Wanted to make Sultan with Salman and no one else – Ali Abbas Zafar
He may be just two films old, but director-writer Ali Abbas Zafar has not shied away from exploring different genres in his films. After a romantic comedy with Mere Brother Ki Dulhan and a period drama with Gunday, the filmmaker now ventures into the sports drama genre with Sultan. Starring Salman Khan and Anushka Sharma, the film takes you through the rise and fall of a wrestler.
In a chat with Pandolin, Ali Abbas Zafar gets candid about working with Salman Khan, the reason behind choosing Haryana as the backdrop, making Anushka Sharma wrestle and more.
What inspired you to make a movie on wrestling? What is the crux of the movie?
I used to love playing sports during my school and college days. Plus, every director has that one favorite genre and sports drama is my favorite. I have grown up watching Rocky, Raging Bull and even India has had films like Chak De! India. So I always wanted to do a film which was about a sport and at the same time, was a dramatic journey of a character. Sultan is not just about wrestling, but it is more about what one goes through in their personal life. The byline of the film says that ‘wrestling is not about sports, but about what lies within’ and that is the reason why wrestling was picked.
I could have picked any sport, but one thing that runs parallel between wrestling and life is that when you are in the ring, even though your back hits the ground, you get up to fight and it’s the same with life. The entire film is in chapters, it’s not a biopic, but when you see the movie, you will see who Sultan is, why is he a wrestler, how does he rise and fall and finally where the story ultimately goes.
Did you write the character of Sultan keeping Salman Khan in mind?
Yes, I wrote the story and shared it with Aditya Chopra who is the producer. When he heard the story, our spontaneous reaction was the same. We wanted to make this story with Salman and no one else. One of the reasons why I thought of Salman was because his image both on and off screen matches that of Sultan’s character.
I narrated the story to Salman and he took barely two minutes to say yes to the film. I was relieved because it is always too much pressure to convince an actor. I think till the actor doesn’t feel that this character matches their stardom, they don’t take a decision about it. Fortunately, he reacted quite positively. The most important thing about that meeting was that he told me that we will make the film, but when he is 50 and I am happy that he stood by his word.
Another reason I approached Salman was because the whole country looks up to him for his body. I told him, if he couldn’t experiment with his body, then who could? And hats off to him, he has moulded his body in three different ways (for the film) without me realizing. It has taken a toll on his body; there were days when he was not feeling good and there were days when he was breathing heavy, but he stood by it. I think he liked the character so much that he went all out.
I thought of Salman because his image both on and off screen matches that of Sultan’s character
How did Anushka Sharma’s character as a wrestler become part of the film?
I traveled to UP, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Benaras to research on wrestling. The thing that I liked the most about Haryana was that though families didn’t allow girls to come out and wrestle, the girls would cross social boundaries and come to wrestle. I would go to the local competitions to see how wrestling happened. The number of girls is very limited and hence they fight in the weight category with boys to qualify to a higher level. When I saw this, I thought, “This is today’s India”. This is one state where girls who are not allowed to participate in such sports are actually coming out and wrestling with boys in their category. And I decided that this is how I want my heroine to be, someone who will be able to match a strong character like Sultan.
Tell us about your association with producer Aditya Chopra. What is the rapport that you’ll share?
I think Aditya Chopra is a very empowering producer and one of the reasons for it is that he himself is a director. He doesn’t clip the wings of the director by saying that this is the budget and you have to make the film within this. He understands the demand of the story. Let me give an example, the entire langot sequence was hyped so much and it has a story behind it. Salman wore the langot, but the day he came to shoot he refused to come out. He thought that there would be around 50 people and the rest of the crowd would be added through VFX and CG. But there we had a crowd of 6000 people out of which 2000 were women. I had told Aditya that I wanted to shoot with a real crowd of 6000 people and he wanted to know why. I told him that if there were just 50 people chanting Sultan’s name, it won’t give him that energy. You need an arena of people to chant the name and then when Salman walks in with that swag, it will work. The energy would add to Salman’s performance. Fortunately, Salman eventually came out in a bathing robe, but he was clear that if anyone shouted anything, he would leave instantly. I think it was just the jitters of the first day because after that day, I think he enjoyed being in the langot (laughs).
Aditya doesn’t interfere at all, he gives you space to make your film. All the three films that I have made are all my stories and I have made them the way I wanted to. The strength of Aditya comes from the fact that he is an experienced director and therefore, you have a very strong bouncing board. Often what happens is that you get so involved in your own work that you don’t see the film from the outside. Therefore, it is important to have a person who comes with a different perspective and makes you realize things, which you might have missed.
Aditya Chopra is a very empowering producer and one of the reasons for it is that he himself is a director
The last few years have seen several films around the theme of sports. According to you, what sets Sultan apart from the rest of the films?
Sultan will see Salman playing an athlete for the first time. He has played an action hero, a romantic hero, but seeing him as an athlete will be something new for the audience. It is also for the first time that people will see wrestling along with mixed martial arts on a big screen.
Do you think it is better to play the dual role of a director and writer instead of solely directing a film?
I was forced to be a writer! When I was making my first film no one was ready to write the story, which is why I had to write it myself. The same thing happened with my other films too. But I think that when you are the writer-director you are a little more confident because it is your writing material. So when you are interacting with an actor or a technician they go by your belief, they know that since you have written the story, you know what you are doing. It helps when you write your own films. There is also an added advantage that if any scene has to be changed, you can re-write it on the set itself, instead of waiting for a writer.
Having explored various genres, what next is on your wishlist?
There are a lot of genres, but the one genre that I desperately want to make is a war film. Apart from that I would want to make a horror film with Yash Raj (Films) because they have never done one.