India Today - - CINEMA - By Gay­a­tri Ja­yara­man Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter @SellingVi­o­lets

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.



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