The Mind of Imtiaz Ali

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Revelations on his art and craft after two days of trailing the filmmaker
Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali and I stand outside PVR Cinema in Andheri. We are talking about his latest film, Highway.

“Now, everything in Jab We Met tied up together, you know. But this movie— it was somewhat like a Haruki Murakami novel—open ended, floating— what really happens, who knows? You know what I mean?” I say.

He nods and says, “That’s the right attitude to see this movie. There was a lot of improvisation. It developed as we travelled across.”

Then he becomes serious. “Did you like it?”

I don’t really know how to answer.

“It moved me,” I say. “It made me feel like doing something different with my life.”

He says, “And are you going to do it?”

“How can I? I can’t just get up and walk away from my life, can I?”

“You can,” he says. “You can, obviously you can. You just have to do it.”

Conversations like this help understand why Imtiaz Ali makes the movies he does—be it the sweet Jab We Met about two people diametrically opposite in temperament changing each other’s lives, or the mad Rockstar, about a man wanting to experience heartbreak so that he can become an artist. And now Highway, about a city girl and a country bumpkin who develop a strange bond despite the fact that he is her kidnapper.

Imtiaz likes to think about the things he feels we usually don’t want to think about. “Anything that is contrary to the norm is regarded as wrong. But is it?” Existential questions matter to him. “You always get what you want. Life is like that,” he says. I tell him the package you get may not be what you had expected.

I have been trailing the filmmaker for two days and we are sitting in his car, him driving with a cup of coffee in his hand and checking messages once in a while.

He smiles, “Exactly, but also, I have changed since I first wanted it, you know...”

“Life is strange,” I say.

“I said that to my daughter today, and she looked at me and said seriously, ‘I know’,” he laughs.

Spending time with Ali is about having such conversations. They are like his movies—thoughtful, full of romantic overtones and about life and love in general. It’s no wonder then that people relate to his movies. We walk into PVR Andheri and sit down in the hall playing Highway. The movie is yet to start. A lady comes and sits down next to him. “Hi Imtiaz. I love your movies. I am getting a surgery done soon, but I wanted to catch this before I did.”

He smiles graciously, “I hope everything goes well with you. You take care, okay?”

Another lady takes her place soon, “Hi Imtiaz, I am only watching this because you made it. Can we please take a picture?” she asks.

Outside, as we walk around, everyone stares. Men look with a certain respect and girls stare with eyes that say ‘He’s so cute too.’ People come up often, either asking to be assistants or just telling him how they love his movies. He smiles at everyone, sometimes even before they do. He smiles at a girl outside PVR and she looks at him strangely. He then walks up to her and apologises, “I am sorry, I thought you were someone else.” She doesn’t mind. They now take a picture. “I smile at everyone, you know, because I don’t want people to smile at me or say ‘hi’ and I ignore them. That’s not something I like doing.”

The buzz over Highway has been appreciative. I watched it alone sitting in a packed hall on a Tuesday afternoon. It makes you go through different emotions. You marvel at the India you never bothered seeing, the one that surrounds the highways of the country; you marvel at Alia Bhatt, who at 20 delivers a performance that’s mature and heart-wrenching; you marvel at Randeep Hooda, who says very little and yet manages to say a lot through his silence; you cry, you laugh and then you introspect.

Imitaz says, “What I have discovered visiting the movie halls (which he has done every single day since it released) is that this is a movie people watch in silence. It’s a silent movie, even though it does have background music. But it’s a silent movie and people watch it in silence.”

The music by AR Rahman, who Imtiaz worked closely with, is haunting. “We get each other.” His favourite scene “is the one where Alia sits on a rock in the middle of a stream in the valley, and then she just laughs and laughs. We didn’t plan these scenes. We just went with it.”

Another scene has Alia getting wet in the rain in Rajasthan, and you know he is right. “Alia surprised me in every frame. It was like that throughout. And Randeep and I connect well because both of us have done theatre. We keep telling each other, ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’,” he pauses, “This is your life Aastha, you are living it. There is no chance to rehearse this.”

On Sunday evening, he sits in front of an audience at club Escobar in Bandra to give a talk. Young people, all wanting to be filmmakers or actors, have turned up to ask him questions. He asks for a show of hands of those who want to become directors, and then says, “Guys, ask me whatever you want. Get as much as you want, okay?”

He is self-deprecatory—“After five movies, maybe I will make one good one”; modest—“I am very middle- class. For years, I washed all of me with just a bar of soap, even my hair!”; and encouraging—“Bollywood is a great place to work in. Just don’t whine.” He talks about growing up in middle-class Jamshedpur, getting lessons in direction from filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, and how his own movies change him. “Highway has actually made me less polite. I don’t think too much before I talk now. I am more open and rude.” There are a lot of laughs, and he gets photo-bombed after the talk. There is also a lot of talk about his hair—the curly mop that is so him. “I don’t mean to be arty, you know.”

Despite the crowd milling around him, he makes sure that I get a drink and then returns to posing for pictures. Later, we sit in the open air, him drinking soda and digging into some food as we watch the busy roads of Bandra pass by. “Tell me, I didn’t talk too much, did I? I like the questions the kids asked. They really think about all this.”

One of his friends drops by, DJ Rekha from New York, and he starts talking about his next story. “It’s about a boy and a girl who meet in unusual circumstances, where they are uninhibited. But when they meet later, he has changed. He is now what the world wants him to be. Does she still want him?” Half an hour later, over an Americano at a corner coffee shop in Bandra, he talks music. “I often listen to old Hindi music on the radio in my car. But personally, I like classic rock—that’s what I grew up with in North Campus (he went to Hindu College in Delhi). Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. During Rockstar, Ranbir came up to me and said he had no clue of that kind of music. So I used to give him one song a day, and he used to be like ‘Sir, what is happening, I don’t get this’.”

Ali talks of the live music in Highway, and recalls, “You know I realised that some music needs ambience. Like the songs of the valley need to be sung and heard in the valley. The hills need to be around for it to sound the way it needs to sound.”

Driving back from Bandra to Andheri, where he stays, Ali is talking about how he doesn’t watch TV, doesn’t read much and is not a web junkie. “I am now wondering what I do with my time. I am always free,” he says. He returns to talking about how he liked the question-and-answer round today. “I like it when people ask me serious questions. Like the guy who asked about the first few lines of Kun Faya Kun from Rockstar and what these words meant: ‘Jab kahin pe kuchh nahin, Bhi nahin thha’. I am glad I had an answer, that they are from the Rig Veda. Otherwise, people ask you, ‘How was it like working with Alia Bhatt?’ and ‘What was the journey like?’ Yaar, I don’t know what the journey was like!”

Did he see Highway as a love story, I ask him, because I really didn’t. “He says, “It’s not a love story at all. It’s about their lives and how they live it. The movie ends before anything happens between them. Would they have had sex if they would have lived like that? Maybe. But who knows? Would that have changed things? Who knows? Why talk about all that? I deleted a few scenes which I thought were interfering with the flow, but they were really profound. There is a scene that handles the class difference between their characters. But then, I feel that that would have been giving away too much. Not everything needs to be said.”

And then he looks at me: “But what is a love story really? Was Jab We Met a love story—I don’t think so. It’s about this girl who lives the way she wants to and is a positive person, but then becomes negative, and this boy who she once touched with her attitude in turn comes and makes it all positive again.”

I tell him it is a love story. “They get together in the end, don’t they? All the couples who went to watch it saw it as a love story.”

“Correct,” he says, “that’s what matters. How does the person watching it see it? It doesn’t matter what I think.”

It’s 11 pm, and we now sit in a neighbourhood pub in Andheri and talk industry. “There is a nice group of us who like taking interest in each others’ work. When Anurag [Kashyap] narrated Bombay Velvet to Ranbir [Kapoor] and Anushka [Sharma], he called me too. Anurag, Vikramaditya Motwane, Anurag Basu, Karan Johar— we all like encouraging each other. Or just listening in.”

Before the night ends, he talks about Geet from Jab We Met, the most popular character he has created so far. “You know Geet says something very lovely before she runs away from home with Shahid’s character. She says that this is her life, and she wants to do what she wants to do, wrong or right, so that later she can’t blame anyone else but herself. She also says that even if you do everything correct, does that mean you end up happy? Life is like that, you know.”

I want to take his word for it.