While filmmakers often meet journalists in their office or their home (a space where they're most comfortable), Imtiaz Ali, in what is befitting, is hanging around a cozy, dimly-lit, obscure cafe in Andheri, a suburb in Western Mumbai.
It's a cafe you'd miss easily, one that you need to find. That's Imtiaz -- he, who famously made the quietly forgotten town of Ratlam famous all over the country. He, of train romances and bike rides that culminate in green fields with figurative boundaries.
Few filmmakers carry a signature style that separates their work from others and Imtiaz is one of them. There is an effortless realism in his films, a sense of ease in which his characters converse -- they often tend to verbalise their emotions. If you notice, his characters not only feel emotions, they talk about that feeling, as if the emotions won't be real if left unsaid.
While there is a sense of deep melancholy in his movies, there's also something very life-affirming. Whether it's the cathartic climax of Tamasha and Highway or the disruptively intense romance and non-conformism of Rockstar, Imtiaz's influence as a filmmaker -- and his sway on pop-culture -- cannot be underestimated. At the same time, we must also address some of his shortcomings.
"If a female character is rescuing the male character in a film, then, in a way, I am just imitating life. Personally, I have seen that happen a lot of times. "
In this interview, the director talks about his cinema, his motivations and what love has come to mean to him.
The success of Jab We Met propelled you to a space where you became a unique voice of contemporary romance. There was almost an aspirational quality to the romance of Geet and Aditya. As a young man coming of age, I remember wanting to meet a Geet. Do you remember how the character was conceived? Was it modelled on someone?
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Geet was not modelled on anyone, although I know of some girls, who actually behave and talk like that. After the film released, in all these 10 years, a lot of girls have come up to me and said that they are called 'Geet' in their circles. There are a lot of girls, who love to talk, and who feel they are their own favourites. But I hadn't particularly modelled her on anyone .
A self-loving girl who sees the best in everyone is a rare protagonist.
Yes, and more than just being a self-loving girl, Geet is a girl who instantly trusts everyone and says everything that comes to her mind, without any kind of a filter. She has a basic innocence and inherent positivity...
Yeah, an innocence that isn't corrupted by the ways of the world ...
Yeah, she is not corrupt, and also, even if she has bad experiences, what she takes away from them is not angst. Like, she had a bad experience with the guy selling water at that railway station. Her takeaway from that experience isn't negative. So I think, there is a certain positivity and bumbling naivety that characterises her. And yes, I have seen a lot of girls like that.
Post Jab We Met, your movies have largely opened to polarising responses, Rockstar and Tamasha being two of the most prime examples of that. I feel Tamasha is your most complex film so far and Ranbir's finest performance. For me, the film is almost like a meditative, religious experience. However, what I do feel is that the film's female character, like in many of your films, functions solely to rescue the troubled male protagonist.
(Laughs) I don't know whether that's an allegation or a compliment. If a female character is rescuing the male character in a film, then, in a way, I am just imitating life. Personally, I have seen that happen a lot of times. I don't take it as a negative comment at all and that's really what I have to say about that 'allegation'.
"Women are more intelligent, aware and practical. They come up with solutions that men don't even imagine."
You are saying it comes from your own lived experiences or perhaps experiences of others who you happen to know of?
It is a lived experience. Of course, I have seen a lot of times when that has happened. Of course, guys have also gotten into trouble with girls but to me, that is mundane. I see a lot of women contributing positively to the lives of men and I have also seen and I have no shame in admitting this -- that I genuinely find women to be smarter than men. Women are more intelligent, aware and practical. They come up with solutions that men don't even imagine.
Well, that's great but this approach becomes problematic because you are looking at women in the context of men and from a male gaze. Are you are okay with that? You wouldn't want to do it differently?
See, when I am making a story, believe it or not, I am not making a statement. There are 500 things that the characters of my films have said that I don't personally believe in. Why should every character endorse the view of one person? That would be so unfortunate. That would also be very limiting. I don't want that. I think there are things that Aditya (from Jab We Met) says, or Jordan (Rockstar) says, or Heer (Rockstar) says that I don't believe in. But they are not me. I am just the writer.
But they are an extension of your imagination and represent your worldview.
Well, not 100 per cent.
Of course they are an extension of my imagination. I, like every human being, when I take a decision, I am aware of the logic on both the sides -- whether I should go left or right. Whichever side I go, I know positives and negatives of both left and right. And my characters can represent left and right. They don't need to go into a direction that I, personally, in my life, would have gone. I, sometimes, don't even bother to think what I would have done in my life in that situation. I just feel that Geet could have done this, so, she is doing this. I am not her moral compass at all.
There is a cyclic process in your films where the characters realise they are in love with someone else, when they get or are about to get married. There is this awakening where another character makes them realise that the person they are in love with isn't the one for them. Where does that come from? What is so interesting about that conflict that you keep going back to it whether it's Socha Na Tha, Love Aaj Kal, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Rockstar and to an extent, Jab We Met?
Ummm. I don't think I have a good enough answer to this question really.
But it is a pattern, right?
Yes, of course, it is a pattern. I totally recognise the fact that they (characters) seem to change their minds. But it's not as if though... actually, I don't know where it is coming from. There are other patterns in my films too. Like there is a pattern of anti-establishment. Whether it is Geet running away from her house, or in Rockstar, him (Ranbir Kapoor's character, Jordan) saying 'Sadda Haq', sort of breaking out, there is this reluctance to conform to established norms. Even that doesn't directly come from my life. In the same vein, people changing their romantic muses, is also not influenced from my personal life. One lives and learns... One thing I would say -- what I thought love was, has changed completely. And it has been changing for a while. It's changed to an extent that I don't really use this word anymore. Is that a good enough answer? Because that's the only answer I have.
"If you ask me about my feelings of love, what I have understood is that love is just a direction, not the destination."
Let's talk about evolution of love. (There was) a point when commitment mattered a lot. That was also a time when choices were limited. Then there was a time when we became romantically democratic but commitment was still sacrosanct. But now, when romantic options are just a swipe away, people don't commit easily because everyone thinks there's something better out there. Because of the safety net of an easy alternative, which is so accessible, you don't value the current. At least that's what I feel. Thoughts?
But here's what I feel. When you are talking about love, you perhaps think so, but you aren't really talking about someone else, say your lover. You are, in a way, just talking about your own self, about what you love or what you are looking for. And that is what needs definition. The other person, in my opinion, is just an object for you, just a vehicle to realise your own feelings. You know these are things, which I am telling you, because you are asking. I don't have answers for them. But if you ask me about my feelings of love, what I have understood is that love is just a direction, not the destination.
Interesting. I feel nobody can define love. But what we can do is look for its interpretation through art, literature, and cinema.
Yes, yes, yes absolutely. As a filmmaker, I look for life and I look for the meaning of love through the making of my own cinema. That's where my learning happens.
You know what I now find interesting is what you said before about your characters being non-conformists. Examine it closely and you see a template coming out of that non-conformism. What I am trying to see is, as a whole, you have started to conform to a template that you, yourself, have created. Do you question that sometimes?
Hmm, perhaps. I do question that and although I am unwilling to make a movie that does not naturally come to me or is organically interests me, I am looking to make different kinds of films. By this, I don't mean different genres. I just mean different in nature.
As you mentioned before, your lived experiences find a way into your films so do you feel as you grow older, your lived experiences get fewer? As a filmmaker do you find the very nature of that concept limiting?
No, I don't think that's limiting. When you grow old, different kinds of experiences happen. At every age, there are different kinds of intense experiences that happen. To be involved with life is, for sure, very important, to be involved with cinema, and to know what you have to say before you say it also very important. Lived experiences seep into your film, yes. But not in the obvious manner. Very subtly.
"My personal experiences in marriage has not made me cynical at all. I have always been misquoted about marriage."
About people leaving their partner for a different pursuit, if I may, does that come from your personal experience of marriage? Has that made you cynical about the very institution?
No. My personal experiences in marriage has not made me cynical at all. I have always been misquoted about marriage. So, sometimes I don't feel like talking about it because I know exactly where it will land up. Let me not say anything on this. I actually want to say something else...
It doesn't go with the narrative that the media wants to follow? Does that make you uncomfortable?
Yeah, because maybe I am trying to discover much about life in an interview and there are people who are often looking at (getting) the quotes.
So you are cynical about the media, not marriage.
(Laughs) Let's put it like that. I am just a little careful because I don't want to make the same mistake again and again. But often what is obvious is not what I have to say.
In 2012, you wrote a film called, Cocktail, which Homi Adajania directed. Despite being a hit, the film still remains contentious because of the way it depicted its women characters.
(Interrupts) See, the point is that if I don't direct the movie then I don't own the authorship of it.
But it's still yours, it's your writing.
Writing is interpreted in 500 different ways. You give me Mughal-e-Azam and I will make it something else if I am directing it.
In hindsight, how do you look at it (Cocktail)?
I don't think there was anything wrong in the way it was. In fact, how it was supposed to be was Veronica (Deepika Padukone's character in Cocktail) is the type that this guy (played by Saif Ali Khan) likes. The whole point was that he goes against his type because that particular person (Diana Penty's character) he likes a lot. It had nothing to do with somebody being Indian, or somebody being more acceptable to his family.
"I have never had a male or a female writer. As much as you feel there is gender-inequality in my films, I get a lot of female adulation because they feel women in my films are strong vis-a-vis some of the other movies. "
Do you then think the issue was in the storytelling there because the film is widely perceived as that (problematic)? There's also a slut-shaming angle to it as you see Veronica, who smokes and is more 'free' not getting the guy. The film sends the message that you can have 'fun' with her but wouldn't want to settle down with her. I am fairly certain you must have heard this many times before.
Yes, 100 times. And every time I say the same thing -- if I haven't directed it, I can't claim it. Nobody reads the script. The script that I wrote, people should actually read it. Not that I am saying that the director (Homi Adjania) messed it up but it just came through differently than the way it was intended to.
Have you processed the response towards Jab Harry Met Sejal?
Yes. The film is nice. I like the film and I will have my own opinion. I don't read what the critics say, anyway. I am not here to control public opinion or condemn or approve it. But I will have my own opinion and the good thing is that cinema is everlasting.
100 per cent. Of course, I have made mistakes in every movie and I am sure I must have made some mistakes in Jab Harry Met Sejal as well. But I am not less proud of it than any other film of mine, for sure.
A lot of people believe that if you collaborate with a female writer, the gender-imbalance in your films will correct itself.
Maybe. But I cannot take each suggestion from everybody, then do it and see how it goes. I still have to do with my own mind. I will have to go by own instinct. People do have opinions, and I respect them. I am not bothered about that (negative response). I have never had a male or a female writer. As much as you feel there is gender-inequality in my films, I get a lot of female adulation because they feel women in my films are strong vis-a-vis some of the other movies. So, somebody's opinion is not the gospel truth.
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