Ali Abbas Zafar: “Wouldn’t have made ‘Sultan’ without Salman”

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Director Ali Abbas Zafar is set with his film ‘Sultan’, starring Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma. Having previously directed ‘Mere Brother Ki Dulhan’ (2011) and ‘Gunday’ (2014), Zafar is making a film on a different scale altogether with a bigger and more impactful narrative. The early promos have showcased part of the story of a small-time wrestler hitting the big time and there’s a poignant love story to match.

Ali Abbas Zafar, Salman Khan 340x

BizAsia caught up with Zafar on the eve of the film’s release.

‘Sultan’ is one of the most awaited films of the last year and it’s on the eve of release. How do you feel?

Well, right now I feel like everyone is ready to judge me (laughs). I’m anxious and I’m a little nervous because when you work towards something and you’ve put in all your hard work for over a year, you want that your film becomes the most anticipated film. Sultan has become that and so your expectations go really high and right now I can only hope that whatever expectations people have of Sultan happen for them and that they like the film.

When you first wrote the story of ‘Sultan’, did you always want Salman Khan as the lead?

Yes. This is the third film I’ve written – I also wrote my first two films. When I used to write earlier, I never used to keep an actor i mind as I always thought that it kind of corrupts the process of making the script because in case that actor turns it down then you’re not left with any option. You have to go back and rewrite it for some other actor. But, what happened with Sultan is that when I wrote the story and the basic idea came to me, I wrote it in 10 pages. I then shared it with my producer, Aditya Chopra. Both of us were very clear that, to take the film to the second level, which was screenplay and dialogue, we should bounce it off Salman. We were both very clear that we would not make this film if Salman didn’t do it. The reason for that is that the character of Sultan is very comparable to the kind of person and professional that makes Salman Khan. The kind of persona that he hold, his charisma; all that was a part of Sultan’s character. When we went to Salman and he heard my 10 pages of narration in about 25-30 minutes, the first this he said was “let’s do it”. It was the quickest yes that I ever heard after a narration. I think he identified with the character, because when you watch the film you will see that, the kind of life and journey that he has is something Salman related to. At some point of time I think Salman was also dying to do some sort of sports drama because he hasn’t done one. So, all these things fell into place and then I went into severe writing for a good three months. That’s how Sultan’s journey started.

After so many names were reported to have been associated to the film as the possible leading lady, how did you eventually zero in on Anushka Sharma?

For the longest time, we were looking for a new girl. I thought that as the girl’s character is very strong on paper, I wanted a girl who could give me a lot of attention in my pre-production time in terms of learning the language, learning the sport, training the body and so on. We auditioned around 80-100 girls and we couldn’t find one. So, with whatever options I had, I chose Anushka. I thought Salman and Anushka would make a very good, honest pairing because they’re two very different kinds of people. She’s very unlike other Salman Khan heroines that he’s paired with in the last 5-6 years. I thought that would make their romance more believable as if everything is too perfect then things start looking plastic and artificial. With the kind of soil and land upon which this film is set needed to be very pretty. The sport is very pretty as half of the time it’s a sport that needed to be played in mud. The sport has a lot of texture to it. Anushka is a brilliant actress which was the first demand of the role. I wanted someone who when she stands in the same frame Salman Khan she’s still confident enough to push him away. Very consciously, one thing that I was struggling with in my script is that people say that in Salman Khan films, the girls are just eye-candy. The whole idea of having a voice to a girl would make a Salman Khan film look new. That’s how Anushka’s character came about and we all know that she’s a brilliant actress. She went into severe training of two months and when you see the film you’ll see she almost looks like a professional wrestler.

Salman-Anushka in 'Sultan'

Randeep Hooda plays Sultan’s coach in the film and as he and Salman Khan have shared the screen before albeit in a different story, how did you put a freshness to that?

Randeep has a very special character and when you watch the film you’ll see why he’s there. Also, Randeep is very close to SK. They share a very solid camaraderie from the time of ‘Kick’. For that character I wanted someone who is brilliant which Randeep is. At the same time, Salman deals with him in a so-called friendly way. His is a very special character who pushes Salman left, right and centre. So, if you don’t have a personal equation with an actor, you could get offended. Randeep character is important to the story and he is in a guest appearance.

In terms of the filmmaking process overall, how much did you find yourself relying on Salman Khan?

Well, not at all. The good thing about this film is that Salman had so much on his plate which he had to do for his character in the film – putting on weight, losing weight, making muscle, losing muscle, learning two types of martial arts – that everything else was actually my call (laughs). It was my call to get Vishal-Shekhar on the film because I wanted a contemporary soundtrack which was an amalgamation of melody and the rock that is associated with a sports film. The title track is a certain way, the romantic track is a certain way, the club track is a certain way… And I love making and choosing music. I think even with my first two films the music struck a chord with the audiences. I feel it’s a very personal process. It’s as pure as writing a script. I had a fabulous time with Vishal and Shekhar making the music of this film. Luckily, with Salman, whatever I would take and present to him, he liked it. By the end of it, he liked it so much that he’s sung almost every song in the film in his own version which Yash Raj Films has released. So, when you have an excited actor, who is always standing behind you and watching you with so much experience, it’s a great thing. I think I’ve been fortunate enough to have Salman with me and overseeing everything.

Sometimes when you’re scripting and going through the filmmaking process, you end up with a different product to what you first envisaged. How happy are you with ‘Sultan’ as an end product?

You know, when I think of the first script and compare it to what I now have, I think the film is better than the script. Obviously, when you’re the director and it’s your baby, you’re not the right judge. Only someone who’s neutral can tell you that. However, I’ve always been a big fan of Salim uncle – Salman’s father – and his writing. I narrated the script to him before we started shooting. When the film was then locked during the edit, I called him to watch the film. When he walked out, he came and hugged me and Adi and said “What you’ve wrote and what you’ve made, it’s better than that”.I am hopeful that a lot of the audience are going to connect with it. ‘Sultan’ is a very emotional film. There is flamboyance because he’s an athlete but at heart it’s a very personal and emotional story. When you see the film you’ll understand why I’m saying that.

Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma - Sultan 340x

Have you found you’ve learnt anything about yourself while making ‘Sultan’?

I think I’ve learnt a lot of patience in this film. I’m become more calmer as a person. When you’re with a superstar who’s 50, the kinds of experiences he’s had and the things that he tells me, my understanding of working with a huge crew in terms of scale. This is a very big scaled up film compared to my last two films, I have found I’ve developed a lot of patience and I used to say “let it be”. I thought everything will happen at its own pace. I used to tell myself that I shouldn’t try to control everything and if things happen then they will do so organically.

BizAsia would like to thank Ali Abbas Zafar for taking the time to talk to us. ‘Sultan’ hits theatres on 6th July.

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