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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Imtiaz Ali: “Sometimes Your Films are More Personal to you than Your Own Life”

Imtiaz Ali is an illustrious filmmaker who has the talent to convey real and poignant stories in an artistic manner.

He started his career with writing and directing television shows before making his directorial debut with Abhay Deol-Ayesha Takia starrer Socha Na Tha.

As such, many of his movies are philosophically appealing, in which many depict characters on a journey of some kind – be it geographical or sentimental.

But above all, his films have always depicted the theme of self-discovery – especially with ventures like Jab We Met, Tamasha, Highway and Jab Harry Met Sejal (to a certain extent).

In a candid and exclusive interview, Imtiaz joins Filme Shilmy for a cinematic talk beyond the screen as we understand his creative vision.

There is always a profound and philosophical touch in all of your films. What drives your vision as a storyteller?

I think it’s the things that I see around me and the people that I meet. I have this pre-condition that I begin to imagine incidents, accidents and relationships around those people.

Soon enough it becomes fictional out of control by me and starts to come to a point where like an infection wants to come out and that’s when the story/film is made.

As for the profound and philosophical aspect, I try not to have anything like that in my films… It’s just that I feel stories should be there for entertainment purposes rather than moral science or education.

My perspective carries what I enjoy the most. Everything has a basis in life, but one has to go deeper.

Your movies showcase characters on a particular journey. As a filmmaker, what do you discover about yourself before, during and after a project?

Every time I watch my films, I really feel as though I’ve exposed myself and hope that nobody else gets it.

Those (journies) are not incidents in my life. I don’t write anything autobiographical but there are certain ideas and thoughts which express themselves. Those are things I don’t really tell people about but are expressed in the movies.

While making a film, there are different times where it strikes me that I have ended up, without my permission, things that I have either encountered or hoped to have in my life.

During writing or shootings, sometimes it really hits me so I exclaim loudly and the actor knows what happened.

Even edits during the background scores, I realise that I have a certain stain or a taint on a character because of certain aspects that are personal.

With each film, you discover different aspects of yourself at different times.

The films often showcase two damaged souls attempting to heal each other through a journey. How much of this is drawn from your personal life?

Almost any incident depicted in the film has not really occurred with me.

For instance, my father did not stop me or compel me to become an engineer against my wishes.

It’s not as though I couldn’t get married to the girl I wanted.

Having said that some thoughts and ideas are referenced from my life like when I was younger than Janardhan Jakhar (from Rockstar), I believed that “my life is so ordinary, how will I make it extraordinary?”

I was perturbed by the thought that it’s only pain that gives you real significance in life.

Many times, I have hoped that I miss my train with a beautiful girl but that has not really happened (laughs).

I’m supposed to be very lucky on that respect. When growing up and travelled to college etc, my friends would try to come and sit where my berth was because inevitably the most beautiful girl on the train would be close by.

It was always a coincidental thing but I hoped that I would miss the train with her… But that never happened.

Sometimes your films are more personal to you than your own life. The fact that I’ve had a series of incidents in my life does not make those things more personal to me.

Those are just incidents that happened and whilst I did face a similar dilemma like Ranbir’s character in Tamasha, the circumstances at that point in my life were completely different.

My priorities were different too. Like the child in Tamasha, I have grown up around stories and thinking of things that didn’t exist, etc so the pre-disquisition was the same but conditions in life were not the same as I was not stopped from doing what I wanted to.

Perhaps it’s something to think about… If those things did not happen and if my father wasn’t the supporting type, then what would it have been like?

It is admirable to see the prominent referencing of Rumi in your work. What role do his ideologies and words play in your life?

It’s not as though I was a scholar of Rumi’s life or even aware of what he had written.

Only during the making of Rockstar where a lot of people, coincidentally, sent me content written by Rumi.

I found a huge echo of what I was doing in the film through Rumi’s writing.

That was pretty coincidental and eerie… It was almost as though whatever I was thinking, Rumi had already been there and mentioned something which was useful for me to reference as an inspiration.

There are more references in Rockstar, than we know – especially in the songs and dialogues. He has really shaped the film.

But prior to the movie, I was hardly even aware of Rumi. But his work is universal.

For instance, if you take the quote “what you seek is seeking you” and put it on top of Jab We Met, it will be equally valid.

At that point, I didn’t hear this. There are many things that have come co-incidentally.

Since we’re talking about philosophy, I have been greatly influenced (especially in the last 5 years or so) that the Sufi philosophy is not only similar to the Geeta but is exactly the same.

There is no difference. What Rumi writes is what Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Geeta… There are so many things that are similar.

I read the Geeta very early on in my life and I brought it to interest people in how profound and deep I was.

Sufi dictum says the same thing, if I see what Buddhism says, it’s pretty much the same thing. Actually, it’s always the same story.

Even if you look at Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s poetry or any other philosophical texts and anybody who is of significance, it will point in the same direction.

It’s not important to have experienced one philosophy or the other. To have a disposition that you are involved with a deeper thought brings you to the same thing.

Punjab seems to form pivotal backdrops in your films. Why is that?

It’s not as though I’m from Punjab. I have been raised in a very cosmopolitan environment but I have been aware of Punjabi culture.

I travelled a lot to Punjab while I was at college and then repeatedly. But I sense a certain type of depth and vibrancy in that culture that these two co-exist.

There are great profundity and great vivacity in everything.

I feel the soil in Punjab is special and this is my later discovery.

But after Highway, while I travelled those parts of Punjab, near the border of India and Pakistan a lot, I realised that place is infested with people and lives that have been extremely spiritual.

Which is why all love stories of India basically are love stories of Punjab… Any noteworthy story that you’ve heard of whether it’s Heer-Ranjha, Soni-Mahiwal or Mirza-Sahibaan, all of them are Punjabi love stories.

There is so much spiritual writing that comes from there, there are so many saints and fakirs (like Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah).

These are not people who were heavy philosophers, they were people who were also very vibrant.

Punjab has gone through so much. A lot of blood has been shed on that land that it is has somehow made that land more fertile.

So that presence of that profundity and the vivacity at the same point, I think, is subconsciously what drew me towards it.

Now I realise it, some of the most popular references from Punjabi bolis (songs) are very profound and philosophical… That is why it runs so much.

For example, “Main Nai Boldi Boldi, Main Nai Boldi, Mere Te Mera Yaar Bolda”.

The song highlights that “it is not me saying this, it is my beloved who is speaking from within”. That is ‘tappa’ which is so famous in Punjab but it is so deep.

Tamasha initially seemed like a typical Bollywood love story whilst Laila Majnu’s story is legendary. How do you present a fresh angle in the conventional stories each time?

Maybe it’s because I am uneducated in the subject of cinema and haven’t studied it at all.

I have enjoyed watching movies and there was a time where I used to watch a lot of them.

However, it’s not like I used to watch films to study them. Therefore, I’m compelled to make only those films/stories that I think of.

I can only make them in a way that I can or know. So whilst writing a story, I am not even aware of how other stories are and whether I should be different from them.

If at all, I have tried to belong to the norm of making movies.

But because I was never educated in cinema, I could not really belong to the ‘norm’ and was somebody who breaks a mould… It’s not by design.

You did an acting role in Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday. Were there ever plans to pursue that full-time ?

That’s just because he’s a very old friend and arm-twisted me… I’m not interested in acting at all actually (laughs).

I had acted for many years in theatre and while I was doing so, I became more interested in direction. I used to get many offers to act whilst in theatre and after I came to Bombay. 

But since I was interested in direction, I thought of not pursuing acting as it would become a distraction for me.

The other thing is that I had done acting enough to help me determine my decision of not pursuing it.

From Abhay Deol to Sara Ali Khan, you’ve worked with several newcomers over the years. How challenging is it to mould new actors?

I have worked with new actors all my life in the theatre. I began working as a director really when I was in school and directing my friends in school plays.

I have always been working with new actors who are not trained.

Of course, even then it was my choice to pick up those actors who had the interest and potential which I continue to do now.

It’s always interesting to work with actors that don’t think they know what to do.

There is this certain pre-rolling nature that all of us have in life because we are just ‘being’ rather than ‘acting’ or ‘pretending’.

As such, similar quality can be achieved by new actors with ease. I feel good working with newcomers.

Recently, I worked with Sara Ali Khan and Kartik Aaryan and these two were extremely devoted.

They were in complete surrender mode and one thing common between them is that they had the great awesome emotional energy.

Even if they have been times they were completely emotionally drained, I would ask them to change something and go back… Which they would do again without hesitation.

Sometimes they would even suggest it. In this movie, there were many scenes which were emotionally devouring.

I was extremely impressed by their patience and emotional perseverance and by the fact that they were fresh and inspiring. 

How do you think the Bollywood industry needs to change given the changing times?

I feel it should be more democratic. The Indian film industry should have more open gates… Really speaking, the industry is a reflection of what people want in movies.

People, as such, should start watching movies that are exciting for their subject and the talent used rather than relying on ‘names’.

That will make the film industry have more talented individuals working here.

I feel that India has a greater depth of talent, than what is reflected in the film industry. 

The film industry should also make the effort to reach the corners of the country to bring out the best talent available.

Digital platforms have helped. The audience is leading the film industry they are watching versatile films of higher calibres.

They don’t have to restrict themselves to the Indian film industry while watching movies.

This has given impetus to the fraternity to be more of itself and refined in its communication.

Listen to our interview with Imtiaz Ali here:

The digital platform is popular. How do you hope to contribute towards this growing medium of entertainment?

Personally, I’m very excited about venturing onto the digital platforms because of there a few series in progress, which I am working on.

It is great because the content does not rest on a 1.5/2 hour duration.

Some stories have a  longer life and need to be focused on a lot more detail and many intricacies to deal with. 

I’m extremely excited and at the same time, it just makes me wonder what would’ve happened if I was making something like Jab We Met now.

Would I have made that film into a series? Because there are so many layers in each of my stories that I’ve not gone into because of the duration conditions.

Now it is possible to take our time with it. 

I basically feel like I’m a theatrical film director, but there are many stories that I have not made or could have made differently if the OTT platform was available earlier. 

Nonetheless, I’m really glad it is available now. 

Since Raj Kapoor, there wasn’t a filmmaker in Bollywood who has really grasped profundity and philosophy to the core, but Imtiaz seems to have filled that gap. 

Imtiaz’s thought-process is as poetic as his films. By observing and consuming the surroundings, his ventures showcase his enriched awareness of the world we live in.

But the fact that his cinema transcends the conventional paradigms of life shows how his vision and concepts are extraordinary. 

Imtiaz Ali is not just a filmmaker. He himself is an ideology.

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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