Ali Abbas Zafar has cemented his position as one of the most successful young filmmakers in Hindi cinema with a series of commercially profitable movies like Gunday (2014), Sultan (2016) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017).

His next film, Bharat, stars his favourites Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif in the lead roles. Bharat, which is an official remake of South Korean drama, Ode to My Father (2014), is the big Eid release and is expected to clock-up big numbers.

Eastern Eye caught up with Ali to talk about Bharat, the extremely strong women of his films and how his relationship has evolved with the megastar Salman Khan after doing three back-to-back movies with him.

The talented filmmaker also opened up about Priyanka Chopra’s last-minute exit from the film.

You perfectly blend content and commercial cinema. How do you manage to do that so effortlessly?
I feel that there is nothing bigger than a story in a film. The story is the biggest hero. When you have a good, strong story coupled with Salman’s star power, it becomes amplified with the audience. So, my first and foremost attempt is to work on a story that resonates with Hindustan (India), its soil and people. When I feel I am satisfied with the basic idea, only then I start writing the film.

Bharat seems to be another example of that?
In this case, Salman himself asked me to watch Ode to My Father, which is a hit Korean film. Before this film came to me, I was determined to never remake a film, and wanted to write my own stories and then direct them. But when I saw Ode To My Father, I could understand why Salman asked me to watch it. It’s a simple, sweet and beautiful story of a displaced family. It’s about a family which comes to the other side of the country after its partition. Amid all of this, a son makes a promise to his father. Now, what does this man do to keep that promise is the film.

How did you feel after finishing the movie?
I went to Salman and said, ‘the story is beautiful, but to Indianise it, we will have to rewrite it completely.’ So, now when you watch Bharat, you will find it’s completely different from Ode To My Father.

Tell us, how did you come about naming Salman’s character Bharat?
When I realised the story could be worked upon, the most important thing was the name of the main character. A character whose journey starts in 1947 and ends in 2010 has lived as much as this country India. So, it was very important to find a character name, which can be a parallel between the two things. And then I came up the word Bharat. Once that was done, I was clear about the film that I was making.

Was it easy to get the movie title?
No, that was the most difficult thing. We were unable to come up with an apt title for the film. Initially, I was thinking that what could a film be called which is about your country? The biggest hero of our country is (Lord) Ram. There are Arjun and Karna also. They are heroes who developed from our mythology. But then, I thought he should be named after the country, because the film is about the evolution of the country as well as him as a person. Then one day, I suddenly thought that there could not be a better title than Bharat.

What happened next?
I shared the title with Salman and Atul (Agnihotri), who is the producer of the film, and they were very excited. They asked me to find out if somebody else had registered the same title. Luckily, the title was with (filmmaker) Sajid Nadiadwala. They are like one big family and we were fortunate that he gave us the title.

How difficult was it to create the different looks of Salman?
Thorough research went into the looks. We saw albums of people’s families. I dug out my family’s album, my art director dug out his family’s album and we saw how our parents and grandparents evolved over a period of time. We took many references from there. I incorporated some of the things in my writing as well. Not just the looks, the language of the film also changes throughout. Having said that, we also used prosthetics and had VFX support in creating Salman’s various looks. It has been a long and tough process.

While designing Salman’s look for the movie, did you have any apprehensions about some fans not accepting certain looks?
I personally think that fans related to Salman in the context of the story. Everybody knew Salman would age in the film. The only thing is that when he ages and that first look is seen, does that look exactly like how Salman would look when he grows old? That was my aim – that I don’t let down his fans and give them any chance to say, ‘Oh! The old man is not looking like a gracefully aged Salman.’ Also, we were clear that when you see Salman as a 70-year-old man, you should feel that yes, he looks like a man who has 70 years of experience and that he has gone through a lot in his life.

Did Salman give any inputs in the film?
Yeah, which he does in every film, I think. See, I just feel that he knows his fans really well. When you present him a text, he would say that how can the same scene be looked into a little differently and his fans are going to like him do that. Sometimes you have to take it, sometimes you have to leave it because that’s the call that you take as a director.

Has Bharat been the most challenging film of your career?
Yes, it is. But it’s not only because of the star cast. I think it’s just a very ambitious project because, some way or the other, you are going to see 70 years of a man’s life. You also see a parallel journey of a country and what the film is talking about at heart is a very relevant question.

Tell us more…
The film questions the fact that as a nation we are one big family and what we need to co-exist is a lot of love and harmony, something which I think has been the pillar of this country over a period of time. The whole idea is that when you travel outside the country and people ask, ‘who are you?’ you don’t tell them your religion. The first thing you say is that ‘I am an Indian.’ Then you tell them which faith you follow. What the film, in a nutshell, is talking about is a lot of togetherness and love. And where does all that love start from? It starts within the family you belong to. So, that’s the byline of the film.

Your movies have strong women in them. Tell us about Katrina Kaif’s role in the film?
It’s as strong as Anushka Sharma’s role in Sultan. Even in Tiger Zinda Hai, Zoya was very strong. It’s the same here. That’s the reason why Salman calls her ‘madam sir’, because she is stronger than his character in the film. She is his boss and that equation carries forward to the next 40 years that they are together. She is the person who is almost like a mirror to Bharat’s character. She tells him the reality that is going on in life. At times, you know, when you are so self-occupied, you become selfish. So, there needs to be a person to tell you that what you are doing might be right, but you are sounding very selfish right now. And when that comes from a very important character in the film, that part automatically becomes the soul of the film. Bharat is his life journey, but the soul of the film, somewhere or the other, is Kumud, which is Katrina’s character.

Tell us more…
I am very happy the way Katrina has pulled in through because it was new for her. The role is of a government employee, sitting in an employment exchange, recruiting people. And her character changes from a normal woman dressed in a plain sari with no makeup and speaking in a certain language. The transition of her character in the film is as dramatic as that of Salman’s character.

There is a section of the audience which has raised objection over Katrina’s language as a government employee…
I think when you do a film this big, there will always be some kind of criticism that comes your way. But one needs to look at the bigger picture. Does the bigger picture work or not? If someone has to pinpoint, they can pinpoint problems in Sholay, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and even in The Godfather. Nit-picking happens everywhere. The focus should be on what is the story that you want to say in totality.

How do you decide the budget of a film, which has such a huge canvas?
On a film like this, the budget is very important because you cannot make a film like Bharat until and unless you have a budget. Luckily, I was fortunate enough that I had producers who backed my vision. Salman really backed it and so did Atul. They gave me full liberty to make the film that I wanted to make.

This is your third film with Salman in a row. How has the comfort level grown between both of you?
(Laughs). There is no comfort level. With Salman, the point is that he does not change. He is permanent. Even if I do 10 films with him, I don’t think he is going to change. The only thing is that ours is more than a director-actor relationship. It is like an older brother-younger brother relationship because he is very senior to me. Our relationship hinges on honesty. If he does something and I don’t like it, then I won’t disguise it and say to him, ‘Bhai, this is not happening. I don’t like it.’ Similarly, if he does not like something I have written, he will let me know, to my face. He does not disguise anything either. Salman is not like, ‘oh, he is my director, so I’ll have to be little diplomatic with my words.’ That’s a good thing because what happens then is that if you are honest about your first reaction, then we both can pull our socks up and say, ‘let’s do something together, which is new and relevant.’ That’s a great relationship.

Did Priyanka Chopra’s last minute exit impact the film?
I would say no. See, she had a valid reason for leaving the film. If we had accommodated her dates because she was getting married, we would not have completed the film for an Eid release. The entire shooting schedule would have got pushed. So, we all sat together and decided. She made me sign a pact that I would do another film with her, (smiles). I said, ‘yes, we will work together.’ That’s how she let this film go and Katrina came into it.

Bharat will be in cinemas on June 5