A Minute With: Ali Abbas Zafar on ‘Gunday’

February 13, 2014

Film-maker Ali Abbas Zafar made his Bollywood debut in 2011 with “Mere Brother Ki Dulhan”, a romantic comedy that was among the biggest hits that year.

For his second film as director, Zafar has switched genres to make what promises to be a dark and gritty 1970’s period film set in Kolkata about a pair of coal bandits and a cabaret dancer.

Gunday”, which opens in cinemas on Valentine’s Day, stars Ranveer Singh, Arjun Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra in the lead roles. Zafar spoke to Reuters about the movie and the challenges of filming a period thriller.

Here are slightly edited excerpts from the interview:

Are you familiar with the milieu “Gunday” is based in?
More than that, I was very fascinated with that history, so I read a lot about it. Also, my dad was posted in the Border Road Services during the 1971 war and when we were growing up, he used to tell us stories of the war. He used to tell us about immigration that happened across the border. Those memories stayed with me. As kids we weren’t allowed to watch movies, except for some films like “Kaala Patthar” or “Mashaal”. He believed that there were film-makers who were making films about right and wrong, and as a growing kid you need to have an understanding of that.

But can you draw your moral lessons from cinema?
You can’t do that always. But the whole rise of the “angry young man” in the 1970’s and 80’s was as a result of the conflict that the youth of the country was trying to deal with. Commercial films at the time had a context to it, and in “Gunday” we were trying to find that context, which is why it is a period film. We are not glorifying gundagardi (hooliganism) in any way, but we are saying that if someone is deprived of basic rights, there will certain youth who will be disillusioned and go over to the dark side. In a way, the system creates its own enemy. And it is a relevant context even now.

Why are you releasing the film in Bengali also?

I didn’t shoot it in Bengali, but the film has a very strong cultural carpet of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Bengali culture. The Bengali film market isn’t like the south Indian film market; it isn’t as developed. The idea was to take it to the interiors — so we are releasing the Bengali print in smaller towns, where only Bengali films are shown. I didn’t want to do it wrong, so I was very conscious about the fact that we didn’t want to get the language in the film wrong. So many films get that wrong and since I know Muslim culture better, I cringe. Because not everyone says salaam alaikum (a traditional greeting) all the time, and not every Muslim house stocks Rooh Afza. Which is why we had a language consultant on set all the time.

What are the challenges of making a period film?
The biggest challenge is to re-create time. Luckily for us, Calcutta is a city that is still stuck in time. The only difference is that there are a lot more hoardings on roads. Still, we recreated some parts on set. Like Trinka’s is a famous bar that was known for its cabaret, but has now shut down — so we had to recreate that. Cabaret used to be huge in those days, and a lot of troupes from Russia and Europe would come and perform during Christmas and before Durga Puja.

Where did the idea for “Gunday” come from?

Like I said, my father used to tell us a lot of stories about the coal trade. There was the illegal practice of wagon-breaking where trains carrying coal into Calcutta would be robbed by unemployed youth. This is how Bikram and Bala (the film’s protagonists) start off, and coal gives them an identity. And cinematically, coal has an appeal because your main characters are covered in soot, and hanging upside down, trying to rob something — it looks great.

Were you worried when you saw “Gangs of Wasseypur”? That film also had the backdrop of the coal mafia.

The difference is that “Gunday” is not about the coal mafia as such. It is actually the struggle of two outlaws against the system. The idea of coal making your hands black when you try to do something wrong, is why it is there as a backdrop. There is also a love story, and how one girl affects their friendship. I had shot around 60 percent of my shoot when “Wasseypur” came.

What about the casting?
I never think of the actors when I am writing, because it politicizes your writing. The idea was to write a quintessential two-hero film, so that whoever heard the story, there shouldn’t be any insecurity about their role. Because the trickiest thing in the world is to make a two-hero film.

Why do you say that?

Because as actors, they are like kids. Everything is about themselves. So if you give one kid two candies and none to the other, obviously the other kid isn’t going to like it. It was Adi’s (producer Aditya Chopra) idea to cast Ranveer and Arjun in the film. He felt they had the rawness and grit to pull off a film like this. Also, this is a period film, but because they are both young stars, it brings a freshness to the film, even though the period is dated.

So how did you handle them on set? You’ve done a two-hero film before so…
Yeah, I love ensemble casts. As a director you have two-three tracks to play with and the film never becomes linear. Also, we were shooting in the interiors, at one point where we didn’t even have network on our phones. So you are just sitting around in a hotel room with nothing to do. So you tend to bond with each other. Thankfully, the bond of friendship that you see on screen also exists off-screen. They both know how much is at stake. Each time a film does badly, their graph goes down and they have to start from scratch.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay, Tony Tharakan @TonyTharakan and Robert @bobbymacReports | Disclaimer: This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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Most new Indian movies are so bad that they don’t deserve a review. Movies made in the 60’s were hokey too but at least some of them had a good plot, memorable songs and the actors actually wore clothes that did not appeared to match the era. It is sad that for an industry to be the most prolific in the world, it cannot make any movies that are worth watching. A sad reflection on what appeals to the Indian community.

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