Interview Hindi

Bharat is the complete Salman Khan thali, says director Ali Abbas Zafar

Ali Abbas Zafar speaks about his relationship with Salman Khan, the story of Bharat, and the effects to age the ever-young Salman Khan.

Shriram Iyengar

With the trailer for Bharat receiving a good response, director Ali Abbas Zafar looked confident and rested about the future of the film. During a media interaction held at Yash Raj Studios, Zafar revealed that he was looking forward to taking a break after the film's release.

"I am nervous, but also excited. It is a good feeling," he said.

Bharat marks the third time Zafar has teamed up with Salman Khan after Sultan (2016) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017). An official remake of the Korean drama An Ode To My Father (2014), Bharat features Salman Khan as the 70-year-old man whose journey runs parallel to the journey of a nation.

Zafar said, "It is a simple story of a displaced family. And a man trying to keep the promise to his father. Now what does this man do to keep that promise? That germ was very beautiful."

The film also features Katrina Kaif as the curiously named 'Madam Sir'. Speaking about her character, Zafar said, "I am very happy with the way Katrina has pulled it through, because it is very new for her. The role is of a government employee, sitting in a room, recruiting people, and then a plain Jane, wearing a sari, no makeup, and speaking in a language... it is very different from her entire career."

Bharat is set to be released in theatres on 5 June 2019. Following are excerpts from the interaction with director Ali Abbas Zafar: 

You have a blend of content and commercial cinema that few contemporary directors have managed to deliver on a consistent basis. How do you manage that? Through the concept or the script?

I have always felt that there is nothing bigger than the story in a film. The story is the biggest hero. Now, when you have a good, powerful story, and when it has Salman Khan's star power attached to it, it is amplified when it reaches the audience.

The first step is to pick a story that resonates with India's people. If I am happy with that, only then do I start writing. In this case, Salman sir gave me An Ode To My Father and asked me to watch it. It is one of Korea's most famous films. I always thought I would never make a remake before this. 

I realized why he gave me this film, because it had a very simple, sweet story. It is a simple story of a displaced family. And a man trying to keep the promise to his father. Now what does this man do to keep that promise? That germ was very beautiful. 

I went back to Salman and said, "The core is very beautiful, but to bring it back to India, we will have to do a complete rewrite. Now, Bharat is very different from An Ode To My Father. But the inherent story is still simple."

Once I understood that, the name of the character was simple to find. A man who has gone through things from 1947 till date, has lived as much as the country. It was important to find a character name that was a parallel to the journey. 

Did you find it easy to come up with the title?

The title was the most difficult. We were not finding a title in the beginning. When you think of the heroes of this country, you think of Ram, Arjun, Karna, heroes from our mythology. Then I wanted to name the character after the country because the film is about the evolution of the country as much as the character. One day when I was sitting on the bed, I realized there could not be a better title than the word Bharat.

We were all excited, and decided to check who had the title. Luckily, it was with Sajid Nadiadwala, and he is part of the Khan family in a way. It was fortunate.

Is it difficult to present Salman Khan as an aged man. What was the research process?

We did a lot of research into it. The whole film took a year and a half in scripting because each and every chapter of his life had to be carved out. Each part is like a small film. Each chapter is a product of the time it is set in. 

For instance, the 1950-60 decade saw the rise of the circus culture, which is almost dead now. Mera Naam Joker was part of it. I had a struggle that when the audience meets Salman Khan for the first time, how do I portray him? That is when we came up with the idea to cast him as a daredevil in a circus.

The Maut Ka Kuan is a part of our subculture for many years, and very few films have portrayed the fascinating part of it. Then if something happens to the character here, it will affect the story differently. 

Every chapter in his life is very important and showcases why he is there and what he is contributing to the main theme.

How difficult was it to create the looks for Salman Khan?

The looks were researched heavily. The early look has a Russian/Elvis Presley style going on. There was the 'Chashni' song, with Katrina Kaif, where he has the Guru Dutt moustache and a kurta-pyjama. That look was part of the era.

We went through albums of people's families. I took out my own family album, my art director brought his family album. We saw how people, our parents, grandparents evolved over a period of time. 

These threads were then worked through the writing. The looks and the diction of the film also changes through time. 

If you look at the appearance of Salman Khan as the old man, there is not just makeup involved. There is also prosthetics, and VFX, which took over a period of time. We did tests of him, and the entire family which was ageing with him. So, it was a long and experimental process. 

Were you worried how fans might react to the change in Salman Khan's look?

I think fans relate to Salman in the context of the story. Everyone knows Salman is going to age in this film. The only thing is that when he ages, does that look like what Salman is? Fans must not feel that 'Salman is not looking like a gracefully aged Salman Khan'. I was also very clear that when you see the old man you should see the 70 years of struggle and adventure that he has lived through. 

So the moustache, his tweed blazer, his walk have the experience and achievements of his life.

Is this one of the more challenging films of your career, considering it has such a huge star cast?

I think this is a very ambitious project because it covers 70 years of a man's life and you also see the parallel journey of a country. What the film is talking, at its heart, is a very relevant question. There is this line in the trailer, 'Ek insaan ki pehchaan uske parivaar se hoti hai.' It comes to the idea that the nation is one big family. 

What we need is to co-exist with a lot of love and harmony, which I think are the pillars of this country. The whole idea that when you travel outside the country and people ask 'who are you?', then you say 'I am an Indian', in a nutshell, it talks about your togetherness and love. Where does this start from? It starts from the family you belong to.

The film is about the fight to keep everything together.

You have always had strong female characters in your films. Like Anushka Sharma's character in Sultan, for example. Katrina Kaif in Bharat seems to be playing the boss. How is that character?

Actually, it is as strong as in Sultan. The same here, the reason he calls her 'Madam Sir' is because she is stronger than Salman's character in the film. That equation carries forward for the next 40 years. She is always the person who tells him the reality. She can tell him, 'What you are doing might be right, but right now it is very selfish.' When this comes from a very important person, automatically the character becomes the soul of the film. Bharat is his life journey but the soul of the film is Sonu (Katrina Kaif).

I am very happy with the way Katrina has pulled it through, because it is very new for her. The role is of a government employee, sitting in a room, recruiting people, and then a plain Jane, wearing a sari, no makeup, and speaking in a language... it is very different from her entire career. 

Does the box office play on your mind? Before you start a film, is the budget and its return on investment pre-decided?

On a film like this the budget is very important. I was fortunate that I had the producers to back my vision. They gave me full liberty to make what I wanted to make.

Box-office numbers, yes, at times they bother you. But if the film is good, it will automatically make bigger numbers. There is a certain expectation when Salman and I do a film together. People say they will do something that is worth their time. For two and a half hours they will get what we are promising to do. I never expected Tiger to do so much [business], but the film outdid our expectation.

How easy or difficult is it to work with Salman Khan?

There is no comfort level. With Salman Khan, the point is that he does not change. He is constant, like time. My relationship with him is more than a director-actor, more like a younger-elder brother. Our relationship is honest. If he does something that I don't like, then I don't hide it from him. If he doesn't like something I have done, then he will let me know to my face. He doesn't disguise it because I am the director and he has to be diplomatic.

That is a good thing. Somewhere that shows when we work together. I was very clear, no matter what happens, if I make a mistake, it has to be my mistake. It won't be anyone else's mistake.

Talk about the chemistry between Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in the film.

We all know their chemistry, but I tend to write scenes which look real in the film. If the most difficult thing is that two people have unspoken chemistry, and you write a love scene, it starts looking fake. I try and try as many real scenes as possible so that it takes out the machinery. That has been the quest. 

In the trailer, we get a glimpse of all the characters except Tabu. There is a lot of speculation about who she is playing. Is that a conscious decision on your end to keep her hidden?

It is a very conscious decision because Tabu is a very important part of the film which I want to keep hidden. Not only Tabu, there are a lot of other characters like Satish Kaushik, Kumud Mishra, Sonali Kulkarni.... See, it is a very packed film. If you watch it in the theatre, you will say there are so many stories in here. But I couldn't compress it within three minutes for the trailer.

I initially didn't want to do the trailer, because how was I going to manage to tell the journey of a man over 70 years? Luckily, we cracked a story. We decided to tell the story of an old man who has just had a great time in his life. That is how the structure of the story came through. But when you see the film, within 15-20 minutes you will feel like you have seen half the film.

There are six films of Salman Khan packed within one Bharat. There is a lot happening in the film.

Talking about the chemistry between Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, was it all natural or did you have to direct a lot of it?

You have to direct it. You have to direct every actor, pick and choose what you want and what you don't want. What is good about Bharat is that they are so different from characters written on paper.

Even when I write a character for Salman Khan, I don't write thinking this is a blueprint for a Salman Khan film. If I will write an old man, I will write it in a real way, and Salman Khan will make it his own. The same goes for Katrina's character or Kumud's character. I do this for every character, which the actors make their own.

Even though I know Tiger 3 will be played by Salman, I will not write the character thinking it is for a Salman Khan film. The story then starts getting into the clichés of what an audience expects out of such a film.