Imtiaz Ali

So apparently Imtiaz Ali's appearance was a bit of a revelation to even some of my colleagues. Love in the afternoon, anyone? First published here.

"I ONCE FELL IN LOVE with a Malayalee girl in Delhi. I had a terrible fever and couldn’t get out of bed. She lived across the wing and would come sneaking in the dark, a dupatta over her head, to bring me food. She didn’t want to be seen coming into our flat. Especially because she had a big Jat lover in the building. I was very feverish so all I remember was her face and the way she hesitated before putting her palm on my forehead. I didn’t know her name but was completely in love with her.”

Imtiaz Ali looks at you with the lowered head and squared shoulders of what the Brits call a wide boy, a man who lives by his wits, wheeling and dealing. It does not quite prepare you for Ali’s gift for a purely urban genre of romance. His two movies have had varying fates but the second one Jab We Met, was a sleeper hit that took him straight into Bollywood’s A-list.

During the interview, his phone rings and he unconsciously straightens his posture as he speaks to an elder statesman of Bollywood. “No, I will come to see you. Definitely,” he says unhappily. As the director of Jab We Met, the director of a forthcoming film with Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone, and a more than ordinarily personable, 30-something male, Ali is quite feted. The hesitation with which his earlier movies Socha Na Tha and Jab We Met was promoted is a thing of the past. He has taken to the media whirl with pragmatic friendliness, but he is not too thrilled with the side-effects of being on the A-list. “Now everybody thinks I should direct their film. Look, there is a limit to the number of films you can make. When you are making a film it is your entire life. And some people simply should not produce films.”

Jab We Met had a title that inspired much eye-rolling but it struck no false notes in its telling. Not overly ambitious in scale, it managed to please all but the most hardened. Ali has a way of investing the commonplace with fresh charm but anchors his romances in a real world. Ali’s Geet Dhillon was the first time in a long while that we had a Bollywood heroine who was vivacious without seeming like she was on speed. “It would have been useless if I had just told Kareena: ‘Be vivacious’. I told her about a certain kind of Punjabi girl you’d meet on a bus: within five minutes she’d be telling you about her periods. I told Kareena what their lives were like, what they thought about, what they worried about, their body language.”

Ali learnt to direct a long while ago. As a child in Jamshedpur he was addicted to theatre; he scripted and directed plays endlessly. At 16, Ali had a ticketed public performance: Romeo and Juliet wake up to their own existence as characters in a play, try to outwit the playwright but die anyway. Ali’s father saw then that his IIT ambitions for his son would have to be shelved. College in Delhi meant more theatre, a life in Mandi House and more writing. Then Ali did the customary migration to Mumbai.

At 22, Ali became a producer for Zee’s Purushkhestra, a chat show for men anchored by Kirron Kher. “I was fascinated by all the different kind of people who came to the show. I wanted to know what it was like for a man who was married to an extremely beautiful woman. I wanted to know whether women with big tits thought differently from ones with small ones.”

His warm interest in strangers led to Jab We Met. “When I travel by train I always wonder about co-passengers and their lives. You look out of the window and there’s a child crossing a field. You might become close to someone while travelling but then you forget about them. My Tamilian cameraman had a name for that sort of relationship railu sneham — love on the train.”

Ali was drawn into prolific television serial production with Anupam Kher’s Imtihaan. He was offered more shows but frequently told “almost as a criticism, that my work was too cinematic.” He even received offers from people asking him to direct the first five episodes of shows that he could then hand over to a director who would expend less time and effort. “You couldn’t blame them really. The target for the serial was a woman who was cutting onions, talking to one child and supervising the homework of another. If you were subtle, she’d miss it.”

He began looking for people to make movies with. “Everybody I met was different and interesting. Mahesh Bhatt, the first person who wanted to work on my script, can’t bear sustained eyecontact. So he makes you narrate your story for three straight hours to his assistant. When Socha Na Tha evolved, I decided to cast Abhay Deol. Sunny heard about it and said, “Who the hell is this guy who is casting my cousin? I want to see him.” So I went to this house with these big men — Dharamji, Sunny, Bobby. I was very worried because Abhay gets beaten up in the film! I found that they were really reeflaxed. Halfway through the reading, Sunny agreed to produce the film. He didn’t even meet the heroine, Ayesha Takia, till we started shooting.” Socha Na Tha, Ali’s first cinematic venture didn’t do well at the box office but it has acquired a fan following over time. The movie is carried along by Deol and Takia’s beautifully played air of disbelief that something so outrageous is happening to people with such well-ordered worlds as theirs.

Even a short conversation with Ali makes it clear that far from a quick-witted wheeler-dealer, he is that strange creature — a man who sells romance to the masses and also believes in it himself. What he most clearly resembles is Fernando the Bull who didn’t want to fight, just wanted to smell the flowers. He says, “It is natural that our movies are better at discussing relationships than Hollywood’s plastic romances. We’re obsessed with relationships of all kinds. Anthony Minghella — now there was a man who understood love. But he was Italian. He had namak in his culture.”

Ali talks earnestly of how important his friends are to him: Anurag Kashyap (in whose movie Black Friday he was persuaded to play Yakub Memon) Shivam Nair (whose directorial debut Ahista Ahista was scripted by Ali), Sriram Raghavan and Sudhir Mishra. “We see each other’s films, we critique each other’s works in progress.” But Ali is different in one way from these men, all movie-obsessed and all strangely boyish, “I am not a movie buff. I didn’t go to film school and I don’t go to movies to criticise them. I make movies to entertain.” And so he does.


V.v. nice article as usual Nisha! He seems like a nice guy (and cute too, yes ;-) Good for him! (But you're not going to dump NS Harsha for him I hope.)

May 10, 2008 at 10:51 PM  

Art or cinema... art or cinema... i can't decide greta. grin.

when are you comming to dilli?

May 11, 2008 at 12:02 AM  

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