Director Ali Abbas Zafar on attempting to craft a Bhai film without allowing his superstardom to overshadow it
It’s a sunny afternoon and Ali Abbas Zafar walks into the Reel Life Productions office with his reflective sunglasses still on. Before asking for a cup of coffee, he places his glasses on the table and politely asks if I’d like a cuppa too before we sit down for a tête-à-tête. The self-possessed and relaxed director doesn’t seem particularly nervous about his new Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif-starrer Bharat that releases today. After all, his earlier directorial ventures with Khan — Sultan (2016) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) — are among the star’s biggest blockbusters in Bollywood.
It was Kaif, Zafar’s leading lady in his debut Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011), who had introduced the director to the superstar, but Zafar admits their history goes back further. He was an assistant director on Willard Carroll’s forgettable romantic comedy Marigold (2007) that featured Khan with Ali Larter. “I was a 23-year-old running helter-skelter, picking up everything on the set,” says Zafar. It was as an assistant director on Kabir Khan’s 2009 film New York that Zafar befriended Kaif and eventually got to meet Khan. When Zafar mentioned Marigold, Khan “cracked up” and said he remembered Zafar from the sets. The director laughs, “Because it was just [a] party on that film.”
Now, in what happens to be both Kaif’s and Khan’s third film with Zafar, the story is centred on its eponymous lead. Reminiscent of Forrest Gump (1994), Bharat is actually based on Yoon Je-kyun’s Ode to My Father (2014) about one man’s extraordinary life as it unfolds against decades of modern Korean history. Zafar’s Indian retelling similarly covers seven decades of the country’s modern history. “It’s like six or seven films within a film,” says the director, “because every decade is a film of its own — every chapter has a beginning [and] end.” While the film emerges from Bharat’s story, Zafar stresses that he doesn’t steal the spotlight. “When every character has a voice, you understand that the film is not only [about] one person. He [Khan’s Bharat] might be the poster boy of the film, but the film is about everyone else,” says Zafar. With Sultan, another movie of his named after the protagonist, the director managed to strike a chord even outside of Khan’s legion of fans. Though it got its fair share of criticism, Anushka Sharma’s feisty lead had a refreshingly substantial role in a Salman Khan film.
Talking about Kaif’s character Kumud Raina, an employment consultant, Zafar claims that the treatment in Bharat will be similar, “The [woman] is much stronger than Bharat. I’ve been raised and surrounded by very strong women, and that reality transfers to my writing.”
The perfect lead
When it came to fashioning the characters, it’s no secret that Kaif replaced Priyanka Chopra after the latter backed out owing to her wedding last year — something Khan still brings up bitterly during the film’s promotions. So while it was a stroke of “luck” that brought Kaif and Zafar together for this project, the director admits that the actor for his protagonist had always been tightly secured.
For Sultan, Zafar consciously drew on Khan’s machismo to offer an intriguing contrast with the vulnerability his character demanded. For Bharat Zafar declares, “You can only make Bharat with Salman Khan.” He elaborates, “You want to touch the last man standing at a ticket window who might just watch one film a year, [with] a face that they identify with. Also, there’s a sense of goodness attached to his on-screen persona.” This hasn’t really taken a hit despite Khan’s off-screen bad boy image from the 2002 alleged hit-and-run to cases of poaching. “He has always been a Prem, a good son, a good brother,” Zafar continues, “Till now he has not played a negative character.” And the director explains that it is that (perceived) sense of a value system that allows Khan to essay a role that’s deeply intertwined with the country’s history.
When asked if the opprobrium, the original received for being overly patriotic informed Zafar in re-imagining his film, he shrugs: “I only took the thread. South Korea and North Korea were divided and we went through the India-Pakistan partition. So that — and a strong culture of joint families — became the germ of the story.” The director also adds that light-heartedness is woven into the seemingly wearing script: “The film is treated with a lot of comedy because there is an inherent humour in the middle class which is full of sarcasm, chaos and their problems.” After the period drama, Zafar is all geared to work on a more serious project — a contemporary series for Amazon — something he refuses to discuss further. To wrap up, he adds that a third Tiger film is in the works, which will most likely bring back the frequently collaborating trio of Khan, Kaif and Zafar together again.
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