Early on a rainy Mumbai evening, Ali Abbas Zafar is in his sweats. This, I’m told, is often the result of spending long stretches with Salman Khan. Ali knows all about long stretches with Salman. He directed Sultan, easily the biggest blockbuster of the year, collecting a cool 600 crores. At this time, it’s the fourth-highest grossing Indian film. Ever. The number that has been less discussed though is 33. Which is how old Ali is.
Granted, Bollywood is not unfamiliar with precocious proteges. Aditya Chopra was just 24 when Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge released. By the time Farhan Akhtar was 35, he had unpacked the path-breaking Dil Chahta Hai as also Lakshya and Don. At the same age, Karan Johar had triple-threatened us with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. Ayan Mukherji, by 30, had popped out Wake Up Sid and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Much before that, Subhash Ghai released Karz at 35. And at the other end of the spectrum, Satyajit Ray was 34 when Pather Panchali hit screens. But unlike many in the credit roll above, Ali Abbas Zafar was not hot-housed in a family-owned or linked studio. And 600 crores, you will agree, is substantial. Enough to make you wonder how Ali Abbas Zafar does what he does. So in a small, carpeted meeting room at the Yashraj Corporate Office, he agrees to some story-telling. He wears his success lightly – unshaven, easy-going, understated.
Where he does fit in with Bollywood is in his enthusiasm for crediting his leading man – “SK” as he calls him – as the force majeure not just of Sultan, but everything surrounding it. If Khan hadn’t agreed, “I wouldn’t have made the film,” he says. “The traits Sultan as a character has, the only star who could’ve pulled this off was SK. There’s a scene where he takes off his shirt and finds himself completely out of shape and he breaks down. If there had been any other star, then the impact of the scene wouldn’t have been this powerful. (But) Salman is known in this country as the Bible of body-building. So for him to be out of shape and then crumble has a double impact with the audience.” There’s bound to be a surplus of young film-makers, however, who claim they have the perfect role for Salman. Virtually none of them will get within breathing space of the 50-year-old superstar. Not to pitch a script, anyway.
For Ali, that route was paved by another close friendship. “I knew him through Katrina because Katrina is one of my closest friends and she was in my first film. He kind of liked both (my) films Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and Gunday. And then I interacted with him briefly on Ek Tha Tiger. We kind of had this thing that this is the cinema we would like to make and the kind of star he is blends in because I like main stream film-making: there has to be songs, there has to be drama.” When SK agreed to a script-narration, Ali had been ready for about three years. It was during his second film, Gunday, that Sushil Kumar won a silver medal in wrestling at the 2012 Olympics. “That’s where it all started. I felt I needed to make a film about a Haryanvi wrestler who goes through ups and downs. The story is not about winning medals; it is about a fight within. I wrote ten pages and I went to Adi (Aditya Chopra, Chairman YRF) and Adi said ‘Yaar, wrestler wali picture kaun dekhega?’
Ali said that everything he had learnt about film-making so far tied him to the need for an Indian connect to the theme. That connect, he was sure, would come from Indian sport. Adi Chopra, the very next morning, approved the idea. “He said he couldn’t get it out of his head”. And is probably very glad (600 crores worth of glad) that he did.
And make no mistake, his essential pragmatism and easy affability does not cancel out his fierce drive, his belief in his instincts. It’s what powered a boy who made the move to Mumbai from Dehradun via Delhi University in finding his feet very quickly in a city where territory is aggressively guarded and newcomers tested rigorously. Talk to his ADs (Assistant Directors) and the words they use to describe him are: bright, grounded, humble, chilled out. On set, they applaud him for being a quick thinker, a detail man, cool under fire, a people’s person. He is clear that for all the romanticism that film-making is infused with, his fidelity lies not just to its art, but to the unmistakable commerce that Bollywood lives for. “How I look at it is that film-making is a business like any other: there’s money spent on it. We are in the market with creative content, and as film-makers what we need to do is to balance that. I feel that the inherent commerce of film-making lies within the story – and then everything else follows, like the stars and then the kind of music you’ll have, the kind of route you’ll take to tell that story.”
Ali grew up with his grandparents in Dehradun. His father was an army man and then worked for ONGC; his mother was a teacher. He moved to Delhi for college. And it was then that things began to change: the Biochemistry student strayed from the science labs to the “The Players”, the theatre group at Kirori Mal College with an alumni list that famously includes Amitabh Bachchan. In 2003, he began attaching himself to films being shot in Delhi. Amu by Shonali Bose. A short schedule on Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya. “I kind of worked on those films and realised that this is where I get some kind of happiness and satisfaction. And that’s the time I decided – this is 2005 and 2006 – that I need to move to Bombay.” He worked as an AD (Assistant Director), the Holy Grail for those who want to eventually direct their own films. His break came when, in 2006, he got a chance to assist Shaad Ali who was then directing Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. A long stint within Yashraj Studios followed. It was on New York that he met and became inner-circle gold for Katrina Kaif. And then he wrote Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, which he pitched to Adi Chopra, who agreed to make it. Katrina starred. Not a blockbuster, but a neat little hit for his first time out the stables.
Katrina and Salman will star in his next project, Tiger Zinda Hai – the sequel to Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger (2012). “It’s a big film with the weight of a blockbuster franchise – the second weighs on you!” “My major challenge is that today, there is this man, Salman Khan, who is a phenomenon and he is at the peak of his game…if I don’t match up to the standards of what people are expecting, people will ask why is he working with these young boys?” But as he kicks back with his standard cup of green tea, or heads out to shoot some ball, or into a script session for his next there’s no sign of nerves about his next step. Ali Abbas Zafar’s Bollywood game is strong. He just has to keep doing it.