(A shorter version of this interview by Anna MM Vetticad appeared in the February 2014 issue of Maxim magazine)
HEADLINE: “Living in a society in a certain routine, is often a role you impose upon yourself”
What is it about love and the road that repeatedly draws director Imtiaz Ali? Would one of the country’s most successful creators of romances ever consider making a film about a same-sex couple? And why does he consider rom-coms “artificial” and “chocolatey”? The answers are all in this exclusive interview with the man who gave us Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal.
By Anna M.M. Vetticad
Jab We Met and your latest film Highway are both road movies. What is it about the road that you find so appealing?
What I find appealing about the road is that when you’re travelling, not only is it entertaining because you see new places, but you discover things about yourself that you did not know before. Anyone on a journey becomes a more interesting person to themselves.
In what ways have you become more interesting to yourself when you have been on the road?
I used to get this feeling that sitting on the window seat of a railway train is like watching television, with new things constantly going on. So much of the time you wander away. I used to get this feeling that I’ve wandered away outside the train, into the forest, and become a different person. New thoughts would come. I would have different views. I’d have this feeling that that is who I really am. I would feel like a different person.
But often when we return home after a journey, we describe it as coming back to reality, coming back to the real world. So then could it be that what we discover about ourselves on a journey is an illusion? Are you sure that is the real us?
I often feel that living in a society in a certain routine, in a set pattern of behaviour, is often a role that you impose upon yourself. While playing that role you become that role. You become that guy in office who behaves in a certain way, that guy who lives in a house, in a society, in a colony. You become that person. But when you are out and there is no reference of who you are, no one to remind you of who you are, and you can be anything, in that situation it’s actually easier to be what you’re really meant to be.
What does the romance genre mean to you?
I don’t understand the word “genre”. I don’t even know how to pronounce it. It means nothing to me, and I don’t bother about it. I’m not scholarly as far as cinema is concerned. I’ve not studied much. I’ve not paid attention to categories. I’ve not wanted to make movies that are of any type. I just work on any thought that grabs me, and that’s the movie that comes out. It is later that a genre can be set upon it.
How then has it come about that all your films have been romances?
That’s a pre-disposition. The kind of stories that have appealed to me are stories about a man and a woman having some sort of a thing together. It’s not as though I do it deliberately.
And why are you pre-disposed to romances?
No idea. I don’t necessarily like watching romantic films. I just like good stories. I don’t even like soft romantic comedies. I’d rather watch an action or horror film. There’s a certain chocolateyness, an artificialness to rom-coms that I find boring.
Are there any romances you have liked that didn’t seem artificial to you?
Many. What rom-coms do is that they have certain set visuals and costume design, a certain foppishness with which they show people, that I don’t like. The romantic films I like, such as Dr Zhivago or Wong Kar Wai’s Chunking Express, are romantic yet real. They are not only occupied with feelings of love but also with other practicalities or situations in life, which then allows me to enjoy the feelings the lead couple have for each other.
Chungking Express and Dr Zhivago are great films but isn’t it also true that what you are calling real is very melodramatic?
Real life can be far more extraordinary, unusual and unreal than what happens in movies like Dr Zhivago and Chungking Express. And of course a filmmaker or storywriter will pick up a story which is extraordinary, not the usual thing.
Any Indian romances that you found real and believable?
Shyam Benegal’s Junoon is symbolic of my taste in romantic films. I really enjoyed the feeling that they have for each other, but it’s in the real world.
You said that as a filmmaker you tend to think in terms of boy-girl love stories. Would you be open to making boy-boy or girl-girl romances?
Ya sure, why not? I don’t really know that much about it so such stories may not come naturally to me right now, but if I had such a story, I’ll be very happy.
You think the Hindi film industry and the Indian audience are at a stage where they could accept such a story from someone like you, considering that you are not seen as an art-house filmmaker, but as a middle-of-the-road kind of guy?
If it is sensitive, real and enjoyable, if I have a good story, for sure I think they will. You know there’s no such thing as a time for anything new. You’ve got to first do it and then figure it out. People are always going to be ready for it if it’s good.
A lot of gay rights activists feel that Hindi cinema has always mocked and stereotyped homosexual people and never shown gay people as regular people. Is that a fair criticism?
I agree with them. But keep in mind that cinema and communication are progressing in our country. There was a time when Sikhs were only shown as truck drivers, but today they are also mainline heroes in commercial Hindi films like Singh Is Kinng or my own Love Aaj Kal. So the earlier cliché used to be that homosexual people were effeminate, male and behaving like a eunuch. But people are beginning to understand. It only takes one film. Anyway, the movie has to be interesting. We always put it on the people. Will they accept it or not? Arrey, people will accept a film that’s entertaining first.
You mentioned that you tend to draw on your personal experiences while making a film but does that necessarily mean that your films all have autobiographical elements in them?
Not strictly autobiographical, but there are extensions of thoughts, certain events and personality traits, a sort of an umbilical chord.
When I was younger I used to always think that I wouldn’t be able to make it because I don’t have a tragic life. You found that in the hero of Rockstar. In Jab We Met what is autobiographical is when Geet says, “Ratlam, train se dekha karti thhi yeh gali, yeh ghar. Mujhe lagta thha, pata nahin how will it be to be here. (I used to see Ratlam from the train and wonder how these houses, these streets will be. I used to wonder how it will be to be here.) But today I’m walking on this lane. Wow man!” That kind of thing of looking at something, imagining it and having the fascination of going there some day. Geet also says, “Mujhe yeh sapne aate thhey ki train miss ho jayegi (I used to dream that I would miss my train).” I used to have that. It was a recurring dream that went away after I made Jab We Met.
Because all your films have a love story at their core, do people you meet socially ask you for relationship advice?
They do. But I never kid myself that I have solutions to offer them. I tell them very clearly that although we can talk, they shouldn’t expect that I will know any better than they would.
What’s the kind of thing people ask you?
People whose lives have something in common with my films will always begin their conversations with that. For instance, a lot of people told me that they had broken up with a girlfriend, but after two years, after watching Love Aaj Kal, they got back with her. Lots of such couples came to meet me and said, “It’s only because of that film that we’re back together now. What is it that we can do to avoid any problem in the future?” I would always say that I don’t know. After watching Rockstar it was, “I don’t know what to think of this guy. He’s not pleasant with me but I don’t think he can get me out of his system and neither can I, so do you think I should fall prey to this kind of desire?” You know that kind of thing. But I’ve never offered any advice because there is a certain responsibility and I can’t misuse this position. If I tell some poor kid some shit just to feel better about myself, they can get into trouble.
Who approaches you more for love advice? Men or women?
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I think men feel hesitant in asking someone who’s also their age. And women are much more comfortable talking about a love or relationship issue than men are.
But how about some advice for Maxim readers in the month of Valentine’s Day? Is there such a thing as the ideal kind of film a guy could take a girl for on a date?
A horror film. For obvious reasons. When you’re watching the film, if she gets scared she’ll hug you. Even after the film the shadows will be creeping up, so she’ll feel protected sticking to you. It’s a good start.
But if she knows already that that’s a trick, then it had better be a damn good horror film for that ploy to work, otherwise she’ll be so self-conscious.
Ya ya, but even if she knows about it, as long as she’s getting scared she doesn’t have any option but to do that.
But what about a romance? Does it make sense too?
Ya, that’s a girl thought. A girl would take a guy to a really intense romantic film on the theme of being together and all of that, then she will get him to feel that way and look at her that way. But the guy is not looking for that kind of thing, especially at the age at which they’re going for dates. (pauses) That’s not true. I’m generalising, but there is that kind of an impression perhaps falsely in society that men are looking physically and women are looking emotionally. I must qualify this by saying this is a myth but generally it’s believed to be true.
Do you find women more romantically inclined towards you as a person because you make romantic films?
(Pauses) I’m not so clear about that. That could be true. (Pauses) You know what, women have this feeling that this guy at least understands. Ya. Could be, yes. I’m not sure about that.
Footnote: I conducted this interview with Imtiaz Ali in January 2014, precisely 22 months before the release of Tamasha which is in theatres just this week. A shorter version was published in Maxim magazine’s Valentine’s Day special in February 2014, which was the same month in which his film Highway (starring Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda) was released. I happened to revisit the conversation after writing my review of Tamasha this week and realised that he was perhaps thinking aloud about Ved back then when he responded to my question: Could it be that what we discover about ourselves on a journey is an illusion? I wonder if he was working on Tamasha’s script back then, or it was already done, or it was just an idea in his head. Either way, that’s a question to ask in my next interview.
Related link (Tamasha review):
Note: These photographs were not published in Maxim