Imtiaz Ali admits that the only thing that keeps him going is the “thrill of telling new stories”. The film-maker adds that he feels like he belongs “to cinema much more than any other medium, like TV and theatre”. Here, in a freewheeling chat, the 44-year-old talks about his inspirations, and more.
There is a perception that you are a shy and private person…
It’s a personality thing. There’s nothing to say if there’s nothing to say. I think I am only partially social. I don’t know how else to live. Anurag (Kashyap; director), on the other hand, is always bubbling with excitement, meeting people, creating controversies and getting involved in thousands of projects. That’s his personality. But it’s not like I am not welcoming to someone who wants to meet me. It’s not like I am creating a wall around me. I have been like this since childhood; I can’t change now.
Do you know that there are many actors who dream of working with you?
Sometimes, I do get feelers, and sometimes, I don’t. But the beginning point for me has to be the story. Once I have the story, then I have certain characters in mind, after which I think of the actors who I feel would be best suited for the film. Then, I go after them. They don’t get the chance to go after me (laughs). It’s a heart-warming and humbling thing, but if an actor wants to work with me, I must offer something that will add to his or her value, instead of offering them something that they will later regret. I can’t let them down.
The rumours of you and Shah Rukh Khan working together refuse to die down…
Shah Rukh is from Delhi, and I have also lived there for the longest time. So, there have been times when I have just hung out with him. We have never really seriously talked about work. There is something that came up, but there’s no confirmation at any level at this moment. We often exchange notes about what both of us are doing, etc.
Is it true that you want to make a “meaningless” film next?
There are a few stories on my mind. But I don’t exactly know what my next film will be about. I am yet to figure out which world I want to live in for the next two years.
Your films are in the commercial space, but they still aren’t overtly commercial…
This is how I see the world. I am trying to reach a point from where I can reach everybody, and make my films ‘commercial’ in the true sense. At the same time, I don’t want to embarrass myself by putting in any ingredient just for titillation, or something that’s a shortcut to success. I am only as good or bad as the movies I make. It is okay if people are judgmental about my work and run me down. But I want to be in a position where I can be proud of what I am making.
As a director, you always have all the ingredients to make a typical commercial potboiler, but you don’t. Why?
I don’t want to say, “I am very intelligent and sophisticated, but I make films that aren’t sophisticated so it can make large sums of money.” I don’t know how to do that. If my films aren’t potboilers or don’t make the most amount of money, it’s my failure somehow. I am trying to reach a position wherein my movies do become potboilers. And when I say ‘potboiler’, I don’t mean it in the typical sense. I don’t want to bring down cinema in order to make it more commercial.
But don’t you feel tempted to go all out?
I want to be, as much as possible, proud of the films that I make. And the other thing I believe is that films aren’t the best way to make money. There are other safer means to do that. Only making money can’t be a good motive to make films. Still, I strongly believe that a movie should recover its financial investment, but not with the sole intention of making profits in a myopic and narrow-minded manner. My movies should mean something to people, and not just numbers for me or my producer. A film should add value so that the industry can sustain beyond a period of time. So I don’t want to be myopic in that sense.
You have almost always worked with big stars. Does that help?
I don’t know how to put it. I made my first film with newcomers. Even when I made Highway (2014), Randeep (Hooda) wasn’t a very big star then. As for Alia (Bhatt), she was just one film old. Even Kareena (Kapoor Khan) and Shahid (Kapoor) weren’t doing so well when Jab We Met (2007) released. So I think I have had a mixed bag. I feel the key thing is how an actor gets attached to the story. To have an actor, who has a huge following — is a big advantage, but not if the actors don’t feel attached to the story or characters.
Is it like a double-edged sword?
Yes, it’s like walking on the edge. I also feel that cinema is permanent; films outlive us. Trends and popularity are far more transient. A film should star an actor first, and then a star.
You have always experimented with your subjects…
There’s no broad-based strategy. But some or the other thought hits you every time. Before Highway, I was disturbed by the fact that I was looked upon as a privileged director with large budgets and all kinds of gadgets plus the best technicians. So I wanted to see what I would make if I was a newcomer with no paraphernalia around me.
Does it help if a director works with the same actors?
I hadn’t worked with the same actors twice before Tamasha. To have a comfort level with the actors you are working with is a huge advantage. For instance, since I had Ranbir (Kapoor) and Deepika (Padukone) in Tamasha, I didn’t have to spoon-feed the audience as they are very powerful actors. But sometimes, if the actors’ comfort level isn’t giving an edge or creating something new, then it’s a disadvantage.
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