Indian films must match global production standards: ‘Tiger Zinda Hai’ director
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Director Ali Abbas Zafar’s last film Sultan is one of the only four Hindi films to cross the Rs300 crore mark in domestic box office collections. His next, espionage thriller Tiger Zinda Hai, releases this Friday and is already being heralded as the saviour for the season, the typical Salman Khan blockbuster that will rescue the ailing Indian film business which is expected to close the year at 10-15% lower box office collections.
In an interview with Mint, Zafar talks about meeting the humongous expectations, directing Salman Khan, the star and balancing commerce with craft. Edited excerpts:
Does the popularity of the Tiger film franchise make you nervous? Have you had to deal with high expectations after the massive success of Sultan?
Yes, I’m very nervous. I’m excited at the same time but the nervousness quotient is taking over with each passing day. There are obviously a lot of expectations, Tiger Zinda Hai is a big Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif film, it’s part of a franchise with a very successful first part (Ek Tha Tiger), plus Sultan was also liked by a lot of people so there are many reasons for the huge anticipation before release. The buzz is quite high, people are looking forward to the film. When non-industry folks message you to say they can’t wait to watch it, you know it’s done its job of generating the maximum hype possible.
How do you push a star of Salman Khan’s stature to his greatest acting potential without getting awed by him?
I don’t think I was ever star-struck by Mr. Khan. I love him as an actor, I like watching him on screen, there is a lot of honesty between the two of us about what I want him to be like (in the film). I’ve watched him growing up as a child and I’m touched by how audiences react to his stardom. So my one focus before I take the script to him is to make sure the story suits his stardom.
When a film falls short in terms of its look and feel, that’s when Salman Khan, the star, seems bigger. If you create a character that’s as charismatic as Salman Khan himself, they complement each other. Here (in Tiger Zinda Hai) too, the story and the way the film has been mounted justify his superstardom. He also contributes a lot himself and is very honest with the points he has for the film. He has phenomenal experience which I feel is a hugely strong asset for all of us. His experience has a lot to do with whatever little maturity my work shows today.
Action, star-driven spectacle films like Tiger Zinda Hai are often accused of glorifying the male lead. How did the story and Salman come together in this case? Did you think of him while writing?
No, I wrote it as an independent film about a rescue mission based on real-life events (the 2014 abduction of Indian nurses in Iraq). But after Sultan, I realized if I need to do a film like this, it would have to have a big budget. The original story already had Indian and Pakistani agents in the lead, characters that the Tiger franchise had established in Tiger (Khan) and Zoya (Kaif). So I asked Aditya Chopra (chairman and managing director, Yash Raj Films, producers of the Tiger franchise) if I could adapt this film as part of the franchise. He asked me to try it out, so I took two weeks off and rewrote certain scenes and brought Tiger and Zoya into this film. That’s how Tiger Zinda Hai happened. I thought the second draft was much stronger because it brought in a lot of human emotion, also you will see this new story is happening in current time. So somewhere I think it all came together in terms of screenplay and storytelling.
Has your relationship with Salman evolved since Sultan?
Yes, there has been an evolution. This film is a completely different genre. His main character traits may be the same but he is a lot more mature. He’s more human, he’s had more life experience, the film also follows a more real treatment, there’s a documentary style to it. It’s more contemporary, it talks of things that are happening today. My relationship with him has evolved in the sense that we’re more comfortable with each other now. In Sultan, we were still trying to get to know each other, here, from day one, we knew when we had to do what and how.
How do spectacle films like Tiger Zinda Hai justify their budget given the theatrical crisis Hindi films have faced, especially this year?
My producer was quite happy with the work we did on Sultan and he wanted to empower us with a new, bigger vision. Today, you have to make the audience buy what you’re saying. Regardless of what happens to Tiger Zinda Hai tomorrow, this is the vision this film needed and we’ve been true to it. It’s an espionage thriller set in two countries. Such stories require the backing of a strong budget and obviously, things are easier when you have a Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in the lead because your minimum guarantee is covered.
But if the film does really well and people like it, one of the reasons would also be the way it’s been packaged, showcased and brought in front of an audience. With our cinema going international today, our films have to match global production standards. We’re equipped to do that, we have the vision, the expertise, and that is where cinema will move eventually.
What is it like to work in the talent pool that is Yash Raj Films? How are ideas bounced off and approved?
The beauty of YRF is that it’s headed by a person who is a film director himself. Obviously there is a business side to him but his first instinct comes from being a director. How that helps is it doesn’t bog you down in terms of other technical things you need to make the film. If the story excites us, if we can get the right people to be part of it, then we don’t need to worry about anything else. It’s a very democratic platform, there are so many directors around you, you can always bounce off ideas, you know what is happening in which film, so it’s a very team-driven, good process where you have people you can share ideas with and get creative inputs from. My little learning about cinema is that it is not one man’s job, it is a team effort. You make the film for an audience and till you show your stuff to other people, you will not know whether your belief and vision are right or wrong. That’s where, I believe, the strength of YRF lies.
How much does box office matter? Do you believe in balancing commerce with craft?
I believe the commerce of every film lies in its story. I don’t know how much money Tiger Zinda Hai will make but I know it’s a universal story that will resonate with anyone from any walk of life. When you make a film that will cater to that variety of an audience then automatically business follows. When you’re attempting a genre that is likely to touch many hearts and people, you just have to make sure you do it in a way that there is no compromise on creativity and the issue on hand concerns the entire spectrum of social strata. That will eventually decide what its box office destiny will be.
How has life changed after Sultan for you?
Nothing has changed, it’s just become a little tense, there is some pressure to deliver now. You know how they say with great power comes great responsibility. You will still make the film that you believe in, but you have to know that people have expectations from whatever you make. You have to be careful but the expectations can’t kill that excited child within the sensible adult filmmaker. You should be excited irrespective of what budget you have or which star you work with.
What are you planning next?
All the planning should start in January. Once Tiger is out of my system, I’ll know what I want to do.