- NL Sena
Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali talks about his childhood, sleeping in local train stations and the influences on his filmmaking.
He is the flag-bearer of romantic films of this generation in Bollywood. With a career spanning over a decade, acclaimed filmmaker Imtiaz Ali has delivered massive hits, worked with superstars and has a huge fan base.
I first had a chance of interacting with him a few years back when he was at the Jaipur Literature Festival. I was at the media gallery, where he came to give some interviews. I did a small photoshoot. Next I met him in 2018 at IGNCA, Delhi’s green environment where he sat and interacted with youngsters, almost becoming a part of them — and it was amazing for me to see a star conversing with his fans with undivided attention and zero tantrums.
In fact, during my latest interaction with him, at the most beautiful Sunder Nursery where he was attending the Kathakar festival, he ordered his bouncers not to stop people from coming to him, saying, “No one is going to hurt me, let them come…!” Earlier, when he sat amidst hundreds of people in the audience to tell a story, he looked comfortable while the fans were awestruck and kept looking at him in wonder– listening to the impromptu story that he was cooking and serving simultaneously. My desire to have a conversation with him had by now become stronger than ever. He said we can have a 5-10 minute talk, but I needed no less than 90 minutes.
Time passed and he was to come to Delhi again. It was decided that I’d meet him at the Meridian, where he’d reach from the airport at around 1:30 am. I asked him, both of us being in love with Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, would you like to first go to Aulia’s place?
Despite the ugliest of Delhi smog, the atmosphere at the shrine was divine. A devotee or two were praying and a couple of them were sleeping, the cool of early November air in the Pir’s courtyard was making us all feel blessed. At the hotel, Imtiaz, who must’ve been tired, showed no signs of it. I made some tea for us and then our conversation started:
Who is your guru?
No one in particular. Overall, it’s a blend of everything.
Let me modify it to ‘who has been the guiding factor?’
It has been an accumulation of many people, forces and characters that are real as well as imaginative, some of who existed in stories, or from any film.
Also, my parents and many of my teachers, my basketball coach, and theatre directors.
Basketball coach? How?
In my Jamshedpur school, I was so dedicated to basketball that it was the most important thing in my life, as if, I’d be playing it all my life. But then a future in basketball wasn’t very secure so it was decided that I’ll do engineering.
And the Basketball coach?
We had Mr Sachinder Singh as our school’s basketball coach. I being a very active student had a good rapport with him. He would teach me skills. I was active in academics and also theatres which I started in the 9th standard. While at the court I’d be asked, “what were you doing in the theatre auditorium for so long?”…and at the theatre auditorium, it was difficult to explain why am I there in my basketball attire, all drenched in sweat.
What about gurus in theatre?
My first serious director, about whom I’d like to tell, was Mr Barun Roy. He was the first to direct me into a play: I was acting Arthur Birling in J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls’. This is the first time that I was getting some serious and professional advice. Barun sir taught me how to act in a play, how to enunciate and he trained me tremendously. .Some of his teachings still follow, like how he dealt with his actors.
Whose writing was it that first made you want to write?
I feel I was inclined towards poetry since the beginning. In our textbook, there were poems of Kipling, Keats, Wordsworth and there was ‘Highwayman’ of Alfred Noyes.
This is class 10?
It was during class 9th and 10th.
You still remember all these poets from your book!
Yes! I enjoyed them a lot. And when I started writing: it was poetry that I wrote first.
So, any particular poet who influenced you to write?
No one in particular. All of these poets did. I enjoyed poetic thoughts: the way poets express certain things — which is beyond the power of normal verse writing. They are freer, much more ethereal: matlab ek upar ke level ki baat karte the (They spoke at a very high level ).
There is a very important incident that happened in my life. My father would encourage me, as a child, to travel solo. I’d travel a lot including overnight journeys and during one such journey, I bought a Bhagwad Gita from the AH Wheeler. It was a paperback version that I could get on very concessional rates. The train moved and I started reading it. I was a very young reader at that time and was amazed, as if I have hit a wisdom-jackpot, reading, finding, realising and understanding things that were totally new to me, opening my heart. I continued reading it page after page and later it became a habit to read a page or two, to sleep as it would give me a soothing comfort. Gita changed my life. Even now it is there in my house, and I keep going back to it. A book that I thought is philosophical turned out to be a page-turner…life-turner!
Secondly, when I was in 6th standard, during the month of May-June, the peak-summers, we were not allowed to go out during the sunny hours. So here I am in that room in our house that had books of Shakespeare, to give me company. Now Shakespeare’s works are not easy to read as it is in old-style English, but it’s easy to understand once you start reading it. When I, as a kid, started enjoying the dramatic-poetic style of Shakespeare, the influence was destined.
I grew up listening to Ghalib and Amir Khusrow, as people of my nanihal (mother’s parents’ side) had always had some cassettes of them singing in the voices of Mehdi Hasan, Ahmed Hussain Mohammed Hussain, Talat Aziz or Ghulam Ali and of course Begum Akhtar. From even the time when I liked listening to Kishore and won’t listen to ghazals thinking why are they repeating the same lines again and again, I found Amir Khusrow interesting and would like Shankar Sambhu, Ghulam Farid Sabri when their voice filled our house. All this got into me unconsciously and stayed.
Then in Hindu College days, my subject English literature introduced me to the Elizabethan, romantic era and so on…the journey continued and after many discoveries, it was time to go back to the basics and I started reading Faiz, whose poetry to me was most contemporary. I get connected to his words with the feeling that he is talking about our times, that it is being written now: ‘Bol ke lab Azaad Hain Tere’ (Speak as your lips are free), aaj bazar mein pa-ba-jaulan chalo (going to the market today, bound in fetters). Faiz is that person in my life by reading whose work I get peace, comfort and strength — that I think is his biggest contribution also: to give strength.
When did you start writing?
I started writing early, in the 9th standard. I wrote poetry on our surroundings.
Can we have some of them?
It’s difficult now.
Will you try locating them?
How movies became an important part of your life?
Actually, all these things happened simultaneously.
Though my parents were movie-goers they didn’t encourage us watching them and would sometimes take us along. Our relatives there, in Jamshedpur, had movie theatres. So, as a young boy, I would go there, without telling anyone. The staff would not stop me and standing at the doors, I would watch for as long as I wished to. These are my happiest memories, as those were the times that I enjoyed the most. These memories are not about one movie, but what consisted of my world of cinema at that time.
Which movie first stuck your attention when as a boy you began frequenting the theatres?
Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Also, Ghulami had a huge impact on me as it had in it a new world; and that world was represented very beautifully. New geography: the desert, flying sand grains, colorful dresses of women, the dialogues, music — all in Rajasthani style. The human drama was depicted very beautifully, I used to enjoy the whole culture of Ghulami. Reshma’s voice. I loved Hero also, must’ve seen it 20-25 times.
Jamshedpur is culturally very diverse so we had movies of different languages too. I saw Mani Ratnam’s Telugu movie ‘Geetanjali’ numerous times, also Shyam Benegal’s ‘Junoon’.
Which international film is your first choice?
I like a lot of international cinema. In fact, more than the American films, which I watched a lot while growing up, it was films by Emir Kusturica, a Serbian filmmaker; Wong Kar Wai, a Chinese filmmaker, Majid Majidi an Iranian filmmaker; Pedro Almodóvar, a Spanish filmmaker – all of whose works I adore.
What was the influence of these filmmakers and their movies?
European films presented me with a certain way of storytelling but I don’t watch them to learn film making. I watch them as an audience, to enjoy and I don’t know if they have influenced my movie-making, subconsciously.
Subconsciously, of course!
Yes, they have influenced me to think in a particular way…
Please tell me about your mother.
My mother is the most intelligent person that I know. She is very very sharp. It is her interest in people, from which I think I’ve learned the fine art of people watching. She always chooses that seat in the restaurant from where she can see the maximum number of people from, and I try to do the same, so when we are together in a restaurant there is a competition between us for that seat.
Any memory of that time?
I was always very shy and introverted. Even now if I have to walk a red carpet, I feel nervous, I’ll go late so that I can quickly rush past so that I don’t have to say anything. It is strange that even though I have acted on stage for so long, but still.
As a child, initially, I was not good in anything from studies to sports. But in the 9th standard there was a certain renaissance, and I became good at everything.
Bhagwad Gita played a role?
It did, I had been reading it for a while. What happened during the 9th standard was that I failed, and I had to repeat the class. That changed my life.
Reaction of parents?
They were always very understanding. When they knew that I was already suffering they didn’t make me suffer more, instead, they tried making it easier for me.
I think my father dealt with my rebellious phase extremely well. There’s a time when a son competes with his father. I would subconsciously challenge him. He took that very well. He did not crush me. He actually made me confident. Over a period of time, he turned me into a very reasonable person: somebody who, like a sportsman, can compete without anguish or hatred. The most important thing in my life has been how my parents dealt with me.
This, how your father dealt with you, can be a very good lesson for a lot of us out there, may you elaborate on this a bit?
I am the father of an 18-year-old daughter who has gone to university. When my daughter was growing up, that was the time when I realised the value of ‘how my father treated me’. There were times when my father had a choice of either letting me flourish or him winning a fight. He would choose me over himself. I feel that a man when he is older should have the confidence to see his child’s interest before his own. It’s only when a person starts doing that that he can become a nurturer, or a parent, or a leader. By the very definition, I feel that a leader is a person who empowers other people rather than empowering himself.
And your mother?
My mother has always been very beautiful.
Is that where you get your looks from?
[Chuckles] That I don’t know but she, in her circle, is very famous for being very beautiful. As a kid, I had always known that, and for a boy it is not always a very good thing. You know [chuckles] sometimes you feel a little odd about it.
And you and your daughter.
I am very blessed, for the daughter that I have is a much better daughter than I deserved to have. She is, perhaps, my best friend, always guiding me. I, of course, guide her in the way that I can but she is also telling me about whatever I do: films, clothes that I wear, the language that I use [chuckles] you know the Whatsapp language.
Children have a lot of purity and my daughter always offers her own pure reaction to me. Though she is in the US now, we keep bouncing things off each other on Whatsapp.
What is your idea of women?
For me women are superior to men in intellect, they are also more subjugated. Until now, they have had to suffer more than men. They are more vulnerable in society than men are and this vulnerability makes them stronger and smarter, they are also more practical. I am very easily attracted to women. I find them very attractive people – now I’m old enough to admit that, earlier I was too shy to say that but now its fine, [chuckles] it’s a good thing, nothing wrong in that.
Women are inspiring. The figure of inspiration is always female. When Homer used to write his stories, he would always invoke the muse, who was a lady figure, a feminine figure. The earliest figurines of worship have been feminine figures. Most rivers in the world, especially India are female. You say mother nature, not father nature! The source of life is almost always feminine. And mother doesn’t necessarily mean “mother”, it means anything that gives you energy and sustenance. When we say ‘God’, unfortunately, we feel that it could be a masculine force but its not necessarily gender oriented.
It’s a recent development.
Yes, some 100 years. All the tribal cultures are still female-centric – matriarchal!
Your friends from your schooldays?
The Whatsapp group that is most active on my phone is the school friends’ group. And since I am a pure science student and I’m the only one who came away and did English Literature while all the others are still engineers and they are all techies. Almost all of them are in America and doing different things now. I’m the only one who got away. Again, Jamshedpur is a cosmopolitan town. So an equal number of all communities of India are present in Jamshedpur and my friend group also comprises of South Indians and North Indians and Punjabis and Sikhs and people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and Bengal. There is a certain language in Jamshedpur which is a little strange, it’s Hindi but it has a lot of Bengali words and South Indian words and there is no gender in conversation like Bangla doesn’t have gender.
We meet quite often, at least two to three times a year, gathering at my place, or their places. We take trips outside. Recently I was in Cuba with my school friends. There’s no agenda, we keep doing it : life is short and the only requirement we have is a room where we all can sit and talk — no matter how exotic the place it is that we are visiting.
All busy with their life, some are into media, some are IAS. You learn various things together: all the ‘badmashiyan’, all the fights, the vulnerability, [chuckles] whose girlfriend is coming and for that, which room is to be vacated. All this planning we used to do together.
What was that story about your sleeping at Victoria Terminal (now CST)?
Our term at the hostel ended, hence we had to move out from it so we rented a house to live in. Now, had we been a bit responsible to not party (laughs) but plan our accommodation, it wouldn’t have happened. So it happened once or twice that a few of us had to spend our nights at VT.
What is your view on dance sequences in Hindi cinema?
I enjoy song and dance a lot in Hindi cinema but because my storylines are still believable, I also struggle a lot to try and include it in my films. If somebody suddenly starts dancing or singing, then it is a bit problematic. I can’t allow that to happen. Sometimes I plan it in the script and create a situation where some music is playing, like when somebody is a rockstar then ‘Woh toh gayega’ (he will obviously sing). Thus to create a dance sequence there is some sort of ploy that I work into the screenplay. For instance, in Tamasha, they (the protagonists) go to a fair, where a song is playing on the stage, and people are already dancing, singing. Thus they, along with the people, start dancing and then singing also. So I try to make it natural, believable.
I see a lot of intelligent youth getting attracted to Indian classical music and dance. As a moviemaker, do you feel any responsibility towards portraying these in your films?
I don’t feel a responsibility towards it, but it’s a resource that I have and can borrow in order to make my own work better. So, if I can use some part of classical dance or music in my film, then I’m sure that it will make my film richer. In that way, I have sometimes tried to borrow it, but not too many times. Nothing substantial has happened.
Why I am asking this is because I have seen when Rashid Khan Saab performs a song in your movie, the song becomes iconic. I have heard him sing in Shimla, IIT, among other places. So do you start feeling some responsibility towards it?
No, I don’t feel a responsibility. I think music is such a strong phenomenon. During Durga Puja, in my hometown or whichever town I would be in, I have had great exposure to classical music and dance. And even as a kid I was very much attracted to it because if you give it a chance, it’s the most profound experience that one can experience. And I wouldn’t know how to use it really well. I don’t feel a responsibility towards it, as I said, it is strong enough to survive and thrive on its own.
You have a real connect with youth, and it is much stronger than many other filmmakers. They look up to you. Have you ever thought of this as a responsibility?
Yes, in a way! Nobody smokes in any of my films. I think that at some age the youth gets very attracted to things like that. The other thing — since as a youth I liked the positivity shown in films — I aspire to show a reasonable atmosphere in my films, try to not to have twisted things, that might send wrong signals. People will be good and bad, like in life, but then I try to keep the tone of the film positive, even if it has a sad ending.
I feel the youth is always trying to reach somewhere, trying to look beyond. They are inquisitive and interested in both internal and external. It is important to speak in non-hypocritical language, non-preachy language. I hate if somebody is being preachy, or fake. This is why, there is a certain believable language that I try to use in my films.
It’s only lucky for me — the only language that I can speak — connects with the youth.
I can’t talk in a hypocritical way.
I cannot be falsely dramatic.
I cannot be melodramatic… because I will make fun of it. My friends will make fun of it. My mother will make fun of it.
I cannot have false drama, false emotion, fake words.
I think this is why young people feel a sense of their own lives with my movies.
Good to know that you feel that responsibility towards them.
Yeah. It’s just that I feel I am like that. So I can’t fool anybody.
You’ve said Sunny Deol is your best friend, and that he is the most misunderstood.
Sunny is a senior actor, not my best friend. Unfortunately, we are not in touch anymore as we both are busy doing our own things. But he gave me my first break — as a director – as he was my first producer. He is the person responsible for me to be in this film industry. Sunny is an inhibited shy person, and people don’t know him, so he is misunderstood. He is the most un-arrogant person that you’ll meet, a very decent human being.
What about Dharmendra?
Dharam paaji is an extremely talented man. His talent is in acting, of course, and in telling stories. He is an extremely funny man, a very witty individual. He is very philosophical and he writes amazing human-centric poetry in Urdu.
Saif is edgy, intelligent and very witty. He is a person who keeps no secrets. At his heart, I think, he is a schoolboy –very mercurial and sharp-witted.
Anurag Kashyap is somebody whose mind is going in 20 directions, as he is involved with 20 things at the same time. Always nursing a calamity, as well as, a celebration. Anurag will always have interesting things to say but a little more than that is necessary. He will fight sometimes because he enjoys it. He is very good at heart and has a unique voice of a very strong filmmaker.
You see an alter ego in him?
Him and I have been friends for decades now. Always coming together at different times. Our behaviour, our movies are very dissimilar, but our understanding is very similar.
And Kirron Kher?
Kirron and I had the best time working together for Kurukshetra for television, that was really the first thing that I ever did. We had a great and successful time working together, contributing a lot to each other’s work life, at that point of time. Memories of that time are very fond.
What about girlfriend, marriage?
Girlfriend, shaadi! The lesser said the better. I don’t think I have anything to say about this.
What is politics for Imtiaz Ali?
Politics is a very risky word for me. Politics, in India, has a lot of connotations. I try to be as apolitical as possible. Since filmmakers and people in the film industry are popular, a lot of people ask them for their political opinions. I always tend to not comment on these things, just because I am a filmmaker, it doesn’t mean I know anything better than anybody else. Despite knowing this, if I comment, it’ll be carried (by media) more. So I desist from making any political comments or affiliations.
Is it tough to desist or has it become part of your nature?
It has become my nature. I believe that it is not my role in this world. My responsibility is to tell stories in the best way possible. That will hopefully give something positive to people. I don’t have to reach out to people through politics.
I’m a part of the media. Media, in our lifetime, has undergone maximum change. It has a lot of variety now, in the types of people it has in it: agenda ridden, political in nature and so on. The one good thing I can say about media is the fact that no matter how much you criticise it but come to think of it: there can be no smoke without fire: the stories that go on in media cannot be completely untrue either.
Your views on Censor Board?
My relationship with censorship is of love and hate. I, as a filmmaker, will always fight censorship because I am on the side of filmmakers, but whether we should decide about censorship or not, I don’t know. Though I feel that lesser censorship is always better but at the same time, I see good movies coming out from places like Iran, where censorship is a hundred times more severe than India.
What do you mean by this?
Censorship cannot be the only thing to destroy good cinema.
Can it not suppress a lot of things?
There is a great power to be discovered also by the filmmakers. But if censorship is unreasonable, redundant or behind the times, it is a little disturbing and then we put up a fight to try to update it.
What’s your take on web series?
It’s a very good development in the entertainment industry right now. A lot of feature films and stories that had duration problems and want to reach to a wider audience — will thrive over there. It will help flourish a certain type of writing and detailing of storytelling.
Are you watching any?
I watch some from time to time.
I have not watched too many but right now I’m watching a series called ‘This is Us’, before this I watched The Affair, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.
Have you seen Sacred Games?
I saw the first season. The second season I’ve not watched yet. I am very happy that it was so successful and opened the gate for other series.
What about Manoj Bajpai’s series The Family Man?
I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard that it’s really very good.
How was your experience working with Shammi Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor?
Haan! The first scene that they did together, Shammi-ji said “Ye bahot kameena actor hai” (He’s a brute of an actor) for Ranbir. This was a very big compliment for Ranbir.
Shammi-ji, I realised, as a human being had really transcended. He as an actor also had transcended and has become very simple to deal with. All the trappings had gone, he would understand and perform very easily — not caught in any old school of acting. Although he was one of the oldest actors I’ve worked with, but I must underline this, he was just like Ranbir to me, a modern, new actor trying to do his job in the best possible way, one thing that all actors will understand. He was a great man — always looking forward to new things, different things, new cars, new music, he was ahead of his times. He used to listen to music that was very strange, like intriguing. I remember once when I went to his house, he said, “you should listen to Nepali songs, I’m listening these days.” He was extremely musical oriented. I am blessed that I could work with him, as ‘Rockstar’ turned out to be his last film.
And his grand-nephew Ranbir? How is your relationship with him?
Ranbir and I have done two films together. He is perhaps the best actor I’ve ever worked with. He is very interested in stories, films and acting. Ranbir is a true soldier of cinema!
World politics at the moment?
The whole world is going in a very consumerist way, which I really don’t like a lot. There is a high level of consumerism in the world — the divide between the rich and the poor is widening — a lot of important things, a lot of substances are getting ignored by rhetoric. Media is being taken over by the market. These things are not healthy for our world.
I hope the trend reverses. Cut-throat consumerism and pushing products to people, making them more and more credit-oriented, should change. A proper value system should come into the market, where the market is not like the stock market but is based on the true value of things.
Lastly, what does Delhi mean for Imtiaz Ali… and his favourite places in the city?
The most important place for me in Delhi is Delhi University. It’s the place where I have spent time and learned a lot, met very interesting people, had interesting discussions. It was full of greenery and clean those days, unlike now.
Delhi and its people are very dramatic. They are ready to give their lives for you, then they are ready to take your life as well. The city has all kinds of people — brash, as well as sophisticated and cultured people.
The most important thing about the city is that it is the only metropolitan city where people speak Hindi and this practical reason – my movies are in Hindi – makes me keep returning to Delhi to make movies: to enjoy the language, to show a real city. It has various stages of history that you can see, at the same time there are old monuments that are present with the modern structure.
There are a lot of artistic people in Delhi the graffiti that you find in here, you don’t find in any other city of the country. It is the capital city that adds a certain splendour to parts of Delhi, Lutyens Delhi — a certain exuberance, rich planning, places like ghettos in the east of the city.
What about the place where we started today, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia…
I was lucky to get permission to shoot at Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin for Rockstar. It a great privilege to actually spend days and nights at the Dargah. Even today when I went there, I was thinking that what good have I done in my life that I am here. I feel a connection to this place. I was born in Jamshedpur, have lived my life in various cities but something makes me come here with such a sense of ownership. When I walk inside the Dargah, I feel like I am a part of this place.
It is strange that someone like me who has otherwise nothing to do with this place feels so much at home here.
So, I think when great people spend time in the service of others in any place, that place becomes special — in a lifestyle full of humility – and then it attracts certain good energies and that being present over there attracts people like you and me.
I feel that anybody who can go there and feel at home is blessed, particularly because of the presence of Ameer Khusro in Hazrat Nizamuddin, and he is so much a part of the place. And that was the place where I think qawwali began, khayaal began and these verses that he would sing to Hazrat, even now they are in the same position,
So to be amidst all that is a privilege and I always look forward to go there.
This interview was first published by The Patriot.