Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali on Highway,his most complex film yet,and why travel is such an important part of his identity.
A sea of skyscrapers in Andheri (West),juxtaposed against the green of the depleted mangroves,forms the view from the 17th floor office of the Nadiadwala Grandson production house. Towards its rear is a room with a set of sofas,a conference table and a desk almost hidden in a corner. This is where director Imtiaz Ali operates from. Yet,barring his brown leather satchel that sits next to the neatly-kept desk and a poster of his next film,Highway,there are no signs that the space belongs to him,temporarily or otherwise.
When he arrives for the interview,he switches off the airconditioner,moves closer to the single open window and lights up a cigarette. Exhaling,watching the dusk settle on the city,he remarks,Its my favourite part of the day. In 20 minutes,as night falls,he is back on his feet,this time to switch on the lights before it gets too spooky. Alis need for change of scenery seems constant; he tires easily of the view he was savouring just moments earlier. Any excuse will do for him to set off on a journey,the latest being an invite to a literary festival in Dehradun.
His love for life on the move comes through in his films as well in Aditis willingness to travel to Goa with the man who rejected her in Socha Na Tha,in Geets desire to return from Mumbai to her home in Punjab only to run away to Manali in order to marry her boyfriend in Jab We Met,in Jais need to meet Meera in Delhi after theyve parted ways in Love Aaj Kal,in Jordans search for himself that takes him across the world in Rockstar.
It is a recurring motif,much like travel has been in his life. Growing up in Jamshedpur,his father would take the family out for holidays at least once,sometimes twice a year,to visit relatives or religious destinations. We belonged to the middle class where travelling for pleasure was considered indulgent, says Ali. His films too are like his childhood vacations never without a purpose. They become his vehicle to evolve,much like the characters in the films he directs. While making Jab We Met,I realised my interest in the local traditions of different regions,the many Indias that exist within this country, he says. While standing in the queue to buy a ticket to the London Eye with people from different nationalities during Love Aaj Kal,I noticed that their issues were all similar; it showed me that the human drama remains the same anywhere in the world.
Such realisations litter Alis films. Each film is a step up over the previous one. His characters (that take root in his middle class upbringing) have become more complex over time,their conflicts borrowing from his own. That his films get labelled as love stories,says the 42-year-old director,is pure chance. They start out as an exploration of a thought,carried forward by two characters and they happen to be a boy and a girl, he explains. In Jab We Met,for instance,his underlying thought was to understand the two biggest tragedies of life when you dont get what you want and then when you get it. What if you realise that what you were chasing wasnt worth it? What would have happened if Geet had married Anshuman? It was intriguing to me that there can be advantages to losing some battles, he says,adding that Love Aaj Kal is his only film that follows the conventional love story format.
His latest about the road trip that a girl from a city and a boy who isnt,go on while charting their own internal journeys isnt a love story either. Ali says its his most dynamic script so far,for which he chose a very basic form of filmmaking. The team embarked on the shoot through six northern states and 15 towns and cities with a skeletal script,filling in the details and the dialogues as they shot. In order to keep it raw,Ali shot the film chronologically,allowing the actors to live the progression of the characters. He used minimal equipment shooting with a digital camera,using lights only while filming in the night,and avoiding trolley shots often letting the idyllic setting of north Indias countryside and its soundscape narrate the story.
The story,he says,has stayed with him for 15 years. Its a story that cannot be enjoyed in a large and dramatic format. Its just there like a flower that has grown quietly by itself along the railway tracks. It isnt manicured,and so,shouldnt look it, says the filmmaker who is also the producer of this risky film. Ali treats the film as a documentary,following the two characters played by Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda as they undertake their internal journeys,tapping into their angst or thrill.
Although the film,which is expected to release in February 2014,documents both the characters,the focus,like most of his previous films,is more on the female protagonist. Ali says its because of his fascination with women. Earlier,I used to feel guilty about this,but now I dont. For some reason,Im very happy imagining a girl on a train, he says. For a filmmaker who is only attempting to understand women,his female characters are fairly well-defined while the boys tend to fumble as they chart their emotional landscapes.
Within the fluid set-up of Highway,Ali has managed to undertake his own journey too,one that has been deeper and somewhat cathartic after the intense and very personal Rockstar. Although such journeys are usually undertaken alone,Ali finds in him the ability to be alone even within a film unit. Yet,he doesnt find closure at the end of a film,unlike the characters in his movies. They seem to serve only as milestones,places where he stops for a while to observe people and life,learning his own life lessons,before he takes off once again,travelling light,leaving few signs that he has been there before.