Published: Verve Magazine, Features, September 2009
Photograph: Ankur Chaturvedi
He’s smart, casual, with unruly locks that women want to tame and is completely unmoved by his own success. Kareena Kapoor believes he redefined her career with the role of Geet in Jab We Met. Award-winning writer-director Imtiaz Ali speaks to Sitanshi Talati-Parikh about his disinterest in love stories and not being a good writer, hot on the heels of his latest film Love Aaj Kal
I think women are much smarter than men.” Pat comes his reply when I suggest that while women loved his latest romantic story Love Aaj Kal (LAK) starring Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone, most men were not visibly impressed. Despite how it sounds, Imtiaz Ali is extremely self-effacing, to a point where he appears not to believe in his own success. It seems to be a mere accident that he can be considered a film-maker of distinction, in a space of the simple love story.
Ali, contrary to expectations, doesn’t like watching love stories. “I prefer relationships like those in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994). There will always be a man-woman relationship in my films – I am old enough to admit that I like women.” That would explain one of the strongest elements of his cinema – his deep characterisation that surpasses the situation, story or script. The 38-year-old believes that fire is not born on screen alone – that chemistry exists first in the script; and particularly if the actors are suited to the characters. And he has a bias towards actors who haven’t done much work together: “If there is a kissing scene between a couple that is kissing all the time, there is no big deal – it is almost brotherly.” While Ali’s films display the maturing of a love story, happy endings are not a prerequisite. LAK was actually supposed to end unhappily, before he realised (with some insight from director-friend Anurag Kashyap) that it would not be very profound to start and end with a break-up.
The Jamshedpur-born film-maker’s stories are not set in the midst of tamasha and great social disturbance. Rather, they examine the turbulence of the relationship itself, often caused by distinctive character traits. About his choice of genre he simply states, “I’m not very cinema-literate and not really a movie buff. I don’t know what genre I belong to or am creating, and I am not going to fight that. I am selfish enough to do stories that I enjoy most at that point of time.” At the same time, he admits to having to think practically about the film he wants to make. “There are multi-crores riding on the film, it is a very expensive medium and I am from a very middle-class family – I don’t want to take the tension of squandering away anyone’s money.”
Reports suggest that LAK grossed Rs 62 crores worldwide in the opening weekend. “I didn’t have numbers in mind. It is overwhelming, the response, but my expectation from myself is not very much.” Whether he is out to impress or not, people are more than willing to place their bets on him. “People’s faith is a double-edged sword. You get the chance of doing what you want to do, but you also lose some of the filter for your work – finding people who will be direct with you!”
While it is the crisp attention to contemporary dialogue and situations that is the hallmark of an Imtiaz Ali film, there were some murmurs about conversation over-kill in LAK. He looks piercingly back, appearing unfazed. “I am not a very good writer. I’m a director who manages to put his thoughts on paper. A writer would have more precision, more imagination in terms of dialogue. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying it doesn’t work. But, sometimes I feel that what I am writing is merely a code for the director [myself] to understand at the time of the shoot.” Writing the scripts for his previous films was a matter of circumstance, not choice. And yet, starting from school skits, the work that he enjoyed doing the most was that which was organic, home-grown and self-written. Regardless of his personal opinion, after winning accolades for Jab We Met (2007) – which he is dismissively appreciative of – Ali can’t escape his own writing.
Doing theatre in Delhi, an advertising course in Mumbai and becoming a “tape-delivery boy for Zee TV” finally brought Ali to television (think Purushetra and Imtihaan), where he spent many years struggling to find a balance between his two-hour stories and their long-term serials. “It was my mistake – TV is not looking at completion, it is looking at longevity.” Then Socha Na Tha (2005) happened, over a period of three years, “where all hell broke loose”. After Socha’s unsuccessful stint at the box office, Ali found himself floundering. “I’ve been a little irresponsible with the practical aspects of life. I don’t know how I have survived up until now. It’s a miracle. I have been broke, I am still broke, but I have got money whenever I needed it. And yet, that didn’t pressurise me to do a film that I didn’t want to, even if it looked like the most attractive proposition on earth. And then Jab We Met happened.”
Today he sits back casually, with no particular story that he plans to start work on soon. “There are stray bits floating in my mind – I don’t know which will materialise into a story. Some of them are so scary I want to forget them! The slate is clean – it gives you insecurity; but right now I have nothing. Usually I wait for myself to lose interest in my old stories. If I lose interest, I feel relieved that I don’t have to waste another year convincing people to invest in it! The best thing to do with a story is not make it. But, if it is compulsive, you have no other option – it is like a ghost you have to exorcise.” He stops to catch his breath. Does he actually enjoy making films? He chuckles, with a flash of the Imtiaz Ali charm. “A lot actually. More than anything else. It is a little compulsive-obsessive rather than a work of creative art that you enjoy with a cup of tea (he’s just finished two cups) and good music.”