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Opinions and scruples

‘Veera is still in my system’

Imtiaz Ali on his women, his way and Highway

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You told the same story of Highway on TV 15 years ago. What was left unsaid that you wanted to say again?
The story just didn’t leave me. This was the only Rishtey (episodic Zee TV show) that I did. Somehow I’ve never been able to tell a story in 45 minutes. Some yearning was there to tell this story in a better way because I understood it much better.

What do you make of the polarised response that the film is getting?
It’s not as polarised as Rockstar, which really divided people between love and hate. The response to this is emotional.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the relationship between Veera and Mahabir. Are they lovers? She mothers him, he watches out for her as a father would. In your head what relationship do they share?
I’m anyway intrigued about relationships. There are some lovers who are more friends, while some husband-wives are more like siblings. In my head, Veera and Mahabir are victims. They have both lost out on their childhood and they unite on a level of empathy. I don’t see them as lovers. If people want to define love as getting married and having children then it’s not a love story, but if love is about giving comfort and affection to each other then it is a love story. In my head, Veera wants freedom and she feels Mahabir is a part of her journey and he will get her that freedom.

This is something in all your films — the women that you write always want to be free but why is it that they attain that freedom through a man? Heer did that with Jordan in Rockstar and in Highway Veera does the same with Mahabir.
Rockstar’s Heer was really sorted and wanted to have as much fun as she could before she got married. In Veera’s case, the man (Mahabir) is actually a tool for her to be out there on the highway but as the journey goes on, he makes himself redundant by dying. In a way, his death sets her free.

The big emotional moment — when Veera reveals her big secret to Mahabir — came out of the blue. Didn’t you want to prepare the audience for this moment?
She just needed to say it. She was pressured by the fact that she didn’t run away when she had the chance. It was her necessity. She didn’t think it through so she just blurted it out.

There’s some criticism about Veera’s reaction to her kidnapping. She seemed to accept it quite easily.
What option did she have? She was beaten up, she ran, she cried, she had her catharsis, she came back. In a way she feels free that she’s rid of the curse of making a choice, yet she asserts herself. There is no rulebook of how people should behave.

In all your films, marriage is a trigger to life altering realisations. Why?
Marriage is difficult because it comes with too many impositions. It’s synthetic, unnatural and difficult. Marriage sets off a new journey inside you. I don’t have a stand on marriage. When I’m writing these stories, I’m also wondering.

You give a defining statement to your women characters — Socha Na Tha’s Aditi said, “Tum itna bhav de kyun rahe ho”, Jab We Met’s Geet said, “Main apni favourite hoon,” to Veera’s “Main jaisi bhi hoon… aap mein se ek nahin hoon.” How do you think up your women characters?
I come from a conservative set-up in Jamshedpur and Patna where women were always kept at a distance. Since I don’t have a sister, I’ve always been fascinated by women, found them to be enchantingly smart, very sorted, yet at the same time they had a subservient status in society. A woman has to work harder to survive in our society and be happy. Sometimes she even needs to be mean and manipulative in order to protect her happiness, which has always fascinated me and that’s why I like thinking of women characters perhaps a bit more than my male characters.

Which woman character you think will go old with you?
Veera is the most unique character I’ve thought of. She’s younger and unresolved and look at where this girl reaches. She is kidnapped but she dominates Mahabir throughout. It’s her personal victory. On the level of intellect she is similar to Rockstar’s Jordan. He’s also a character that remained unresolved that’s why he’ll always be endearing. I still don’t know Jordan fully. I just hope he never comes back in any of my other scripts because he messed with my mind.

Which two characters that you have written, would you invite for dinner?
It has to be two girls. Socha Na Tha’s Aditi and Highway’s Veera. Aditi had some charm whereas Veera is still in my system.

Your critics say you make the same movie all the time. Agree?
I’m not here to make a filmography. I try not to have an ownership on my films. Actually I don’t think about myself. There’s a certain sense of myself that I want to get into with each film. My film is my canvas to sprawl out, meet people and have fun. Telling a story is my experiment to find myself. When I was in class nine, I had to direct a Teacher’s Day skit. With Highway I wanted to see if I could do that skit again. And tell the story simply. That’s how AR Rahman works. He works without a safety net. If he fails, he fails.

Every film teaches a filmmaker something about himself, what did Highway teach you?
That I don’t need to be so well-behaved. It’s more refreshing to be real rather than tameezdaar (well-behaved)

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