The blockbuster jodi of actor Salman Khan and director Ali Abbas Zafar return with their latest offering, Tiger Zinda Hai. In conversation with Bhakti Mehta, Zafar talks about his latest outing, his association with the lead actors and his views on the year 2017
What were you feeling before the movie released?
The week before the release is always very crazy. But I am pretty excited too. It’s a mix of various emotions. We were busy getting the film ready for release. We were just waiting to see what would happen on December 22.
Ek Tha Tiger was a huge film that turned into a franchise. How did you conceive the idea of taking it forward with Tiger Zinda Hai?
I started writing the script for this film in 2014. At that time, 46 Indian nurses had been taken hostage by an extremist organisation in Iraq. When I learnt of this, I thought it was a very interesting episode. The way the Indian government handled the crisis was absolutely fantastic and they resolved the issue without a single bullet being fired.
I have always been a fan of ‘mission’ films. When Hollywood makes movies based on spies, I am totally fascinated by them. Hence, I wanted to write a story that would tell the world that our intelligence and defence systems are equipped to go into a country where our people are taken hostage and show them just how capable we are of resolving a situation like this.
That is where it all started. This incident inspired me to write the script, which was initially called 360 Hours. It had the characters of an Indian and Pakistani spy. But it was a stand-alone film; it was not created as a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger at first.
I was writing this story and then Sultan happened. It turned out to be a huge success. After that, Aditya Chopra asked me what I wanted to do next. I told him about this story I was thinking about. Also, the fact that we had already created two spies, an Indian RAW agent and a Pakistani ISI agent in Ek Tha Tiger and wondered whether this could be a story for them.
I asked Aditya Chopra if this could be the mission they come together to execute. The last film had a major romantic element in it but this story talked about who Tiger was and how he would conduct himself on ground zero for this particular mission. Tiger Zinda Hai is a straightforward agent film.
That is how I adapted the story of Ek Tha Tiger to my script. And after the adaptation, the story became even better because both the characters of Tiger and Zoya, humanised the story even more. Tiger Zinda Hai shows their story eight years after they ran away together and where their relationship is now; and what they do together, as a team, to get those nurses out. That’s what the film is all about.
This film has more action than romance.
One of the reasons we made the film, and which is why even Salman and Katrina came on board, is because it is very real. Everyone, including the cast, reacted very strongly to it. The idea was to do a docu-drama that gave people a look into espionage. We wanted to make everything believable. We have paid great attention to detail so that the audience can understand the conditions under which people lived in that country after the episode took place. We wanted to show what goes on behind the scenes to mount a mission as big as this. There is a lot of action but at heart it is a very human, emotional story, of these victims being evacuated from a dangerous situation.
Was there any pressure to make a sequel to such a successful first film?
Yes, of course there was tremendous pressure. I think whenever you do a film on this scale, especially when it is a successful franchise, expectations are inevitable. On top of that, me coming back with Salman (after Sultan) and Katrina (after Mere Brother Ki Dulhan) adds to that pressure. But, in my opinion, that is good. I believe that pressure helps you stay focused. Your full attention is on one single thing because you know that so many people will be watching it and they have expectations from you, from the film and from the actors.
How did Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif react when they heard this script as the sequel?
When they first heard the script, they felt the story had many layers. The story revolves around the nurses but it also talks about what people are going through over there, what is happening globally and how the most important thing today is world peace. No matter where we live, these conditions become our problem because it is a human issue.
The film touches on all these points. Both Salman and Katrina reacted very positively when they heard this story. It is also very contemporary and topical as everyone around the world is talking about issues like these today. They thought that if we can present it to an Indian audience in this way, the country will appreciate it because people are now ready to watch films that are mainstream but can be seen from a different perspective.
And what about Kabir Khan? Did he give you his blessing?
I have worked with him on many occasions. When this idea came to me, I shared it with him. It was right after Sultan. I told him this was the script I wanted to work on. He liked it a lot and was very supportive. He thought the story sounded really good and said that if I could convert it into a sequel to Ek Tha Tiger, it would be a completely new film.
When Kabir Khan made Ek Tha Tiger, he had a certain vision for it. Was it difficult to mould your thoughts into that vision and take it forward?
As I said, the story of this film is very different from the first part. From the situations to the locations, it was all different. They didn’t visit the locations that we did. The treatment of the film depends a lot on the location you are shooting in. This one is a grittier film. I wouldn’t say it is more real because Kabir treated the previous one with realism too. But this one is definitely more raw.
Also, Tiger Zinda Hai is driven by the story of the nurses in captivity, and everyone’s attention in the film is focused on that. There is definitely an inherent chemistry between Tiger and Zoya, there is a strong but subtle element of romance but they are here for their respective duties. The whole idea of desh ki izzat ki baat hai, the belief of the nation coming first, that defines the way the mission is approached.
It appears that the location shoots were pretty challenging.
Right from Austria to Morocco to Abu Dhabi, we faced a lot of difficulties at the locations that we chose to shoot at. But if you want to capture the essence of a story, you have to go through that. There is a scene we shot in Austria which sees Salman facing wolves and it is the toughest sequence that I have ever shot or worked on. It was difficult because the altitude was high, the air was very thin, it was cold, like minus 25 degrees, and we were dealing with animals. But the way it has turned out, the way we saw it on camera, it was new and fresh and had not been done before. The audience is appreciating efforts like these now.
We then went to Abu Dhabi, where the climate was the exact opposite. We were shooting in 50 degrees. But that was a good thing because we wanted that heat to show on camera. When you shoot in toplight, there is a certain texture of sunlight on your face, your skin gets burnt. On the second or third day, you start getting a tan, which shows up in the film. When people react to it after watching the movie and say that it looks very real as well as commercial, it proves that it is the texture of the location that brings that authenticity to the big screen. It is really rewarding that the audience has found some merit in all this.
You have worked with both Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif for the second time. What was the dynamic like between the three of you?
It is easier to shoot with Salman the second time around. There is a comfort level between us now and we know each other really well. I know the way he would react to certain things and he has also grown comfortable with me and my style of working. Katrina and I, besides doing Mere Brother Ki Dulhan together, have been friends for over 10 years. All three of us were, kind of, on the same page.
From the narration to the shoot, all of us knew that this would be a tough film. There were many reasons for that, like the high-scale action scenes or the weather conditions or the kind of style we chose to do the film in. But I think we are all very happy to have made the film. We had our share of good days and bad days, just like life. The final product is worth all the effort that went into it.
From an assistant director to making one of the most successful films in the history of Bollywood, what has your career graph been like?
I think, with experience, you get better at your craft. So the kind of experience I have had with my filmmaking career has helped me learn about direction a little better. And that is how I want to take it forward. Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai are two very different films with the same superstar. They look very different and texture-wise they are poles apart.
In Sultan, I learnt how to show the emotional strength of a character from the inside. This time, because it is a global story, the plot and the characters are widespread for the global audience to relate to. It’s an ensemble cast, there are so many characters in the film. But I always feel I am still learning and hopefully will get better with time.
Tell us about your association with Yash Raj Films.
It has been great from the beginning and will continue to be so in future, Inshaallah. I owe everything to Aditya Chopra because he kick-started my career. He has been like an elder brother to me throughout this journey and has never stopped me from following my heart. He gave me all the resources I needed to make the kind of film I wanted to make, in the best possible way. The association has been amazing and I would love to work with Yash Raj Films again and again.
You are a successful director coming out with a much-awaited sequel featuring Bollywood’s biggest superstar. Did you still feel nervous on the Friday of the release or were you confident that the film would do well?
I am always anxious on a Friday and I think I will always feel that way as long I am making movies. No matter how many people watch the film before its release and tell you that it is good, your final check is by the audience who is going to buy a ticket and watch it in theatres. They come with expectations that are different from yours. It needs to work for them. When the first batch of movie-goers watches the movie on the first day, that is when you know whether or not you were able to reach out to people through your work.
The year is coming to an end with a bang. What is your overview of the industry in 2017?
I think this year has been a mix of a lot of things. We have seen lots of high-content films. Obviously, a film like Baahubali: The Conclusion did tremendously. Also, Golmaal Again!!! did good business. And now the reality of the situation in the industry is that more and more people are getting associated, not with the banners, filmmakers or actors, but with stories and the way they are told. And because it is a creative process, as filmmakers, we should concentrate more on the stories we have to tell and how to make them exciting for the audience watching from all parts of the world. To keep up with that is a challenge but I think it’s a good one. It will push us harder to make sure our films look better.
Your next film Bharat is once again with Salman Khan.
I have to start working on Bharat soon but up until till this week, due to Tiger Zinda Hai, I couldn’t completely concentrate on it. Hopefully, I will start working on Bharat again in January.