THE SINGULAR TRAVELLER
The name suggests another road movie, so does the feel, but be ready to be surprised. What director Imtiaz Ali gives us with Highway is a ‘crossroad film’: One that has come at a critical juncture in the 42-year-old’s career. It’s not his most successful film—it collected only Rs 23.75 crore by its second weekend when his previous film, Rockstar, had Rs 64 crore in its kitty in its opening weekend in 2011. Yet, it’s being hailed as his most definitive one; an understated but powerful film that walks the edges of a vaguely-permissible relationship, a Stockholm-syndrome romance between Alia Bhatt’s young girl, and her kidnapper, played with rugged finesse by Randeep Hooda. Not only has Imtiaz turned around Alia’s career from child star to serious actress, he is today mentor to two of the biggest stars in the industry: Actors Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor, his influence explicit in their 2013 hit Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani.
His circle of influence today ranges from future stars to filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sriram Raghavan. These are people with whom he began his career shooting TV serials. From ex-wife filmmaker Preety Ali—who produced his serials—to his friends from Delhi’s Hindu College, Imtiaz doesn’t let go of people he has collected on his journey, even as he adapts their roles in it. While Socha Na Tha (2005), which Imtiaz calls his first exploration of a metaphorical journey, Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Rockstar deepened his emphasis on the relationship of such fellow travellers, it is with Highway that Imtiaz believes he has hit home to his closest truths. He explains: “This film buys me the space to be unexpected again.”
It was A.R. Rahman who saw it first when he saw the rough cut: “You’re still a horse on the track, but you have bought yourself some elbow room,” the maestro told him. Kashyap calls Imtiaz the only true romantic left, his oldest friend in the city, one who smuggled him into his hostel room at St Xavier’s Institute of Communications when Kashyap had no place to stay in his struggling days. “This is emotionally and spiritually his best phase. I like where he is going,” he notes. Preety says Imtiaz now has a stature where he could have easily expanded his canvas. Producers have given him blank cheques to make films on. There were indeed plans to make Highway into a big-budget action film. Instead, he chose to scale back to a middling Rs 20-crore budget. “Highway has always been special. That’s why it lingered with me for 18 years,” Preety says.
Imtiaz’s philosophy, be it in filmmaking, friendship or storytelling, is based on the breaking of stereotypes. The road is everything. “Subconsciously, you play roles you are given to play. In a journey, people don’t know you. It is only on the road that you become free to be yourself. It leaves you vulnerable to a dramatic epiphany,” he explains. Ibtida, the Hindi dramatic society which he established at Hindu Col- lege, is today known for its street plays. It’s a philosophy whose influence is clear in Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, in which two of his protégés, Deepika and Ranbir, were able to set aside their own past relationship and continue on the common journey.
Deepika says it was Imtiaz who found the latent wild child buried in her in Love Aaj Kal, and then again in Cocktail (2012), which Imtiaz wrote, and allowed her to set it free. With Ranbir, Imtiaz shares a mutual creative urge. Alia says he shares an emotional honesty with all actors he’s worked with in the past. If his unique ability to accept who you become on a journey is what keeps Imtiaz’s coterie close, it is equally his ability to force you to break out of who you are expected to be. “When they said the highlight of Jab We Met was the dialogue, I wrote out the words from Love Aaj Kal. Many have said that it was Jai and Meera’s silences that spoke to them. Again in Rockstar, I made Jordan almost inarticulate, fumbling for expression,” he says.
The traveller that he is, Imtiaz is already, first weekend out from the Highway release, in the space of his next film, with a working title Window Seat, again starring the Highway duo. It’s not that success doesn’t mean anything. It’s just that he passed a landmark, and is journeying again. “My biggest phobia is stagnation, this entrapment of domain,” he says.
It upsets him when his films are labelled with the blanket “romance on a journey” label, because clearly, the reviewer has missed the nuance: Each journey is different for the men and women in his films. “My woman starts out knowing where she is going. The journey merely serves to reinforce it for her. For a man, the journey gives him direction. The woman has always known better,” he says.
Born in Jamshedpur, Imtiaz gained a love of travel from his father, whom he accompanied to Patna and other small towns, until he went back to settle in Jamshedpur with brother Arif with an aunt. Most of the evidence of the beginning of his journey lies with childhood sweetheart and now ex, Preety, who pulls out a large metal trunk in the corner of their once-shared Andheri home, and sifts through it, looking for the poems that outline what the journey has meant to Imtiaz. It is filled with letters, poems and stories he wrote to her during their courtship. When they dated—he in Delhi, she in Jamshedpur and then Mumbai—it was Imtiaz who took the train, travelling impossiblylong journeys to spend two days with her. “You get carried away by Imtiaz’s journeys. I did. Only in retrospect do I realise his was more a love of the journey than even for me,” she says, coyly. “Women are more practical about where journeys go, but I love every bit of it,” Preety adds.
“If people can see that love is not exactly the point of my films, then I’m happy,” Imtiaz says. Because journeys and love have never been simple to him. His characters lead complicated love lives: Trapped escapees going with the flow. The only constant is the road.
AWOMAN KNOWS THE POINT OFA JOURNEY BEFORE IT HAS BEGUN. FOR THE MAN, THE JOURNEY IS THE