Two large oil tankers, three open jeeps filled with fierce-looking officers and a battalion of men clad in jumpsuits carrying what seems to be heavy wooden logs above their heads are ploughing through the desert somewhere deep in Abu Dhabi.
The sun is beating down on their backs and the air is arid, but that doesn’t stop these men from marching ahead laboriously.
If you didn’t spot a drone camera flying above their heads or hear award-winning director Ali Abbas Zafar shouting out commands, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a scene straight out of a day in the life of a worker in an oil company.
All of this was being staged with military precision, under the watchful eyes of Zafar. Gulf News tabloid! was witness to all the action on the sets of Bharat, starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, on Saturday.
In between shots, director Zafar, who is camping in Abu Dhabi filming for the next 20 days, spoke to us about returning to the UAE. The director, who filmed blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai in the capital last year, also spoke about Bharat, an adaption of South Korean film An Ode To My Father and working with Bollywood superstar Khan again. Here are the excerpts from our exclusive interview about his 2019 Eid release…
Tell us what’s happening here today on the sets of Bharat?
We are in Abu Dhabi shooting an important chapter in Bharat. We wanted to replicate a style of filming that is rugged and raw. The film spans over 60-65 years of Bharat’s life and the other characters in his life. From the teasers, you know that it is a journey of a man and a nation together. There’s a chapter in the film where lots of Indians work in oil fields and what we are filming here today replicates that portion in the film. This scene is set around the time when the Middle East found oil — say around the 60s or early 70s. We are showing the hardships of the people who were working here at that point and that chapter is being filmed here. We are trying to shoot it as real as possible.
You are getting down and dirty literally… Does it get easier with time or is every film a nightmare until it releases?
Every movie is a different nightmare as each film is a beast of its own. With Tiger Zinda Hai, it was very tough because we filmed in August in Abu Dhabi and it was very hot. The weather is far better now. This is a different kind of struggle. This film has more drama than Tiger Zinda Hai and is grittier and more real.
The sets here remind me of the 1957 classic The Bridge On The River Kwai where you see humanity struggling to survive. Have you drawn from such movies?
David Lean is one of my favourite filmmakers and I am hugely inspired by his works. What’s fascinating about him is that he used to create films on a scale and a landscape when there was no CGI. Somewhere or the other, the landscape that I am trying to create in Sultan, Tiger and now Bharat is more real, rugged and raw in terms of the landscape that the nature provides you. The idea is to utilise this landscape and make you realise that this is where we all started. This was our beginning. The idea is that when people see it on screen [they] should understand the toughness.
What has been the toughest part so far in terms of filming?
It’s always an organised chaos on a film set. But there are so many departments working together and unifying forces to give you that one perfect shot, that it’s bound to be controlled chaos. Now I have worked and filmed in every part of the world — the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, Africa and I feel that the energy in a film set is always the same. But the first two days are always tough where people are getting to know each other. But then they get used to it.
You have worked with Salman Khan in Sultan and Tiger Zinda Hai. We are told that he’s on his best behaviour when he works with you and that you are known to extract the best from your actors.
You have to understand that a film has a lot to do with actor-director chemistry. Somewhere or the other we have found this unspoken chemistry where we discovered that we work well together. The kind of experience he has brings a lot of maturity into my work. I am happy to work with him and we have found this unsaid chemistry where I can push him and he can counter-argue with me so he keeps me on my toes.
Katrina Kaif worked with you in your debut film Meri Brother Ki Dulhan that premiered in Abu Dhabi. Remember the stampede she unleashed in Marina Mall among her fans? How has your relationship grown?
We have been friends for the last 12 years and that friendship reflects in our work. Her performance in Tiger Zinda Hai was recognised critically. Unlike other filmmakers, I look at her differently and I want to push her as an actor. Many think she’s a beautiful girl and let’s exploit her beauty. But I feel that she has an intimate, understated actor in her and every now and then I try to explore that aspect of her. In Bharat she has a dramatic role and she’s side by side with Salman Khan in his journey. She has an individualistic character to the plot of Bharat. Whether it was Meri Brother Ki Dulhan, Tiger [Zinda Hai] or Bharat, I feel that women are the real heroes in India. They are matching men shoulder to shoulder and that needs to be portrayed in a film where you have a huge star like Salman Khan. We did that with Anushka [Sharma] in Sultan and we did that with Katrina in Tiger and I hope to do the same in Bharat too. And, hats off to an actor like Salman Khan who understands and recognises that. He wants to give the women on screen an equal space in his film. Every time I write a scene where the woman’s role and character is strong, I ask bhai [brother], if he’s OK with it and he says it’s good. He has so many strong women in his own family — his mother and his sisters. He understands the strength that they bring to the table. He never resists it and that’s the understated greatness of him.
Bharat is a Hindi adaptation of South Korean film ‘An Ode To My Father’. How did that happen?
The film came to me through Salman Khan and he asked me to watch that film. Until then, I never thought I could remake a film because I have always written my own movie. So my biggest worry was whether I could do justice to such a beloved, critically and commercially acclaimed film. I liked its basic idea as it is simple and emotional. With Bharat, we have rewritten it extensively because An Ode To My Father is steeped in Korean culture and history. It’s their reality and so Bharat was completely rewritten to adapt to Indian reality. That was our major work. The soul of the film is beautiful because it talks about the triumph of human spirit and hope. It has lots of drama and I have recustomised it as a Salman Khan film.
What does the customisation to a Salman Khan film entail?
An Ode To My Father didn’t have songs, but Bharat does. We have made it into a commercial film. As soon as songs are woven in, the way you write a film also naturally changes. And there’s not much action in An Ode To My Father, but I brought a bit of action in Bharat. There’s a certain expectation from a certain star. Within that periphery of what people expect from a Salman Khan film, you need to create a story and that’s what I believe in. When I work with Salman Khan, I know instinctively that he is one of the biggest Indian superstars that people want to see every year on the big screen. We need to make those people feel that this film is food for their emotions. When they come to watch a Salman Khan film, you have to give them what they expect out of his films. So there has to be action, comedy, drama and songs. The continuous struggle is to pull that off and put these elements in a jar and serve it to an audience. I keep struggling and striving to present a new Salman Khan with every film of mine. When you see Tiger or Sultan, you have to create a character that’s bigger than his persona. In Bharat, we are talking about a nation and its identity through Salman Khan’s character. His emotions and life characterises our country and its patriotism. It can’t be jingoistic either. But with Bharat, you will realise that you don’t have to a superhero to be patriotic.
DID YOU KNOW?
Ali Abbas Zafar is working closely again with Abu Dhabi media company twofour54, who are providing full production services for the film, covering key areas such as location assistance, permits and equipment as well as catering, accommodation, travel and transportation. They worked together in Tiger Zinda Hai, which was shot in Abu Dhabi across a 100-day schedule.