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Sultan to Bharat: Salman Khan’s mega success features a Delhi University biochemistry grad

Ali Abbas Zafar is a master at disguising the subtext in the opulent, big-budget spectaculars he has been delivering.

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One of Bollywood’s biggest hit-machines is a man who left his home in Dehradun at 16 to study biochemistry at Delhi’s Kirori Mal College, but survived on a diet of Saadat Hasan Manto, Premchand and William Shakespeare. Ali Abbas Zafar has recast Salman Khan’s career with three mega movies, Sultan (2016), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) and now Bharat (2019).

He is the Salman Whisperer. Son of a father who moved from the Border Roads Organisation to ONGC and a mother who taught English and Urdu at a government school, Ali Abbas Zafar has single-handedly made back-to-back Rs 300-crore movies.

Zafar, 37, is a master at disguising the subtext in the opulent, sometimes noisy, big-budget spectaculars he has been delivering. His early reading shaped his worldview, gave him his belief in equality, in rational thought, and in India’s democracy. His heroes were Bhagat Singh (in Tiger Zinda Hai, Tiger reads a bedtime story about him to his son) and Mahatma Gandhi, and it is no accident that he believes India’s greatest strength is its diversity.

Also read: Salman Khan’s Eid release Bharat finally has him play a character his age — a 70-year-old

Nelson Mandela inspired me, he says. So did the Dalai Lama. “You listen to him and realise how simply he sees the world. The first instinct of all these great men,” he tells ThePrint, “is and was always humane and emotional.”

It’s a message he hopes will reach every last person in the line buying tickets for Salman Khan’s films; and the star clearly trusts him enough to do what is asked of him, whether it is putting on weight to play an out-of-shape boxer on his way to redemption in Sultan or switching from a motorcycle to a horseback to a battered sedan to escape an ISI militant in a town called Ikrit in Tiger Zinda Hai.

Or, play a character embodying the nation in his new film. “Tujh main poora Bharat hai beta,” says his father to a young Salman in Bharat. He asks him to take care of his family, and Salman does precisely that over 70 years of change in India – watching over events from Jawaharlal Nehru’s death to the liberalisation of the Indian economy and its asli hero, Manmohan Singh, along the way working on an oil rig in the Arabian desert, and fighting Somali pirates on the high seas.

Sitting in the atrium of Yash Raj Studios, which has been his home since 2008, Zafar says: “The nation is one big family and by contributing to it, you are contributing to the nation. To say this with a superstar with a mass mainstream following is challenging”.

And so, he focuses on what is humane – Salman as an oil rig worker fights with the American supervisor over quality of food, or the young orphan in the refugee camp in 1947 who refuses to go to Pakistan though he is a Muslim because his father fought for India’s freedom. “I am not interested in propagating one party’s goodness over another. I am interested in remaining true to my characters, to use their narrative to understand the times we are in,” says Zafar. “And I want to leave everyone with hope,” he adds.

So, if Salman played the classic underdog in Sultan, who was fighting the demons within, in Tiger Zinda Hai, he took on an enemy who was threatening to destroy the world with his evil ideology and who could be fought only by uniting India and Pakistan’s forces.

Also read: Salman Khan: ‘Main Google search mein aata hoon, samajh mein nahi’

The idea for Bharat came from Salman, says Zafar, who loved the South Korean film, Ode to my Father (2014), and wanted him to adapt it. “I think what appealed to Salman was the idea of one man looking out for his family,” says Zafar, which is similar to the star’s own life.

Zafar’s worldview was cemented by his three years at the Kirori Mal College, not so much because of the course, but because of his involvement with its much-feted dramatic society, The Players. He staged a play annually in college. From then on, working in films was his only obsession.

He was the runner in Lakshya (2004) for 10 days when the Farhan Akhtar film was shot in Delhi, and then assisted Shonali Bose on her film Amu (2005), based on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. “That’s when I realised the power of cinema to effect social change, how it can create tremendous social consciousness and how it can happen at both ends of the spectrum, from Satyajit Ray to Yash Chopra,” he says.

So, he packed his bags and came to Mumbai to work as an assistant director on Shaad Ali’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007) and has never looked back. Quizmaster Siddhartha Basu, who was cast in Tiger Zinda Hai, says: “Zafar’s sensibility is grounded in the progressive stream of large canvas commercial cinema, and he’s been developing his story-telling abilities to match that. His focus, discipline and patience have helped him juggle the pulls and pressures of handling big-ticket projects with challenging stakeholders while remaining steadfast to the integrity of his vision”. No small feat in the Hindi film industry.

Zafar credits Aditya Chopra, movie director and chairman of Yash Raj Films, for allowing him the freedom to find his own distinct voice, especially in an environment which has become severely critical of everything. After experimenting with his vision in Mere Brother ki Dulhan (2011) and Gunday (2014), he felt he found his artistic ideal in Sultan.

What is unique about Zafar is also his collaboration with Salman. He believes the 53-year-old’s fans want to celebrate when they see his movies. “They see him as an instant energiser, like a bottle of soda who will douse them with his fizz. They don’t want to be disoriented. I believe there is a very beautiful actor under the skin of the superstar,” says Zafar. “His first instinct is always that of an actor and I have often asked him to do things, which reveal his vulnerabilities. As a director, you cannot judge your actor. You have to be like a parent, take care of the actor while he or she is on the set, between action and cut.”

Also read: From Padman to PM Modi interview, Akshay Kumar is on a nation-building project

Salman and he communicate silently, says Zafar, “usually through our eyes”. “We talk only when we have to. We are honest with each other and yes, we do have differences of opinion at times. Sometimes I let him prevail, sometimes he lets me prevail,” he says. But the rise and fall of movies should not affect relationships, he adds, perhaps alluding to rumours of a divide between him and Salman on the final cut of Bharat.

Zafar lives quietly amid the hurly-burly of Bollywood. He is single, obsessed with his travel, his reading, watching TV, and playing sports. “I keep my personal and professional life separate. I don’t try to be anyone’s buddy. I was raised in an isolated way and left home when I was very young. When I am part of a filmmaking team of 200 people, I realise I have to be a team player, but once I am done, I am off,” he says.

No doubt, to think about and create the next blockbuster.

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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