Ali Abbas Zafar is 36. Around for a decade, Ali has helmed four films and he is already Bollywood’s 1000-crore plus director. His latest blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai has crossed Rs 500 crore worldwide making it Salman Khan’s biggest film till date. That’s not all. The film, also starring Katrina Kaif, has trumped Sultan as the highest Yash Raj grosser too. Point to note is, even Sultan was directed by Ali, who seems to be on a spree of breaking records set by his own films. Ask him if he is concerned about all these mega numbers and he quips, “The money is not coming to me, it’s coming in the industry. I just feel that the money corresponds to the number of people who have seen your film. As a filmmaker you only feel empowered when the story you conceived or your thought process is getting connected with your audience. Somehow I think that is the bigger success for a filmmaker.”
In an exclusive chat with indianexpress.com, Ali opened up about his mega success rate and how he made his way into the list of the most successful directors today, without any filmy connections or backing. “God has been kind and I have been fortunate to achieve this much in such a less time without coming from a film background,” he said.
Ali was born in Dehradun to an army father and a teacher mother. He moved to Delhi for higher studies and majored in Chemistry. But he soon realised his calling after getting attached to the theatre group of Kirori Mal College – ‘The Players’. He began associating himself with filmmakers, including Shonali Bose (Amu) and Farhan Akhtar (Lakshya). He moved to Mumbai and ended up as an AD in Marigold and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. His stint at YRF helped him prepare to finally write and direct his first film – Mere Brother Ki Dulhan. Soon after, Gunday and Sultan followed too.
“I started working when I was still 19. When I realised this is what I wanted to do, I never looked back. I’ve been lucky that I met the right people, from directors to Aditya Chopra to all the actors. They all have been a solid support to my work and my conviction. So it’s just not a single person’s journey, it’s a teamwork. You come in touch with people who channelize your energy in the right way and then you become who you become eventually,” Ali said recalling his journey.
Ali is probably one of those few people who is closest to Salman Khan right now. After Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai, the two are teaming up again for Bharat. So what keeps their bond so strong? “I think it’s the bond of honesty because I personally think he is one of the very few people in the industry who’s very honest, who is like ‘what you see, is what you get’. And I am somewhere exactly like that. He is so senior to me so my relationship with him has always been like that of a younger brother. We don’t have a director-actor relationship. So when that happens, I can push him to do things which maybe a lot of filmmakers won’t be able to do,” Ali said.
Ali further explained how he and Salman share a common philosophy, to reach out to maximum audience with their films. “Salman understands and respects the kind of hard work I put into a project. He and I come from the same school that you can only raise a question or create a change when maximum people watch it, whether it is the fight within (Sultan) or whether it’s about raising questions of global tension (Tiger Zinda Hai). And if you get rewarded at the box office, there is nothing bigger than that because those people are completely unbiased, they have spent their hard-earned money and their two and a half hours on your film so you are only answerable to those people,” he added.
Ali’s association with Katrina also goes back to many years, when he worked as an AD on her film New York. She eventually became his first heroine too. “I always say that Katrina is a very underrated actor. I think people don’t push themselves too hard to work with her, or on her. With both my films (Mere Brother ki Dulhan and Tiger Zinda Hai) I personally think her performance got registered as people related to her. When I was working with her after six and a half years, I felt she has matured. I feel as an actor-director, what you go through in your personal and professional life, matures your craft. I think right now she is just warming up for a completely new innings where people will see her in a different light,” he said.
So, does being a young blood help him understand his audience better? Giving the example of Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, Ali explained, “I believe as a filmmaker you need to be very educated about what is happening around you as those are the things that make your cinema contemporary. My films are very relevant today and that is why they are connecting with the younger audience. Emotions in the films are very universal and timeless. So if you have the right balance of emotions, content and story, chances of a film going wrong is less because if your script is strong, even if you make an average film, it will work at the box office.”
When I remind him about how his actors laud his craft and patience in handling the toughest situations on the sets, he laughs. “I think they are lying because they all enjoyed working with me. I am not patient at all, I get impatient. I just feel that still at heart. I am an assistant director because I never went to a formal filmmaking school. You need to keep a continuous check of your actors, timing, infrastructure and the scale of your film. In my mind, there is always a time clock from the moment we reach the set till we pack up. The talent in front of camera is the purest talent and you can’t let your tension or frustration out on them because by the end of it people will only watch them at the theaters and won’t understand what went behind creating that scene or setup. You need to focus on your actors, give them all your love as a director,” he signs off.