MUMBAI—He is in the enviable club of Salman Khan favorites, and after “Tiger Zinda Hai,” his fourth film for Aditya Chopra and Yash Raj Films, writer-director Ali Abbas Zafar has just joined Salman Khan Films, with whom he is making the Indian official remake of the Korean film “Ode To My Father,” his third consecutive film with Khan. It is a father-son story, a genre uncommon in Hindi films that thrive on father-daughter and mother-son sagas.
Totally rooted in Indian cinema (his favorites are “Deewaar,” “Pyaasa,” “Mughal-E-Azam” and “Sholay,” though he likes select foreign films). Zafar has two characteristics in his eight-year-old career: he has only given hits, with a successively higher success quotient (“Mere Brother Ki Dulhan”/2011, “Gunday”/2014 and “Sultan”/2016) and each one has been different in genre.
His newest film, “Tiger Zinda Hai” is also different from his past films (“It is my ‘Rambo,’ just as ‘Sultan’ was my ‘Rocky!’ he grinned) and is an action-packed hi-octane thriller, while “Bharat” is a sweet family story that needs a big scale for mounting it.
It was India-West’s second meeting with Zafar, and we began the conversation a shade tangentially.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: You mentioned last time that Neha Bhasin has been your classmate, which is why she has always sung in each one of your films, as in “Jag Ghoomeya” from “Sultan.” Is she singing here?
A: Of course, of course! She has sung “Swag Se Swagat” and a special version of “Dil Diya Gallan.”
Q: You have made a sequel to 2012’s biggest hit “Ek Tha Tiger.” Was there any pressure on you? In which way was your approach to this film different from Kabir Khan’s in the earlier movie?
A: I will not say there was no pressure. Darr to lagta hai (There is fear), and this is the last film of 2017, which has been a lean year. I had also to justify the huge trust my producer Adi had put in me and the money he has invested by way of the budget. I still get nightmares in which I see empty theatres! (Smiles).
But having said that, let me tell you how the film was conceived. In 2014, 21 Indian nurses had been taken hostage in Iraq. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervened and diplomatically got them safely back home. So I thought, what if a RAW team had to go and rescue them? I wrote the script even before “Sultan” had taken off, and Adi (producer Aditya Chopra) loved it. And since my story had one Indian and one Pakistani agent, I asked how it would be if we made this as a sequel to “Ek Tha Tiger.”
Q: And then?
A: He loved the revised script even more, and so did Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, because the issue was universal. The other change was that in “Ek Tha Tiger…” the focus was on the love story. But here, love takes a backseat, and it is about the nation and the action. We have the best intelligence service in the world, and I had to show them in a super light.
Q: The chemistry between Salman and Katrina in the promos looks awesome.
A: I keep saying that if they get back together, it will be great (Grins). They know each other for long, and the rest is done by the right script, music, and scenes. Then the chemistry increases.
But if you know Salman, anyone falls in love with him while working. He had a great chemistry even with Anushka Sharma in “Sultan.” He may be known as a so-called action hero, but the way he handles romance is beautiful. It’s very Indian, not obnoxious, but sophisticated in an Indian way. There is nothing objectionable for family audiences.
Q: Salman is said to have really outdone himself in the action and training.
A: Yes, I have presented him as an action superstar, not as a superman. Like a real trained agent, he has learned Mixed Martial Arts, gun technology and how to handle explosions. We have very war-like action, for agents are trained to use whatever is at hand. You won’t find the one-punch-ten-people-fly kind of unreal action here.
Most of our action sequences were shot in Morocco and Abu Dhabi, and very often the climate was hot, and thus very challenging for the crew, with all the guns, missiles, choppers, tanks and so on. But we pulled it off smoothly, as we had the right crew to execute all that. Salman is shown as a very realistic, reserved and calculated agent.
Q: What is the need for a Pakistani spy in a film where an Indian RAW agent is sent to rescue Indian nurses?
A: That justification will be seen in the film. In any clash of good and evil,
it is humanity that gets traumatized – and that is a bigger issue than political or national matters. We are a great and secular country because we believe in that. For example, if there had been a Pakistani or an American nurse among them, wouldn’t we have rescued her as well?
Q: As a director, how do you delineate wide-angle shots and close-ups?
A: That is always dictated by the story, genre and situation. In “Sultan,” we needed a lot of intimate close-ups and mid-shots as the story was very personal. The wide-angle shots came mostly during the bouts. Here the issue was global, and those sequences wherein the dialogues would leave the maximum impact were close-ups, like the much-liked verbal confrontation between the villain and the blood-streaked Tiger. Also, Salman, whose focus is complete and who is never satisfied until he has given his 100 percent, has an impact on the audience with his expressions, including when he sheds tears.
Q: How much was your research?
A: Luckily, there are many great books written on the major intelligence services, and we got to know wonderful facts about how they all operate – MI, CBI, Mossad, ISI and finally RAW.
Q: Why did you cast the actor playing the villain from overseas?
A: The villain was very important. He had to be a new actor, with no history or baggage, so that the film becomes fresh. I chose an actor from the Middle-East so that we could have an authentic accent from there whenever he spoke in Hindi, English or Arabic. That works subconsciously for character. Sajjad is the name of the actor, and we had to choose the most challenging villain opposite Tiger.
Q: Music was a highlight in “Sultan.” But here, there is just functional music.
A: Yes, we have fewer songs. But I have always believed that songs, even if less, have to be good, then they work for the film.
Q: You have always done different genres.
A: The good thing about that is that I never become overconfident. Every film becomes like a first one for me, and there are no reference points.
Q: And all your stories are connected to our roots.
A: I am the son of an army man. We have spent our life in cantonments where the first sound we heard every morning was of a bugle. My parents have instilled in me the fact that we should first have knowledge of our own country. That is also true of cinema: we must know our nation and people first, and talk about them. Wasn’t Satyajit Ray the biggest crossover director we ever had?