I became a fan of Imtiaz Ali the filmmaker after I saw Socha Na Tha. I became a fan of Imtiaz Ali the man when I called him two years ago to judge a beauty peagant. This is what he told me, “If you want me to be there, I will come but please don’t ask me to judge people. I cannot do that.”
That one sentence summed up the kind of person he was. As a filmmaker, he is unique. He has made four love stories, and each is so different from the other. Curious to find out more about him, I land up at his office on the 17th floor. It is minimal. There is a desk with a laptop on it, a few chairs and a couch. He informs he wants to get rid of it because, ‘I am not casting presently’. Talented, good looking and a sense of humour! Read on to discover more about the man...
Tell me about Highway...
The story was in my head for a very long time. I had attempted making it on television a long time back as a standalone half an hour slot for Zee. And ever since I was feeling dissatisfied as if the story had more to say and I didn’t allow it due to time duration. I was still trying to make it before every movie... before Socha Na Tha, after Rockstar... All the time I was trying to make it and luckily for me in these 15 years it got refined and it became simpler.
And I realised that I can perhaps make it now or else never. I just jumped into it. Even though I was unprepared about how to shoot it. I mean, whether I shoot in a bungalow or on top of the Himalayas, the scene will read out the same way... The whole story is about what staying out does to you, and no matter how I prepare her or myself, I wanted to see what happens to Alia when she actually goes there. And what happens to all of us. So I left it extremely open. I knew it was a risk but I believe in the story a lot.
What is it about?
It is a road film and it’s a journey with unlikely companions. What you discover about yourself and your society while being out of it... It is about many of us who live in cities and never really get out of that zone. We never want to get out and there’s never a reason to, but once you do, you realise what you could have been. If you were born out here in the wild what you would be.
It sounds like Jab We Met. Girl-boy meet on a journey and falling in love...
It’s not about falling in love at all. The circumstance is totally opposite of what it sounds like. I don’t know how much to share at this stage. It’s not even that they fall in love or want to be together.
The romance in your films is not really Bollywood type...
I have not deliberately stayed away from that. I am a fan of masala movies — having grown up on them — than I end up making. And I have grown up in in small towns and crowded cinema theatres, watching Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty. So I am from that world and I want to make movies that will stand the test of a Jamshedpur talkies but what you end up making... What happens is, you sit down and write a film thinking this is the kind of film I want to make. It happens on it’s own. These are the experiences in my life, this is what happened around me, I understand that and that’s what my films are about. I am not a film student and I have not even assisted anybody. This is the world I portray because this is the world I know.
You are not what one would call a commercial director, but your films do well...
Socha Na Tha was supposed to be a very offbeat and experimental film which are considered bad words in the industry. People would tell me you have to have a villain, you can’t have a love story without a barrier. These are the things that confused me but I decided this is what I want to make. So that got made. Jab We Met I think was still within the world of believable. It was not that different from the main line... Love Aaj Kal was commercial, which is a word I still don’t understand... What was happening is that the kind of films I was making was unfortunately the same in terms of the genre. They were not more or less commercial but they made money. So I got accepted as a director who could make movies that will make money. Not because I became different or the kind of films I wanted to make were different but because the industry itself became different.
Also the audience...
One thing I have realised is that this is a very audience-led industry. We feel that we are the proactive force but it is actually getting ready for what we are going to make, 10 years later. They are ready much in advance. There is so much talk about this or that kind of movie that does well... I feel the one kind of movie which has the best chance of doing well is a good movie. Rather than trying to discuss it too much, try to make a good movie, it will work.
You started off making films with newcomers then stars and now you are back to newcomers. How different is it?
The whole history and baggage that actors supposedly carry, melts away as soon as you realise that you are doing it for yourself. I want to work with technicians or actors if they are interested. Because that is going to guide him and the quality of his work and the quality of my film... If anyone is working with a genuine interest, he forgets if he is a superstar or a newcomer. It is more dangerous to work with newcomers because they might think they are not good enough, or they don’t know enough. No matter how many times I tell them, they think I know better. The fact of the matter is I don’t. I have directed four movies. Some of them have been successful but it’s not like I know any better. If they are genuinely interested, they won’t even care if I am small or big director or he/she is a big star or not because you are driven by passion.
Is it difficult for a director to become a producer? Does creativity take a back seat and commerce becomes the focus?
I am producing this film. I thought let me take a financial risk and it is an amount of money that I don’t have but at least I can come to work and chukao in case problem ho gaya. So I said. ‘I am producing this film, we will not sell it to anyone. And at the end of it, we will release it ourselves.’ If the film doesn’t do well, I lose money. I have realised that if there is any money to be lost in a movie, then it is best if it is your own rather than anybody else’s because that becomes a larger amount that you ultimately lose or gain in your life... What’s called a goodwill factor in the industry is very easily convertible factor, which works in your life...
The goodwill factor is commercially driven?
See I will tell you how it works... I got some amount for Jab We Met (JWM) and even at that time people were saying ‘This is little, you could have asked for more, you could have got more’. I could have got Rs 10 lakh more perhaps. But the film was sold cheap because my price was not high. JWM made money not just for distributors but also sub-distributors, because they sold it cheap, so down the line people have made money. Like cycle stands outside cinema theatres, the barber gets more work, the chaatwala gets more work — the whole area works because of the cinema theatre.
I remember one time in my hometown Jamshedpur a club wanted to screen JWM but there were no prints and it was too costly and they could not manage. Till some guy near Ranchi figured that we are looking for a print and he brought the film at his own cost. He said it is because of this film that his office that was going to shut and his business that was over, came back to life. So now what happens as a result of that is that when I do my next film, I can demand — if money be the criteria — my price.
Can you demand money?
No. I am not comfortable at all. Therefore it is important to work with the right producer. Usually a good producer is not a mean person. He doesn’t want to shortchange you. He is looking for a bigger buck elsewhere, rather than try to fool you. My experience in the industry with people has been excellent. I don’t think I have much to complain about...
A producer has to make tough financial calls...
I have a defective mind... in a way that I can’t even remember numbers, so I don’t really bother with it. What I do as a producer is that I hire two efficient people who I trust and I get them to do all the production. I hired people who know their jobs. Production also gives you the liberty to work how you want to. If I want to shoot on top of a hill and it takes two hours to get there with the unit and then if I realise that the light is not good, I can decide not to shoot and come back next day. I can take that call because it is my money. You feel guilty when it is someone else’s money.
The relationship between the father and son in Socha Na Tha was interesting... How’s yours with your dad?
I am more more friendly with my dad than Viren was to Nirmal. My father has always been extremely supportive father. In fact, I feel that everything that I am is because of him. We came from a middle class family but he always made sure that we always had everything. At one point of time I started showing different colours to what he expected. First he thought I would get into UPSC or do something like that in my life. No one could have imagined that I would make films. I come from a place where no one has even seen a shooting, so for them to imagine someone coming out over here...
You knew filmmaking was your calling?
Never. I didn’t even know how to become a film director. But I used to do theatre plays while in school. My whole scene in life was doing small school plays and scripts etc... I think my dad knew before me because when I directed a play called All My Sons when I was 12th standard. And he was looking at me with those eyes ke mera beta gaya. And I was thinking, ‘why is he looking at me like this is this play ok or not?’
Will you always make only love stories?
I hope not. Honestly, when I sit to write the stories and when I am making them, and even after release, I don’t really believe that they are love stories. For instance I don’t believe that JWM is a love story. I believe that it is a story of two people meeting and influencing each other whether they end up together or not is not consequential. But it counts as a love story, which is a beautiful thing because I don’t think that the maker of a movie should define or be fussy about the genre that his movie is being categorised in.
The women in your films are interesting characters. Are they people you know?
They are not really people I know but they are bits and pieces of many people I know. Like Geet (Kareena’s character in JWM) was inspired by a girl I met while travelling in a bus. She was from Delhi and she was incessantly talking and she was talking in a way that... she was saying stupid things of course but also very personal things. About not going out when on her period — and then she said main itna kuch bol rahi hoon iska matlab yeh nahin hai ki aap kuch galat socho... so every thought that was coming to her head she was saying and there was a certain pure innocence about her... and that became Kareena’s brief.
Are you a curious person?
No, I am interested, especially in women. Like while travelling in train, there is a girl sitting there in the window and the whole 36 hours just sitting there and looking at her and thinking that pichle janam ka rishta hai mera iss ke saath.. And if I could be with her, and what would her world be like... I picture the house she would be living in, her bedroom, her family... but you never get the opportunity of going to her house or meeting her family and it remains in your imagination.
What is your kind of woman?
I don’t have a kind. She can make mistakes. She can have any vice, but should have a heart.
Do you get hit upon a lot?
(Grins) Not as much as I would like it to happen.
What’s behind all the link-ups then?
What? There are no link-ups...
Nargis, Giselli, and a Pakistani actress...
Well, Giselli and Nargis... there is nothing at all with them...When you are talking about girls that you are working with... I have been in theatre from a very young age and I have always been confused about the feelings that you actually have for a co-actress. You are thinking so much about this person and then you are feeling guilty about it. I have been there through all of that and although it is likely for anyone to be interested romantically in anyone else, for me it has never happened around work. It has never with an actress. Not that I won’t love her dearly. But it is not for personal consumption. Because I like to do so much more with something which is somehow is so much more important to me at that point of time.
But these things are not planned, right?
Right, but it just hasn’t happened. So I feel that finally my interest in Deepika or Giselli will always be to what she can be in the film, rather than what she can be with me. And I am really happy that it hasn’t happened because it can be really messy. Honestly, it is also something that I have deliberately avoided since I was in theatre because I have seen it getting very sticky.
How ambitious are you?
Not at all. I am not ambitious. I am interested and I am lucky. You know because talent in our field is just interest.
It’s nice that an unambitious person can reach these heights...
I don’t know where I’ve reached honestly, and it’s very scary. It’s not modesty or anything of that sort but it’s an unnerving feeling. But it is only the desire to tell a story that takes you forward and has kept me alive.
Post-success, filmmakers often get disconnected from the outside world...
There is a way of attracting attention and there is a way of being seen without really attracting attention. I guess your body learns on your own without your mind realising it. I do everything on my own. I still travel in trains — sometimes second class, sometimes unreserved and people realise, ‘Oh you are director Imtiaz Ali, let’s take a photo with you’. But often that’s not the case.
Even when people recognise you, you can still meet and interact with them. A lot of my actor friends tell me when you go abroad you have the chance of being who you are but that’s more valid for them. When I went to Gaza nobody recognised me. Often people come and say, ‘Oh you look like Imtiaz Ali’ and I say, ‘It’s because of my hair.’ and they believe it’s not me.
Is there one common thing between all your leading ladies?
Ayesha, Kareena, Deepika, Nargis, Giselli and now Alia — they are all heart.
Your brothers are getting into filmmaking now...
I have three brothers and I am the eldest. They don’t work with me. That’s the policy — we don’t work with each other, unless you have kind of established yourself. Arif my middle brother is directing a movie with Illuminati films, Saif Ali Khan’s company. My youngest brother, is making a movie with John’s (Abraham) company. Both are writing and directing. I don’t want them to be known as my brothers. I wouldn’t want them to be known as anybody’s anything. You got to stand fiercely alone in the industry. You can’t take stardust from anybody. There have been cases where brothers, siblings of superstars have not made it big. It becomes a disadvantage rather than an advantage. Everyone should go through the process of natural selection in the industry and come find your own allies and support system and your own voice. The fact of the matter is that people will know that my brothers have their own individual voices because they are not talking about things which I am talking about.
But then there is always the danger of bitterness that you didn’t help them if things don’t work out...
They don’t have that insecurity. It was a clear-cut decision. None of my brothers have hinted that they need anything from me. They don’t even respect me that much and they are dismissive about much of what I do. I have this unique capacity of finding people who don’t believe in me to be around me. I am constantly surrounded by people who don’t think much of me. My ADs turn around and tell me, ‘Itna dur aake ye deewar pe shot lena tha, yeh toh hum le lete Mumbai mein’. They say those things to me. I don’t inspire respect (smiles).