Director Imtiaz Ali still shudders at the thought of the chilly nights he spent in Kaza, Nako and Tabo in Himachal Pradesh. The whole team of his recently released film Highway huddled up on the attic of a shop as all the hotels in the area were closed. They dreaded nightfall and bonded over the fear and uncertainty about whether their bodies would be able to survive yet another night. “We were cooking together, eating together like a big family; we were actually helping each other,” says Ali. “Like, if I had two pairs of warm socks, I would give one to someone else because I know everybody will have a problem sleeping in this weather.” Despite being advised against going to Himachal Pradesh during winter, he chose to take that risk and so did his team of technicians and actors. “That is what brings about a certain sense of happiness ultimately,” he says. “We have been there for each other during the worst of times and we will remember and cherish such moments forever.”
That sense of uncertainty, adventure, fear and, finally, happiness and contentment is what Ali—the travel junkie—seeks out in life. He finds it liberating to be displaced from the monotony of being at home and the thrill of it only seems to grow with each day. And the same rubs off on the characters he creates. Be it Aditi and Viren of his debut film, Socha Na Tha, the fiery ‘museum piece’ Geet Dhillon of Jab We Met, Megha of the long-forgotten Aahista Aahista (which he scripted), or Harleen Kaur and Veer Singh of Love Aaj Kal, his protagonists usually discover or rediscover themselves through a journey which they set off on either by choice or force. Highway is also based on a similar theme, and this time it is Delhi-bred Veera who undergoes a transformation as she travels across six north Indian states with her kidnappers.
“It is a project with which I wanted to start my career,” says Ali. “With each film I made, I would promise myself that I would make Highway next.” But it took him 15 years to make this road movie and he is more than happy that it did. The more he grew as a filmmaker, the story became simpler and clearer in his head. Produced by his own banner Window Seat Productions, Highway has been shot completely on location in natural lights and with no elaborate gadgets. “I decided that in this film I should not show off as a director,” he says. “Highway is about a theme that is universal and I knew it needed only basic technological support to be able to narrate this story.”
Ali, who spent his childhood in smaller towns like Jamshedpur, Bhubaneswar and Patna, says that he was vicariously living his dream of travelling through north India with his film. As a child, he used
to wait for vacations because that was when his family travelled to shrines or to meet relatives. “I was an introvert and I found that I was at peace only while travelling. It was like being in a different world altogether, a welcome break from my boring life,” he says. “The best thing about travelling is that you don’t have to stick to that image of who you are perceived to be.” On the train journeys from Jamshedpur to his college in Delhi, he remembers always travelling by the unreserved compartment for the company of an exciting and diverse mix of co-travellers. He soon found the introvert in him loosening up. Curiosity took over and he interacted with all kinds of people, having long conversations with them about their lives and loves.
The constant din of dialogues from his uncle’s single-screen theatres—Karim Talkies, Jamshedpur Talkies and Star Talkies—around which Ali grew up, helped when he started writing plays during his college days. He then decided to move to Mumbai to try his hand in films. Ali claims that he had a wrong and simplistic notion about the monster that the film industry is. He did struggle and there were days when, as a paying guest in Yari Road, he would wonder whether he was really cut out for it. Amid cigarette smoke and many glasses of ‘cutting chai’ came the idea for his maiden script Socha Na Tha. Although it tanked at the box office, Ali and the film’s lead actor Abhay Deol didn’t go unnoticed.
Audiences who were used to the melodramatic, over-the-top depiction of love in films did not know what to make out of Ali’s straight-talking characters. After a long while, they were looking at characters who looked and talked like real people. It took two more years for people to laugh their heart out when Kareena Kapoor as Geet in Jab We Met declares, “Main apni favourite hoon!” They lauded him for narrating the story of Meera and Jai post their break-up in Love Aaj Kal and bringing to life the frustation and angst of lovestruck Jordan in Rockstar.
All his films are appreciated for its realistic dialogues and well-rounded characters. This, claims Ali, is because he is bad at the craft of writing. “I am a director first,” he says. “So whatever I visualise, I write it down. I do not know many big words which is why I tend to write in everyday language. I am glad that people have loved that aspect in my films.” He has a similar explanation for the strong and lively female characters in his films. “Never in my life have I come across a girl who is just unidimensional,” he says. “I have only met people who are dynamic, lively and have a 360-degree character. I write about what I have seen and the people I have met.”
In life, as in films, it is always about the journey more than the destination. “There have been many times when I have reached my destination and then I have felt that coming all this way was way more enchanting,” says Ali. “Not necessarily having a nauseating ride in the heat in a car, but stepping out of my comfort zone into a dramatic array of opportunities.” Alia Bhatt, who plays Veera in Highway, can’t seem to agree more. She admits that she doubted herself when Ali offered her the part, and now she can’t thank him enough for placing his trust in her and for having gifted her “the experience of a lifetime”. “Whatever you have heard about Imtiaz is less,” she says. “He is outstanding and the experience to work and connect with him is just so different.” Bhatt is not the only one; be it Shahid Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor or Ranbir Kapoor, all the actors who have worked with Ali are all praise for him. Not many have been able to make sense of his method of casting, too. Almost always, he comes up with an unlikely pair or a not-so-famous actor and his films invariably end up justifying his choices. “I feel that I have been lucky that many actors have given their lives and hearts to what they were doing in my films,” he says in all modesty. “That submission to what you are doing changes what you take back from it. It is not me, it is not the film, it is actually their desire to give themselves in.”
As Highway is getting positive reviews, Ali has already moved on to his next project. Tentatively titled Window Seat, the film stars Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, and much like his previous films, it follows two characters who embark on a life-changing journey together. Although most of his characters find closure in the two and a half hours that Ali creates for them, the filmmaker seems to be on a never-ending journey. “I have nothing against settling down. In some sense of the word, I am partially settled down now,” he says. “But I would like to be on the go always. And wherever I am, the rest of the world will always fascinate me and pull me towards it.”