“I don’t believe in Perfection” – Ali Abbas Zafar
Director Ali Abbas Zafar of Mere Brother Ki Dulhan fame revives the two-hero film genre that is no longer seen on the big screen with his latest film Gunday. We spoke to him about his challenging and yet fulfilling journey while making the film.
What inspired you to make Gunday?
It’s one of the most asked questions, and I don’t have an answer to it. But I will try to answer it. When I did my first film (Mere Brother Ki Dulhan) and it became a box office hit, I was a little nervous as to what my next film should be in terms of the genre. I have been a two hero film fan, especially on subjects like friendship and brotherhood. I feel it has its own merit. And now we hardly see a two hero film with great poise. When was the last time we saw such a film? Karan Arjun, maybe Ram Lakhan. So I thought if I can do that and write something which excites two actors on a script level, then it’s a new space to explore. What I was really clear about is that I did not want to do a film about two heroes and their friendship without a social context. The movies that I have grown up watching are Yash Chopra’s and Ramesh Sippy’s Deewar, Kala Pathar, Shakti and Sholay. The beauty of all these films is that they belonged to mainstream cinema, but had a very prominent conflict going on within the plot. So I decided to tell a story set in a particular time but keeping it contemporary. Everyone will relate to it because it explores the idea of identity which is universal and doesn’t require a time frame. All those things largely became the base of Gunday.
How long did it take you to write the script?
I took me three months to complete the script.
It is the last script the late filmmaker Yash Chopra had heard. Comments?
Yes, and that’s why I have dedicated the film to Yashji. It was the last film that was narrated to him before he passed away. He really liked it and said that the feel and flavour of Gunday reminded him of his older films Deewar , Kala Pathar and Mashaal.
Bikram and Bala bring back memories of the brotherhood shared by Amitabh Bachchan-Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan-Shatrughan Sinha and many others. Was it intentional on your part to recreate that camaraderie?
Over a period of time our heroes have changed drastically. I personally think that the times you are living in is an important factor in creating an identity for heroes of each era. The 70s and 80s were turbulent times with regards to the socio-economic-political situation of the country. In those days the youth was driven by ideas of anti-establishment. It doesn’t exist anymore because our needs have changed.
The image of rustic men has transitioned into cosmopolitan metrosexual men. The idea of right and wrong has changed. Our morals and ethics have changed. All these things define the hero differently. A lot of people say that the film reminds them of Jai and Veeru (from Sholay). To that I just say it was not a conscious decision to recreate Jai and Veeru. The context in which people perceive them makes them Jai and Veeru.
What was your initial idea while creating the look and the feel of Gunday?
When you do a period film, it’s very important to make it look authentic. You might be telling a story that is flamboyant with a heightened reality attached to it; things are being blown out of proportion, but it needs to be convincing. The idea is to create a universe for the audience from the moment the film begins. It should engulf the audience in its universe. So the production design becomes the most important thing because things are not how they were 35-40 years ago. Costumes become very important. The texture of skin becomes crucial, especially since the film is set in east India, in Calcutta (Kolkata) where people tend to have a little burnt out/ dusky texture. The actors Arjun (Kapoor), Ranveer (Singh), Priyanka (Chopra) and Irrfan (Khan) have the same colour palette in the film. These are all subconscious elements that people probably don’t notice immediately but as the film progresses it sinks in. We think 70s and 80s were all about loose shirts with big collars, everyone wearing goggles. But it’s not just about that. These make the film look real which in turn makes every story believable.
What kind of research and referencing went into recreating the 70s/80s time and space?
More than films, I referenced books and did extensive recce. Photographs of Calcutta by renowned photographer Raghu Rai were part of my referencing. That city has a lot of character. Most of my references came from my own life experiences. When I was a student in Delhi University, I went and stayed in Calcutta for a month. When you are a 20-21 year-old, you see things differently especially if you don’t have money in your pocket. I remember having only 1000 bucks for a month. I stayed in a students’ hostel. And this was in 2004, so not that long ago. During my stay I really got fascinated by the culture. That city is always buzzing with life, a lot of workers…sweat and heat. So Bikram and Bala are true replicas of the worker class of Calcutta. Also in the 70s and 80s cabaret was huge. I had to create that cabaret for Priyanka which we have seen Helen aunty performing in films from those days. During my research I found out how glamorous Calcutta was in that era. There were dancers from Moulin Rouge who would come and perform at the high-class clubs.
Did you always have Priyanka Chopra, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor for the lead roles in the film?
Yes, absolutely! One of the main reasons being, I wanted a cast that can look the part. Also the fact that Ranveer and Arjun are todays boys, but they have this raw and rustic quality. They have that masculinity which you don’t see a lot today because everything is very metrosexual. I wanted two boys who can look rural and play their parts convincingly and make you believe that they belong to that part of the city. As far as Priyanka goes, over the years she has proved herself a brilliant actress. But the main reason I cast her was because as a cabaret dancer she looks like a diva and when she walks in a cotton sari on the road she looks like the girl next door. She is someone who can pull of those two extreme looks beautifully.
What was the rehearsal process like? Would you describe yourself as more of a methodical or a spontaneous director?
As a director I don’t believe in too much of rehearsals honestly. I’d rather go with my spontaneity. I don’t prepare myself too much. I do my homework of course. I wrote my first film and I wrote this one too. What happens during writing is, you already visualize the film in a certain way; and that becomes the blueprint. You go through the costumes and locations but it might be different from what you thought it would be. So you keep the essence of the film intact and move forward. I think that’s really important. Same goes for acting. If you over-prepare an actor, for me it becomes a very plastic set-up. And I don’t believe in perfection. For me a 70-80 per cent is what works. I believe that perfection makes you think yeh toh sab kuch hi thik hain. I don’t feel the hunger when there is a complete frame. There needs to be something uncooked and raw for things to look real.
But because my film was physically very demanding, some actors had to train and look a certain way. That was a really intense and elaborate process. You can be a brilliant actor, but if you don’t look the part it’s not going to work. Since I have been friends with Arjun and Ranveer and we are of the same age, most of the times I communicated with them not as a director but as a friend. If they had suggestions that made sense I took it.
What were the major challenges during the making of Gunday?
I think the major challenge was to shoot the film in 110 days during summer. It’s the kind of film you read on paper and realise it’s not going to be an easy film to make. From the refugee camps on the borders of Bangladesh and Calcutta to the real coal mines to shooting on top of moving coal trains, every scene took a lot of effort and was specifically created for the film. So there was never an easy day. There are no scenes with two people just sitting and talking. And as a writer I understood through this film to think before writing because it might be fascinating to write it but achieving it is a different ball game and extremely hard.
Also with the kind of Western cinema people are exposed to in India, an average product is out of the question. You can’t say you are making a period film and not spend enough money or not shoot it genuinely and make it believable. A lot of people called me after watching the trailer to say that it looked great. People believe that a lot of money went in to it and it looks real. A frame can very easily look poor. When you call the characters god fathers of Calcutta, people have to believe it. You can’t have 15 people gathered when they raise their hands to wave. It won’t work. You have to call 2000 people and dress them in a certain way. You have to go under Howrah Bridge to get that shot. All these things were very challenging.
What was your brief to the other HOD (head of department like Production designer, Costume designer and Editor)?
I always believe that the people who make the film will always decide how it will look. So I always told them (the HODs) let’s refer and read the best available literature about the era, and let’s also create our own world within. For instance, there was no slim cut in the 70s and 80s. But I told Subarna (Ray Chaudhari), who is the costume designer of the film, that I want slim cuts. If you go for an 80s cut it will be a little loose. If you watch the film, the actors are not over-styled, but they are not under-styled either. It looks authentic but at the same time you there’s a fresh spin on it. I think that’s where one stands out; in the way you look at things and someone else looks at it. There are so many films made in the 70s and 80s, so how do you make it different?
Did you always want to be a director?
No actually, not at all. I think it was by accident. I studied science in college. I grew up in Dehradun, and we had IMA cadets walking around. It was a military and defence environment. My dad was in Border Road Services (BRS), which is like a paramilitary sector that makes roads for the army. I spent my early childhood in IMA cantonment and dreamed of being an air force pilot. But that did not happen. Then I joined Delhi University to study science, and thought I’ll become a biochemist. While in college I joined a group called The Players and started doing theatre there. By the time I graduated I was completely brainwashed and knew this was what I was born to do. Then I came to Bombay.
Who are the filmmakers you idolised while growing up and who are your idols now?
As a child, cinema was restricted to holidays and weekends. The films I watched left a strong impression on me. I think as a filmmaker your core duty is to entertain because if someone has spent money and come to watch the film in the theatre, then he/she should be thoroughly entertained for those two and a half to three hours. But at the same time if you can raise a question that is relevant to the society, then it just becomes a better experience. My favourite directors were Yashji (Yash Chopra), Ramesh Sippy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. They were three very different kinds of directors, but in their own space they were fabulous. All their stories were very relevant to their time. From the 90s – I really like Subhash Ghai. I feel that the way he celebrated cinema was phenomenal. And in the current times, I love RajKumar Hirani!
By Rachana Parekh