Jogi director Ali Abbas Zafar says film was ‘impossible’ without Diljit Dosanjh: ‘You cannot take a non-Sikh actor…’

Bollywood Entertainment

Diljit Dosanjh-starrer Jogi released last Friday to critical acclaim and praise from viewers. The film, which tells a fictional story set around the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi in 1984, has been applauded for its realism and sensitivity as well as Diljit’s performance. The film’s director Ali Abbas Zafar says the film would have been impossible without its leading man. In conversation with Hindustan Times, Ali talks about Diljit, the genesis of Jogi, and the challenges of making it. Also read | Jogi movie review: Diljit Dosanjh delivers career-best performance in taut drama

Most of the films around 1984 riots have been made in Punjabi cinema and consequently set in Punjab, even though it was Delhi that saw large-scale violence against the Sikh community that year. Ali, who studied in Delhi University and lived in the city, talks about the choice of setting Jogi in the national capital. “Actually, the epicentre was very much Delhi. Our story is set in the three days after October 31 (the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi). You pick up any research and you will find out what happened in those three days. My co-writer Sukhmani Sadana is a Sikh so she had a lot of stories from her family and close associates. That is how we began writing the story,” he says.

Jogi can be a difficult film to watch because of its bold depiction of communal violence. It never gets gory but does get uncomfortable. Talking about balancing the brutality of the event and the sensitivity needed to portray it, Ali says, “When you pick up subjects like this, you have to bring forward your sensitive side. In any piece of art that is done around something that is a murder of humanity, things like the World Wars, Partition, ’84, you need to be sensible enough to create an atmosphere where people feel the emotions rather than look for the visuals. Even in Jogi, our first idea was to create an atmosphere where people understand what happened to a community. It’s very psychological. It is visual but it has to hit you deep in your gut and you feel within those 15 minutes how drastically the situation has changed. The storytelling is for the emotion and not voyeuristic.”

Diljit Dosanjh plays the titular hero in Jogi, and Ali says the film could not have proceeded with any other actor, certainly not someone from outside the Sikh community. He explains, “I was very clear that I needed a Sikh actor, who also fits the part in terms of the stardom he owns and the vulnerability he carries. I told my producing partner Himanshu that this story can only be told with Diljit. There is nobody else who can do this. We cannot make a non-Sikh actor into a Sikh character and portray this story. This story could have gone forward only with a person from that community, who understands what the journey of this character is.”

Ali Abbas Zafar directing Diljit Dosanjh on the sets of Jogi.
Ali Abbas Zafar directing Diljit Dosanjh on the sets of Jogi.

Diljit was shooting in Canada when Ali thought of approaching him for the film. “We just had a two-page story at that time,” recalls the filmmaker, adding, “I picked up the phone to Diljit and he heard that narration, which was not more than 5-6 minutes. He took a deep breath and said ‘I’m doing this’.”

Another choice Ali, who has also produced the film with Himanshu Mehra, made for the film was that it was released on Netflix and not theatrically. Ali shares, “We came to the conclusion that a film like this should not be restricted to an Indian audience but should be told internationally. We have such a wide international audience today for Indian films and of course a huge Indian audience overseas. And that is how it came to Netflix.” Similarly, this was also why the film was made in Hindi and not Punjabi. “Diljit is such a big star in Punjab but we were very clear that the film needs to be on a platform that takes it to a wider audience,” adds the filmmaker.

Before Jogi, Ali was known for making big-budget action extravaganzas like Tiger Zinda Hai and Bharat. Even his OTT debut had been with the large-scale Prime Video series Tandav, which starred names like Saif Ali Khan and Dimple Kapadia. The filmmaker admits that switching to a small, cross-sectional film like Jogi was a challenge. He says, “I am fortunate that all my films did well at the box office and that’s why people think I can only do bigger projects. But for a filmmaker, it is all about the story. And I keep saying the heart of the story needs to be big. That’s true for Jogi. For me, the challenge was that since it’s a very intimate and claustrophobic film, not to lose the essence of emotion and the whole idea of thrill and anxiety on screen.”

Jogi also stars Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub, Kumud Mishra, Hiten Tejwani, and Amyra Dastur. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

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