life. Secondly I think it’s a sports film that Salman has done. So it’s the first time the audience will see an athlete in Salman Khan and I am confident they will like that avatar of him on screen and the first time wrestling will be showcased at such a big level in an Indian film with song and dance. So I really hope everyone will like it.

We wish the team all the very best with Sultan, which releases worldwide in cinemas from 6 June

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