Travelling across Mumbai to Goregaon West in Film City, where Ali Zafar is shooting a video for his new album Jhoom, is like swimming through a sea of sludge. Hot, humid and crawling with traffic, it takes over an hour to get to the FM Studio where extras, dressed in saffron as saadhus (hurriedly puffing away on a smoke break), are the only giveaway that some sort of shooting is taking place inside the downtrodden shed.
It’s almost 1:30pm — lunchtime — and boys working in the small open kitchen dish out fried fish and crackers for the cast and crew. Soft drink bottles pop open in the distance while dozens — actually almost 150 people — scurry around, deeply devoted to not messing up their respective duties.
Karishma, the line producer leads the way to Ali, who by some miracle manages to look cool and composed through the hustle bustle. But that is the new, post-Tere Bin Laden Ali Zafar for you. Despite being a film star now, he’s still someone who brings congeniality and not celebrity tantrums to the table. Humble and hardworking, Ali is someone who talks about working his way up from long days at a reputed hotel where he would draw portraits. In India it’s easy to take pride in rags to riches stories because it’s almost every second person’s tale in Bollywood. And people appreciate you for honesty.
“I keep telling these guys not to call me sir, yaar,” Ali sheepishly complains while an assistant ties an apron around his clothes to protect them from potential curry spills. Holding back sniffles and a sore throat he adds, “When my alarm went off at six in the morning I got up feeling like 150 kilos wer
e weighing me down. I contemplated going back to sleep but then dragged myself out. You just don’t stand up people who are there for you.”
And it’s evident that the entire cast and crew of Jhoom are here for Ali. The director Uzer Khan is used to working with India’s bigwigs; one of his recent commercials was with Shahrukh Khan. He and Ali met at an airport lounge and hit it off immediately.
Pravin Talan, the photographer taking stills for the campaign, is infamous for walking out on Bollywood A-listers at the slightest hint of unprofessionalism or bad attitude. His respect for Ali is evident in the way he clicks around him. And Leepakshi Ellawadi, the pretty young stylist, smiles adoringly as the shooting continues.
“It’s great to work with Ali,” she says. “Though none of us knew him personally the vibes were right which is why we agreed. We look for creative work because Bollywood has become such a big mafia. It’s hard to get a break unless you’re in the right camp.” And why would India — Bollywood in particular — be interested in giving Ali Zafar a break?
“Look at the numbers,” discusses Pravin on the set. “In all of India’s massive population Bollywood has just come up with one Ranbir Kapoor. No one watches Imran (Khan), Neil Nitin flopped and the rest don’t even register. Bollywood needs fresh faces. India is all about numbers and as long as the
y roll no one cares where he’s from.”
“I do think Ali has it in him to make it big in India. I loved his debut film Tere Bin Laden. He was confident, assured and cute looking…that helps,” Karan Johar punctuated his appreciation for Ali with humour as he talked to Images on Sunday at the HDIL India Couture Week. “I grew to know him because of the producers of the film, Pooja and Aarti Shetty, and I think he’s the head-screwed-on kind of guy. If he plays his cards well in the business then I think he should go very far.”
Playing his cards right, Johar elaborates, means choosing the right films, knowing your weaknesses and leveraging your strengths, which Ali is already doing. He is currently working on the YashRaj production, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan with Katrina Kaif and Imran Khan. His timing is good and comic timing even better which is precisely why directors like David Dhavan are showing interest in him.
Davidji, Rakeysh Om Prakash and several others pop up in our conversation every now and then. Ali has got everyone’s attention with the TBL debut and now mainstream Bollywood is calling. Moreover, he’s also on the soundtrack of Hollywood’s Wall Street 2, something he is extremely proud of. The music must always play on. And that is precisely why Ali has taken several days away from Delhi and the film to shoot the title video for his upcoming album, Jhoom.
TBL may have put this Pakistani musician on the Bollywood map but it’s not like he was unknown to India before the film got peoples’ antenna up. Coke Studio, “that fabulous con
cept” according to Aarti Shetty producer TBL, brought Ali to India much before Laden did. And the Indian fan following for Pakistani music has always been huge. Because of that and much more, Ali Zafar’s popularity promises to get bigger with time.
“Ali didn’t even know Tere Bin Laden’s story when he was auditioning,” says Aarti Shetty as she and the TBL team hang out with Ali at a cosy restaurant in Bandra. “But he did things that the role required; he fit the role even before knowing his character. We wanted him onboard without a second thought. It was a risk since we were picking up a unique story with a debutant director (Abhishek Sharma) and debutant lead actor.”
The risk proved to be well worth it as the film got rave reviews and made Ali Zafar a star in India. The Indian media speaks of him eagerly, tossing stories of him ‘ignoring’ Katrina Kaif at a party to gossip-hungry readers. Influential film critics call him for sound bites and information. He hangs out with Bollywood A-listers who appear to be on his speed dial.
Karan Johar invites him for his show at Couture Week (which he had to skip because the shooting for Jhoom extended into the evening). And he now has three secretaries: one for films, one for shows and appearances and the third for endorsements. Each one of them has extended teams working beneath them.
“But I don’t want people to think I have moved to India,” he clarifies uneasily when asked whether this success will tilt him across the border. “I love it here but I am always there for my country whenever I am needed. I’ll keep coming and going where work takes me.”
Ali did come back to sing the title track for Reema’s upcoming film, which will be releasing soon. Proceeds from his new album Jhoom (album sales and ring tones) will go into the rehabilitation of flood victims in Pakistan and he smiles that the painting he recently made “sold for the highest price amongst many senior painters. All money raised was given to craftsmen of the flood-affected areas.”
The ground reality is that work is simpler in India where professional systems are in place, each one working towards propelling things up and ahead. And any experience India can give to our industry via our stars will equate to a gradual implementation and evolution. It can only be brought around by a new generation, eager to learn and apply back home, while overcoming divisive factors.
There is no room for political divides when it comes to liberal arts and Pakistan needs to start thinking numbers, too. India is closer to home than many people would like and artistes working there should be considered no different than the millions of expatriates working all over the world. Their success in India should be enjoyed, rejoiced and appreciated.
Photography: Pravin Talin, Styling: Leepakshi Ellawadi,Stills taken from Jhoom (to be released by Alif records), directed by Uzer Khan in Mumbai