Sultan director Ali Abbas Zafar opens up on his apprehensions about his film, working with Salman and the prep that went into it, in this tell-all interview...
As we walk out of his cabin, following our chat, Sultan director Ali Abbas Zafar tells me. “People have made this film so big with their expectations that I am scared.” He’s not anxious about what it would mean for him if his third film is not successful. He voices his apprehension, “People are talking about big numbers and talking about it in the same breath as Bajrangi Bhaijaan.” He confesses he finds that daunting, “My worry is that I don’t let Salman Khan down. He should not feel that I wasted his time.”
The 33-year-old director from Dehradun, who has previously made Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and Gunday has that indescribable small-town boy appeal that’s missing in big city boys. He is not embarrassed by how he started and that’s impressive. He tells me how that his first tryst with Bollywood began withholding the traffic three kilometres away from a location away from where Hrithik Roshan was shooting for Lakshya. From there to directing Salman Khan at his prime in a decade. He may be directing the star he likes to address as SK, for the first time, but he has worked with him on the same set, a few times. He flashbacks, “I always wanted to do a film with SK. But you know the kind of star that he is...
I have an old association with him. I assisted on his film Marigold. Also, when he was doing Ek Tha Tiger, because of my relationship with Kabir, I assisted him on one schedule. Even though I was already a director. During that film, we kind of bonded. Then when I was making Gunday he said, ‘Come and narrate the story to me, which I did. There was this mutual thing that kuch ho sakta hai. There is a kind of common ground when you talk about the kind of work you want to do and I think I found that with him.”
Ali believes that writing a character for Salman is not easy, and it is a huge responsibility. “The most important thing when you have a star like Salman is to create a character which surpasses or matches his stardom. So the idea was to create a character which he is excited about and says ‘yes’ to. This was a worthy enough character to put in one year of hard work into and that’s what we did. I came up and this is even before I started shooting Gunday I wrote 10 pages of Sultan. I went and narrated it to him with Adi. He said, ‘We are doing this film in 40 minutes.’ Once that happened, I went and made Gunday, finished everything and got into writing Sultan. when I presented the full draft to him, he was more than happy.”
Salman has never done a sports film while his contemporaries have delivered some big hits in the genre — Aamir (Lagaan), Shah Rukh Khan (Chak De!) and Farhan Akhtar (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag). Ali feels that Salman always wanted to do a sports film because he loves sports in one way or the other. “He also loves Sylvester Stallone, as we all know and he wanted to do that one film which was about sport and but yet was about more than sport. Sultan is about fighting out and fighting within. At heart, it is a very simple story about a man and a woman and what happens in their relationship. Wrestling is just the backdrop of the film. In wrestling, every time you lose you fall in the mud, you rise. It’s like lif. The only thing they teach you in wrestling is: Just get up again after a fall. ‘Chal khada ho, chal khada ho,’ those are the only words they use while training a wrestler. That became a kind of a germ for the story.”
A sports film is also a first for Ali. He has grown up playing football, cricket etc, outdoors because “unlike the youth in the cities, who go to clubs, we used to play sports because we had no other option.” But why wrestling? Simply because it hasn’t been done before? He shakes his head, “This whole idea of wrestling began with the 2012 Olympics when Sushil Kumar went to the finals of wrestling. One thing that came very blatantly to my observation was that he was so honest about winning that medal for the country. When he didn’t win the gold, he said ‘Today I tried my best but something was not right for me and I couldn’t win that medal and I hope next time I come back and win that medal.’ The kind of honesty he said that with, made me feel that there is definitely a character here. Also, I can’t do a sports film about fencing, it is not an Indian sport. It might just look very cool, but will it connect to an Indian audience? Maybe not. Wrestling is a very Indian sport. If you travel in our country you will see an akhara in every city. Benaras, Calcutta...if you drive towards Kolhapur, you will find 15 akharas. It was interesting for me to kind of re-look at an Indian sport and make it look cool for the audience.”
The director did prep for three months before the movie went on the floors. Says Ali, “Once I wrote the script, I travelled extensively in Haryana. For almost three months, I stayed there and I spent time in akharas, I met real life wrestlers, heard their stories, and understood the kind of physical disciplines they follow, about their married life, how much money the government gives them and all of that. All that happened as a process of looking at a wrestler’s life, and their personal problems. If you look at the condition of the wrestlers, you will feel bad, and yet they are so proud of the nation and want to bring back gold medals....That became the essence of Sultan. That continuous strife, even in the trailer, Sultan says, ‘Mera sapna hai ki main Hindustan ko gold dilau.’ That’s their dream because till the time they don’t get a medal of that calibre, no one will register them as an athlete. It’s not like cricket in T20 ki tumne pachas run maar diye to log bolne lagenge ki yaar yeh toh bahot talented ladka hai.”
As seen in the trailer, Salman plays a wrestler who then becomes a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. MMA is a catch-all that embraces several fighting styles, wrestling being one of them, so a lot of things were different between the two sports. For wrestling, the research was in the country’s northern state, for MMA, they headed to LA. Ali and team spent three weeks scouting action directors. He explains the process, “We got in touch with this so-called sports choreography called AD 7-11 and they have done all the major so-called martial arts films from 300 to every big action film that you talk about. I met one action choreographer there —Lard and took him through the story, we locked them down and I told them the part is getting played by one of the biggest stars in the country. They Googled him and said, ‘WOW he is huge,’ and they were all very excited. I said my actor is very excited about the project, too, but he won’t be able to come here and train. So, six people travelled from LA and spent almost three-and-a-half months at his farm training him. Luckily because the kind of excitement level Salman has, he loves all that as he is still a boy a heart. He trained every day for three hours. He got thrown around, kicked and punched. But within three months he was kicking, punching and doing all those things like a pro. They put him into a perfect regime of what he has to eat and how much he has to gain etc.
Salman has two very different body types in the film. And according to Ali, he achieved that during the course of shooting. Ali adds, “In the first part of the film when he is a wrestler, his body type is different. And when he becomes an MMA fighter, his body type changes. Hats off to him the way he has transformed his body without taking a break, at 50 that is very difficult to do. We switched two body types while shooting which is phenomenal because the wrestling body is a little leaner and ripped and the bulkier body is for the MMA. In the film, the trainer tells him that you need to become a bull because that’s the only way you are going to survive, and he did it. Luckily, there is a lot of honesty between SK and me. He very honestly tells me what he feels and vice versa. There was no difficulty while working, apart from one thing which is that I always had to keep in mind that here is a man who has put so much to be in a certain way to for this film and he can’t over exert himself. He was working for me and for the film, even when he was not on the set because he had to spend four hours in the gym...”
During a visit to the Bigg Boss house, I’d seen Salman do his workout during breaks. He did a gruelling workout in the gym at the chalet. Ali salutes his effort, “Salman had put in so much effort that I had to be conscious that I don’t strain him because his body wouldn’t be able to take it. Because he had to look good on camera. Also, because extra physical exercise will happen in the ring while shooting. With a number of lights are pumped in, it’s hot, so your energy level can drop within an hour, and that is not good for the camera and the actor who is doing it. So there were days when Salman said, ‘Today I am not feeling up to it’ and I never pushed him. We shot for 40 days of action with him non-stop. When you shoot such a long duration of action your body within those 40 days changes because you are losing body salts every day. So by the time he started to the time he finished, his body has changed. Towards the end of it, he was looking like a completely ripped big guy.”
There was some buzz about Kabir Khan’s presence on the set and if it was because Salman wasn’t confident of Ali’s capabilities and he asked the Bajrangi Bhaijaan director to be present. Ali smiles, “Kabir is like an elder brother to me and I would always want him to be on set with me. When you have people who want things to become better for you and you find them on set, you only feel happy. It’s like having your family on set. He gets along with me, he gets along with Salman and we are very cool. I was on the sets of Bajrangi every day when he was shooting. I will go again on his set. There’s no problem.”
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