By Aparita Bhandari
“Only fifteen minutes,” the publicist reminds me of the duration of the interview before handing the phone to Imtiaz Ali, “and please stick to questions about Highway only.”
In an ideal world, this interview would be conducted over a cup of tea, at the very least. Maybe lunch, if I was lucky. After all, there’s so much I want to ask him. About Jab We Met. Rockstar. Even Love Aaj Kal or Socha Na Tha. I had almost forgotten that Ali, 42, had directed those latter two movies as well. Even though he’s claimed to be thought of as “a vulgar sellout kind of entertainer,” I’ve heard stories of his life experiences influencing his craft.
Unlike the big budget candyfloss world of love-shove spun out by directors such as Karan Johar, where characters live in unimaginable luxury and engage in witty repartee, Ali’s movies have been lauded for portraying realistic romances with characters you care about. They have usually fared well both at the box-office and with critics, making Ali part of the current crop of filmmakers to watch for alongside contemporaries such as Anurag Kashyap and Zoya Akhtar. He made you believe in Kareena Kapoor’s effervescent Geet in Jab We Met, for instance. Or brood with Ranbir Kapoor’s sufi-rocker Jordan in Rockstar. You are willing to suspend disbelief, and anticipate going on yet another journey with Kapoor and Deepika Padukone with the tentatively titled Window Seat, which will start shooting mid-2014. As for his latest film in theatres now, it is quite literally a road trip of a movie.
Starring Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda, Highway tells the story of a high society bride-to-be Veera and her kidnapper Mahabir. A few days before her wedding, Veera convinces her fiance to go for a short drive. But things go horribly wrong, and soon Veera is captive in a truck, being held for ransom by Mahabir. At odds at first, Veera and Mahabir eventually warm up to each other as the truck winds down the highway through six North Indian states.
It’s a story he’s waited 15 years to tell.
Born and raised in Jamshedpur, Ali often accompanied his father on trips for his job as an engineer in an irrigation office. Ali’s father continues to work as a consultant/advisor to the governments of Orissa and Jharkhand, as well as NGOs and corporate houses.
“My father often worked in rural areas, and it gave me an insight into the lives of those people who don’t live in the cities, and who might not be of the same socioeconomic class who we usually hang out with,” he says. He often felt his friends in the city knew little about the lives of India’s 99 per cent.
“There was an incident while I was studying for advertising,” he explains. “We had gone for a workshop in a hilltown outside Bombay. A couple of girls, who live in the city, went straight out the highway, and to this dhaba. There they got in an altercation with some truckers. The truckers chased them, and the girls ran back to the compound. They came very close to getting caught by these truckies.
“That incident remained with me for a long time. And eventually I worked it into a story … about a city girl, not really knowing how her life would change if she were taken away from the city on the highway, away from her recognizable world. What would it lead her to think and see.”
Ali sounds tired, and his voice dips in and out over the saat-samundar-paar phone line. I imagine him sitting on a couch, trying to find a comfortable spot, trying to listen to the questions with his eyes closed in concentration. His answers begin with a ‘Hmm,’ and have the cadence of a teacher explaining film theory to a class full of students.
He characterizes his own journey into filmmaking as drifting from literature to media/advertising, TV and then finally films.
“I didn’t even know anyone who had seen a film shooting,” he says. “I couldn’t even admit to myself that I wanted to be a film director.”
Nevertheless, Ali grew up watching movies instead of TV. His relatives in Jamshedpur ran a cinema theatre, which was attached to their house. There were times when he lived in their house for long stretches. From his room, he could hear the sound of the movies playing.
“As a kid I would sneak into the cinema theatre and sit over there in the darkness, fascinated by what was going on, on the screen,” he says. “Often I didn’t get a chance of watching an entire film. But I would just watch snatches, and feel entertained and elated by the experience of being there. And also the projectionist of one of the cinema theatres was someone who kind of silently was OK with me snooping around in the projection room while the film played. Sometimes he would ask for my help. He would light up cigarette and smoke while the film was playing.
“When I saw this movie Cinema Paradiso, it’s a similar kind of world. In an old fashioned theatre, from the projection room there’s a very small hole from which you can look at the film. I used to also do that, sometimes.”
This experience gave Ali a sense of connection to the world of cinema. He was inspired by small bits in various movies, some of them good, some of them not so good, he says before rattling off a list that includes Amitabh Bachchan’s films such as Mr. Natwarlal, and Giraftaar, the films of Mithun Chakraborty, and Sanam Teri Kasam.
“JP Dutta’s Ghulami, that was one film that did inspire me a lot,” he says. “It was the location. Ghulami was shot in the lesser-known areas of Rajasthan. At the time I was a very little travelled little boy. But I always had a secret desire to go to those places where Ghulami was shot.
“After I grew up and came to Bombay, I took a holiday. Just to go and see those places. It happened to be in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan. And then I went there I think twice to shoot … Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal.”
While journeys have always played a metaphorical role in his movies, the locations truly inspired Highway’s script. Having dwelled on it for 15 years, he felt he knew the story well enough.
“And the thought came to mind that I wrote a script and then executed it on the journey, I would lose the essence of being there. Any good journey film should be free flowing, it should invite more from the atmosphere than just shooting on location,” he says.
Besides the dialogues, and new scenes, Ali was also inspired by the changes he saw in his actors.
“I was tracking Alia,” he says. “She had never taken a journey like this … and I would talk to her about herself, how she felt about where she was. I came to know her better and realized, for instance, that she talks to herself. I used that in the film.
“There is a scene in [Highway where she’s on top of a sand dune, and she asks herself how she was. And then she answers herself, I’ll find out and let you know.”
Highway has received mixed reviews from the critics, almost universally praised for its lush landscapes and criticized for its uneven script and acting. Then there are some who call it an indie movie.
“Neither am I well acquainted, nor do I spend time on classifying movies,” he says. “All I know is that I want to tell stories, and I want to them through cinema. I make them the way they come. What I do believe is that I want to reach the maximum number of people with my movies … that they are entertained by it. That’s my only motivation.”
By Aparita Bhandari