When the story of this year’s box office behemoth, Sultan, was still a 10-page draft, the film’s producer Aditya Chopra asked its writer-director Ali Abbas Zafar for the name he intended to cast in the eponymous role. Zafar’s answer was: Salman Khan. That’s because the journey of Sultan, as visualised by the director, was akin to that of Khan’s in real life.
“Salman’s professional and personal lives have been dotted with many ups and downs,” says Zafar. Post the actor’s nod, he went about creating the character that he felt “should be equal to Khan’s star power or larger than that” so that even after watching the movie the character lingers in the mind of the audience. With Sultan, creating a record with its opening weekend earning of Rs 345 crore (including the overseas market), the character of this flawed wrestling champion seems to have found a wide acceptance.
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For Zafar, Sultan is not all about wrestling but an exploration of what lies within. “Whether you are in a wrestling ring or that of life, you are bound to falter sometimes because of the circumstances. Yet, you have to get up and move forward. And finally, rise above everything to rediscover yourself,” says Zafar about his third outing as a director.
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Sports drama was Zafar’s favourite genre while growing up and he loved movies like Raging Bull and the Rocky series. That apart, while studying at Marshall School, Dehradun, he used to play football and take part in many track-and-field competitions. “In a place like Dehradun, without the distractions of clubbing and others, our focus used to be sports or studies,” says Zafar, who moved to Delhi at the age of 16 when he joined Kirori Mal College.
The idea of Sultan, however, came up while watching Sushil Kumar at the London Olympics 2012. “Talking to the media after the final match, Sushil said: ‘I was not there 100 per cent today. But I am going to come back and win the gold medal.’ This statement made me think that there is a story there waiting to be explored in a sport which is very Indian,” he says.
Though Sultan is an author-backed role, he has created an impressive female character too. Anushka Sharma, who has been cast opposite Khan, is a wrestler nursing the dream of winning an Olympic gold. “Technically, the film has big stars, but it is about small things. Due to my middle-class background, I bring in a certain understanding into the characters and their stories which is about self-discovery,” he says.
The process of “self-discovery” is something that the 33-year-old Zafar has undergone himself. Son of a retired army man, he wanted to join the Air Force as a pilot. When it became clear that after failing the medical tests he would have to settle for ground duty, he veered towards theatre, and later on, films. During his college days, he assisted on Shonali Bose’s Amu (2005) and Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya (2004). The Rs 5,000 per month pay for these jobs, he says, was lucrative and eventually helped him choose cinema as career. He quit his masters degree midway and shifted to Mumbai where he landed a job with Yash Raj Studios.
After assisting on a string of projects at YRF, he turned a writer “under sheer pressure” for his directorial debut Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011) and followed it up with Gunday in 2014. “Every writer was charging a huge amount of money which I did not have. When I started writing, I realised the beauty of it lies in the fact that it’s a lonely process. In 2012, Sultan was a draft. Today it is a full-fledged film. This journey has been incredible,” says Zafar.
Knowing the character well, he says, gives an added confidence to a director. Though it is good to have a bound script before the shoot begins, he believes in a more organic process — editing and improvising even on the sets.
During his Delhi college days, he was friends with sportsmen from Haryana who represented India at different competitions. Yet, before Zafar sat down to write Sultan, he had to explore the social milieu the film captures.
Apart from meeting sportspersons in Delhi, he travelled to Haryana to meet people and study them. The film, in a way, sums up the journey most sportsmen go through. The character of Sultan, too, goes through his emotional and physical journey — it has been shot in three different body types of Khan. Notwithstanding this, Zafar hesitates to call it an out-and-out sports film. “It is about the choices one makes in life. It is a romantic sports drama,” he says.