Sultan director Ali Abbas Zafar tells Sangeeta Yadav that making a film on wrestlers, their beliefs & ideologies and to showcase the socio-political impact on the sport was tough
- How difficult was it for you to convince Salman Khan to wear a langot for this film?
People like him without the shirt but, honestly, he is a very shy person. He used to joke around with me saying that ‘abhi tak toh logon ne meri shirt utarwai hai. Tumne toh mere pant bhi utarwa di.’ I had to tell him that we have to be 100 per cent true to what a pehelwan should look like. If you don’t wear a langot, people will feel cheated. He was adamant that he was not going to wear it. But then the real wrestlers, who bonded with him so closely during the shoots and treated Salman as their brother, told him that ‘bhai agar aap langot nahi pehnoge toh achha nahi dikhega’. He just smiled and agreed. In the end, he looked good and got a lot of cat calls from the public while we were shooting.
- What is Sultan all about?
It’s a very powerful story about relationships and India’s oldest sport — wrestling — which has been portrayed in the film metaphorically. The tagline of the film says — ‘Wrestling is not a sport, it’s about the fighting what lies within’. It is about the drama that unfolds when you are in the ring and outside of it. In both the places, you will come across a roadblock that need to be overcome and move forward. That is essentially what Sultan stands for.
- How special is this film for you?
It’s my first sports film, and that too with Salman Khan with whom I worked in my first film, Marigold.Sultan is one of my most favourite characters so far. I have played a lot of sports during my college days. Sport is really close to me. If I was not a filmmaker, I would definitely be a sportsperson.
- Why did you choose to make a film on wrestling and not on any other sport?
I was very clear that I wanted to make a film about India. So I picked up a sport which has its roots in India. The history of wrestling goes back to the time of Mahabharata. Malla-yuddha is a form of wrestling match which was quite popular then and is still practiced extensively in Kolkata, Banaras, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, UP etc. It’s a very dominant Indian sport. To work on that sport and bring it on the 70 mm canvas with the biggest superstar, that was the most challenging thing.
- How did you go about scripting the film?
I started my research by meeting wrestlers from Punjab, Haryana, UP, Maharashtra. I have tried to depict their simplicity in this film. The challenge was to get the Haryanvi dialect correct. I had to make sure that it didn’t look superficial or as if we are making a mockery out of it.
- Anything which was an eye-opener for you?
The most beautiful and progressive thing that I got to know was that in Haryana it’s not only the boys who are playing the sport but a lot of girls too, who come from very conservative households. They are playing the sport with men of the same weight category in their local matches. It’s a bond of being a rebel and it shows a shared symbol of the strength of this country. That’s how Aarfa’s character, played by Anushka Sharma, came about. I was determined that if I have to make this film, I can’t neglect this part.
- So Sultan is also about woman empowerment…
Aarfa is a very important chapter in Sultan’s life. He finds this girl who is equal today in every possible way and maybe even better than him in some ways. Usually today’s Indian woman is projected as outgoing, smoking, drinking etc. But there is one sect of women, who through a sport, are wanting to do something different and make a place for themselves.
- Wrestling as a sport has gained a lot of momentum in the past 10 years…
Wrestling is an underrated sport. It is not just about picking up someone and throwing them on the ground. It’s a sport of strength that is very technical and requires a lot of calculation, physicality and mental agility. All these aspects of this multi-dimensional sport make the character very fascinating. All of these aspects came into building of Sultan’s character.
- What all issues have you touched upon in this film?
We have consciously tried to weave our characters in the socio-political scenario of the State and the problems that the sport is facing today. A lot of hard-hitting situations have been presented in a very subtle way. It’s not a preachy film that wants to gives out a social message. Instead, we have toned it down. The film depicts what today’s India stands for and what’s right or wrong in terms of how you express to yourself.
- Who has done the costumes?
Salman’s costume is done by his sister Alvira Khan Agnihotri and designer Ashley Rebello. Anushka and the rest of the cast’s costumes have been designed by Nilapakshi Irawati.
- Any scene which is very close to you?
There is one very emotional scene in the film which Salman has done. I know for sure that it will catch everyone’s eyes. It is a two-and-a-half minute scene that was shot in one single shot. That scene will stay with me for a very long time.
- Did you use any VFX?
Most of the film is without VFX but there are certain portions that I couldn’t shoot on location. We used it in set extension. There is a whole chapter in the second half which is based in Mixed Martial Arts. So, to create that kind of stadium, we used VFX. But there were scenes which we couldn’t create in computer graphics. The opening wrestling sequence in the first teaser of Sultan, we shot with a crowd of 6,000 people where he wrestles 10 men in the introduction bout. The mud, arena, people around, are all real and the costume designer had to make 5,000 costumes that included traditional white safas and kurta-pajamas.
- What all work has gone into creating the music?
The music of the film has a feeling of celebration. I wanted rich Haryanvi folk music to be presented in a contemporary format and that has come out beautifully in Jag ghoomeya, 440 volt, Bulleya or Tuk tuk.Irshad Kamil and Vishal Shekhar have done a fantastic job.
(The article also got published in The Pioneer Newspaper – http://www.dailypioneer.com/sunday-edition/sunday-pioneer/backpack/convincing-salman-to-wear-a-langot-was-tough.html).