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Imtiaz Ali at Mehboob Studio, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Imtiaz Ali at Mehboob Studio, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Imtiaz Ali | The long road

The director on his new film, train travel, and what went wrong in his last film

Imtiaz Ali’s new film Highway is about the unlikely relationship between a girl and her kidnapper, with a climactic twist. With music by A.R. Rahman and Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda in the lead roles, this road film has been one of the most anticipated films of 2014. Ali, known less for his competent first film Socha Na Tha (2005) than the commercially successful ones that followed it (Jab We Met, 2007, Love Aaj Kal, 2009 and Rockstar, 2011), has used road journeys and the outdoors spectacularly in his films.

From his hometown Jamshedpur to college in Delhi to Mumbai’s television world and then to being a sought-after director in mainstream Hindi cinema, Ali’s own journey has been on a steady upward curve.

He talks about train journeys and why Highway is a step towards making his own film-making less “show-offy". Edited excerpts:

You seem to be fascinated with travel and discovery.

Yes. I think it’s because when I used to travel to Delhi from Jamshedpur by train I would notice that we were on this track and as far as you could see there is the world and universe beyond. It struck me that in all that over there, how small and minuscule our experience of everything is going to be. It was exhilarating and confusing. During those journeys I had a lot of time to think about and get to know the people around me. I have had very interesting experiences on train journeys. I think any exploration is exploration of the self and during journeys your imagination also starts opening up, and those things find themselves in my stories.

Are there any road journeys you have been on that were especially memorable?

I recently drove through Scotland with my daughter. It was a very different terrain. We drove for hours and hours without a plan. We would stop at B&Bs. That was very liberating for both of us. I have also driven a lot in Odisha and because of the movies we have driven around Himachal and Kashmir.

Your film travels through six states. What did each one contribute?

There is a change in the tone of the story as it goes forward, so I thought let me place it in these states starting from Delhi and going north in an arc. As the terrain changes, the geography dictates the music, costumes, food, the look of the people, and the mood. We start in a horrific situation just outside Delhi, in the roughness of Haryana and move to the desolation of Rajasthan, which is what it feels like at that time—so lonely. Then come the plains of Punjab, which is when you start settling down and feel the ground beneath your feet. Your heart starts beating once again. After that you move to the splendour of the hills and finally the beauty of Kashmir and the exuberance of existence.

How would you describe ‘Highway’?

It is not only about the relationship between these two people and it’s not a conventional love story either. The story is about freedom. It’s not even about getting bound by the person you love. People might be very surprised by the story.

Of all the states and locations, which was the toughest?

The toughest was this one road in Kaza (Himachal Pradesh) because stones were falling from a great height and were lethal. One day during the shoot our cinematographer Anil Mehta and I were discussing a shot when a small boulder fell exactly between us, had it fallen on either one of us we would have died. At other times we would be driving and say go “fast before that one comes, or wait that stone is falling".

Your last film ‘Rockstar’ received polarized reactions. How do you look back at the film now?

In Rockstar, for the first time, I hit a certain level of purity in film-making but I did not have the capacity to make the whole thing simple and easy. I did not have the capacity to handle something pure and to keep it simple when making a movie. Of course, there is a lot in Rockstar that is not perfect or ideal. But you live and learn, and I am trying to improve.

Where does ‘Highway’ fit into your own film-making journey?

It’s a step forward in my journey towards purity; to be less hypocritical and less show-offish; to focus on the reason for making movies. That’s simply to tell stories in the simplest way possible and make them as entertaining for as many people as possible, not on the merit of the gizmo, but on the merit of the story.

Highway released in theatres on 21 February.

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