Ali Abbas Zafar is just weeks away from the release of his film Bharat, one of the biggest films of the year and his third collaboration with Salman Khan. We caught up with him for a freewheeling chat about (amongst other things) working with Khan, adapting a Korean film to an Indian context and his last-minute casting of Katrina Kaif. Excerpts:
On working with Salman Khan for the third time:
"The good thing with Salman is he doesn't change. He's constant, like time. This doesn't make me complacent. It keeps me on my toes. It makes my game better because I know I will be tested every day. We've done three films now: we are very comfortable with each other. But still, we keep a distance — I take him as an actor on set, not as someone with whom my relationship has become much better off camera. He's not a friend when we are shooting. He knows that very well, he knows there'll be a lot of pushing around him when we're working. I've been fortunate enough to do three films with him, out of which two were really big blockbusters. I feel that the love both of us have collectively got from the audience is a very big responsibility. And to continuously up your game, whether it's your stories or the performances or the scale of your film, is a pressure. I like it, it's not something that bothers me. I feel it also pushes me to bring out something new in both him and me, and I'm enjoying that process."
There is an action sequence – which is not there in the original, but I had to write it. How could I do a film in which Salman Khan doesn't do action? But the beauty of that action is that it happens when he's seventy years old."
On Salman recommending the Korean film that Bharat is adapted from:
"[Bharat is] an official adaptation of a Korean film [Ode to My Father]. That film talks about the socio-political scenario of Korea, but at heart, it's a very simple story about a displaced family and a promise that a son makes to his father. I never thought I could do a remake, but after Sultan, Salman gave me this DVD and said, 'Why don't you watch this?' It's a very emotional story. The germ of the film is very Indian: India is a nation of families. When I went to Salman after watching the film, the first thing I told him was that I would have to completely rewrite this film, because otherwise [overall] it would not fit in an Indian context. And that too, in a mainstream Hindi film, which will have songs, which will have item [numbers]. I also told him, 'I'm not going to make a film only about your journey': if we are starting a film in 1947 and bringing it to the current times, you also need to see the parallel journey of a nation. For that, there was a lot of research [required]: the idea was — what is happening in his life and what is happening in the country at the same time? How are they interwoven or crisscrossing, or [perhaps] not related at all? That became our blueprint for the script. And because we're capturing six or seven decades of his life, every decade became a film within itself, every chapter has a beginning, middle and end. So when you watch the film, it's like you're watching six films within one film."
On adding an action scene for Salman:
"In Bharat, there are a lot of shades [to Khan's character]. At times he's very vulnerable, at times he's very strong, at times he's raw. So he's not the quintessential hero who is right all the time. I would say it's a very diverse character that he's playing. The character goes through a lot of emotional turbulence. At heart, it's a very simple, emotional story. But it's been packaged with the charisma that a Salman Khan film comes with. There is an action sequence – which is not there in the original, but I had to write it. How could I do a film in which Salman Khan doesn't do action? But the beauty of that action is that it happens when he's seventy years old."
On trusting Khan with difficult scenes:
"I think I trust him a lot now. Because of the kind of performance he pulled off in Sultan, I'm now not scared writing heavy-duty-performance scenes [for him]. There is a scene in Bharat in which I think his performance is at par with the Sultan scene [where Sultan examines his overweight reflection], and that's a very emotional scene. When I was shooting in Punjab, we were talking about that scene for a long time, and I said, 'We will have to do it on this set. We can't push it like we pushed the Sultan scene.' And he was very normal about it. In two takes, he was done. Now I understand the fact that he also has a process. A lot of people think some actors just come and do things. I think he has a process, which he understands, and you get to know that very closely when you see his performance onscreen."
On how Katrina Kaif ended up with Priyanka Chopra's role:
"Priyanka [Chopra] is a very close friend of mine. We were supposed start the shoot. She came to me one day and said, 'Ali, I'm getting married.' I said, 'Perfect! Great! Please do that. The only thing is that my dates are going to go for a toss.' That was because we were pegged to a release date. So we wished her luck and everything was very happy between all of us. (The media blew it out of proportion.) We were twenty days away from the shoot, but I didn't panic. One thing that working with Salman has done to me is that I've developed a lot of patience. I don't panic at all in situations like this. I thought about whom to approach [for Chopra's role]. Most people were busy. Even Katrina was busy: she was shooting Zero and Thugs of Hindostan back-to-back. But I knew she might have some time [free] during the dates I needed her. And because she's a very close friend, I called her and said, 'This is what has happened. I'm sending you the script. Read it. If you like it, we will do this.' After three hours, she called me. I was in the middle of a shot, so I said, 'Katrina, I'll call you back.' She said, 'No, no, listen to me, listen to me!' (Because that's how she is, a bully to me.) She said, 'I've read the script, and I'm doing the film. Don't offer it to anyone!' She used to tell me all through the promotions of Tiger Zinda Hai, 'I will be in Bharat!' I used to give her attitude, I'd say, 'Wait and watch!' The first day she came to set, both Salman and I were cracking up."