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Kaffeeklatsch with Imtiaz Ali
by Abhishek Bandekar

Bollywood is going through a transition like never before. Young directors are compelling the old horses to rise up to the challenge. Among the young brigade who have thrown the gauntlet, Imtiaz Ali, the writer-director of last year’s cult favourite 'Socha Na Tha', shines the brightest. On a Saturday evening at the Barista Café in Juhu, Mumbai, I caught up with this maverick talent. Looking like a rockstar’s version of JC, without the facial hair, Imtiaz, in between sips of tea and puffs of cigarette, talked about cinema in general and Bollywood in particular.

Q. You wrote and directed Socha Na Tha, and are writing-directing your next film, as well as others that are in the pipeline. A writer falls in love with his words, and may go to great lengths waxing eloquent just over a sunset. Whereas a director thinks visually, and to him a sunset is simply a sunset… a shot. As a writer and director, do you feel conflicted about the choices that you have to make?
A. Not really. I was never a writer. I became one by default. As a director, I want to tell stories that interest me. Sadly, the way things are in Bollywood its difficult finding a good story…so I write them myself. The conflict never arises, because I think like a director even when I write. I have a visual idea of what I want, and I only have to put it in words.

Q. If not conflicted, you must experience the challenge of time and space. A director has to keep both in mind, whereas a writer is only concerned with the spatial aspect of a story.
A. Again, as I said…it’s a visual idea or a concept that I attempt to realize. In doing so, I never consciously decide if I’m conforming to a particular genre’s demands or not. Because frankly speaking, I don’t understand genres. When I write, I don’t consciously try to abide by the demands of that genre or break the rules. The primary aim of my writing is to satisfy the director in me. There’s never a conscious decision involved.

Q. But Socha Na Tha was a subversion of the romantic comedy genre. Wasn’t that intentional?
A. Yes, Socha Na Tha did subvert the genre and the reasons for that are different. As I said, my ignorance of genres, for better, doesn’t pigeon-hole me into a specific convention. When I made Socha Na Tha, I never thought of it as a movie on the lines of other romantic films. Hence, there was never an attempt to satisfy or play by the rules of that principle. To me, Aditi and Viren were two characters whose story I wanted to tell. I guess, that emotion seeped through which is why so many people relate to those two. It’s because they aren’t bracketed within the parameters of predictable expectation.

Q. Would it be fair to say then that directing is an unconscious act for you?
A. It’s not conscious, let’s put it that way. I’d say it’s more subconscious. With Socha Na Tha for example, I’d like to believe that the recurring balcony scene is inspired by Romeo And Juliet. While writing and making, it never occurred to me. But when I saw it, it kept tugging at me. The resemblance and similarity were too big to ignore. Even the situation of the characters involved, and that of their respective families were very familiar. And I had done Romeo And Juliet during my theatre days in Delhi as well. I guess somewhere that engraved in my consciousness, and without my realizing it found its expression in my writing.

Q. You stressed on visualizing a story. Are you a meticulous director? Do you plan every scene and every frame in advance- the camera angle, the cue for background music, etc.?
A. I’m always prepared with a mental sketch of what I want before I go onto the sets. My job as a director is to be able to get my vision across to my unit of cameramen, lightmen, etc. You cannot be rigid. More often than not, my sets of ideas are thrown out of the window, and I have to be able to improvise. Improvisation is an essential attribute of a director. I know there are directors who’d like to believe that they call the shots, but the fact is that while directing you have to keep a window open. There will be all kinds of input; the good ones you accommodate!

Q. On the subject of visualizing a story- how much of Bollywood is a visual medium? Do we adhere to cinema as an audio-visual medium?
A. I see what you mean and we can definitely improve on the visual aspect of our films. However, cinema is essentially a visual medium and Bollywood is not averse to that fact. Every director shoots a shot in a particular manner…that is his visualization. Again, the notion of what is visually appealing to me will not be the same as yours. Your definition of beauty will be different from mine. Even grotesque is beautiful in some way.

Q. There is a debate among anthropologists whether cinema is an art at all. There is a section who believes that because of all the synthetic factors involved in the process(audio, visual, etc.) cinema is not a natural art. What’s your take on it?
A. For me everything is art, and nothing is a natural art. Art is that which takes birth in the creative domain of one or more people. So, it’s never natural. Cinema too, assumes its shape in the mind first. For all its synthetic requisites, it is still a creative process…and that’s art for me. Like I said, our definitions of beauty are never the same. It’s the same with art I suppose. And we’re not talking about art versus commercial cinema here.

Q. No, that’s a different subject altogether.
A. It’s not a subject at all. If all cinema is art, then how do you differentiate between art and commercial!

Q. What is your prime objective while making a film?
A. There is never an objective or a set of rules that I try to satisfy. My biggest responsibility is to get my film across to the largest number of people possible. It’s nice to be romantic about cinema as an art and all, but at the end cinema is and always will be an expensive medium. When a producer is willing to spend a huge sum of money on my film, I have to be responsible for that. I cannot be reckless and make an obscure piece. My film has to connect with the largest possible base.

Q. But most films of the recent past are urban-centric unlike the 60s and 70s when Bollywood films were more universal in nature. If larger base is what you seek, then 67% of India is in the villages. Why don’t the producers stress on more bucolic films?
A. I agree with you, but there’s a sad truth underlying this situation. Our socio-political scenario is such that the 67% whom you speak of are being relegated by our politics of blind-spot. Even if we were to make films that catered to that target audience, it will generate only a measly 20% of the total cost. Compare that to the cities which have more avenues of spawning income. The multiplexes, malls…they ensure that a distributor gets in return what he’s put in. It’s sad; we’ll eventually become slaves to Coca Cola. But the undeniable fact is that cities are a consumer centre for filmmakers, and the people in cities are brand-centric. Owing to market pressures, we make urban films because it generates money. Drastic steps have to be taken to make those 67% active consumers. We talk about India Shining, but India is shining only for the select few in the metropolises of Mumbai, Bangalore and so forth. Majority of Indians are being overlooked by our uneven policies, and in effect ignored by Bollywood. So yes, as of now a large multitude of Indians are being disregarded by Bollywood.

Q. In view of reaching the larger base, you might have to abandon many ideas.
A. Not just in view of that. A lot of ideas are such that once they assume a complete form; they naturally cannot be made into a film. And you cannot force that quality onto a story. My priority is whether the final form is catering to the call of the idea. If I want to make something which I alone will enjoy, I might as well vent my artistic guts on a canvas or write a short-story or a poem. Cinema, as I said before, is an expensive medium and certain ideas have to be abandoned in the process.

Q. Let’s talk about cinema that doesn’t attempt to reach a large base. In America, you have the independent wave. Do you see that happening in our industry?
A. Why not? What is independent cinema or the wave as you call it? It is a reaction to the studio system that exists in America…the corporatism of Hollywood. The studios make films in a certain way, a mould that they’ve become comfortable in. But in doing so, every film on some level begins to resemble the other. And as such, there will always be a filmmaker or filmmakers who will rebel against the system and make the movies that they want to make. And they will find an audience too, who’ll gladly accept the change. Last year, in fact, most of the films that did well in the US were smaller independent films. The irony here is that these independent financiers, once having found success, start to function like a studio and mint movies that are typical!

Q. Do you think the studio system exists in India?
A. Oh, it most definitely does. Ours has always been a studio system. The producers have always been at the helm of things. There was a phase when the directors were influential, and there was also a period of actors. Ultimately though, the producers run the show.

Q. I guess that’s why the Chopra’s make their kind of films, Johar his, and Varma his own unique brand. Isn’t that dividing your audience-base?
A. On the face of it, there’s no harm in making the type of films that you’re suitable with. I’d much rather make the kind of cinema that I’m able to make. As long as I’m not stopping them from making their films, I see no problem in making mine. The audience will only have more to choose from.

Q. How difficult is it to convince the producers in regards to casting?
A. Casting is always a pressure. The producer always feels secure with a big name attached to his film. Especially when a producer is making a big-budget film, he wants big stars. Strangely, as a lop-sided demand-supply theory, big-budget films with big stars flop much more miserably than one with smaller stars. Right now, there is no guaranteed formula to success in Bollywood.

Q. Do you prefer stars or actors?
A. It would be wrong to say that stars are not actors. If they’ve become stars…their popularity is because of their work. As of this moment, Bollywood does not have a certifiable star. There are only 6-7 stars, and they too cannot guarantee success. As a director, you should trust your instinct alone.

Q. The last year saw quite a few smaller films being appreciated. Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi, Matrubhoomi, Page 3, Iqbal, etc. Do you think that big-banners have now lost the excuse to blame the audience for not being experimental enough; something which they used as a defense to justify their brand of cinema?
A. I don’t believe they ever had that excuse to begin with. I have rarely seen a good film flopping. Hazaaron Khwaishen Aisi or Iqbal…they brought back enough money to call them a success. The problem with our industry is that we seldom talk about the quality of films. We are too busy drawing demographics and deciding what our target-audience is. The fact is, you cannot divide your audience. Rather than concentrating on the audience-mix, it would do a greater service if we talked whether a film is inferior and if so, why?

Q. You talked about target-audience. Are we getting too caught up in the marketing aspect of films? Bollywood is now promoting films via cell-phones, teasers are being released on the net before they come on television, etc.
A. I actually miss the old style of promotions. The big posters outside cinema-halls…imposing…it was so romantic back then. The whole process of making films was romantic in fact. People used to put in all of their money in the making of films. Today, the scene has changed completely. Now, producers allocate as much as 25% of their total budget to the promotion and marketing of their films. I’d be a much happy man if they used that money for making a better movie and worry less about its advertising.

Q. If producers are spending that much on advertising alone, surely the production values must’ve risen. Why isn’t the quality of films improving then?
A. I beg to differ. I don’t think the production values have gone up. Look at it this way…if the producers are willing to spend 25% of their budget on promoting the film, it’s an indirect way of telling that the producer doesn’t have enough faith in the director’s abilities to spend on him. Producers feel more secure going all-out in promoting an average film than modestly promote a good one!

Q. Convincing producers, casting, making difficult choices and yet trying to captain the ship! Directing sounds hell. What magical aspect of it still attracts you to it; makes you want to make your living of it?
A. (laughs aloud) Directing is an emotional misbalance. It operates as a kinky chemical reaction that despite all the sensible logic pointing against it makes you want to pursue it. And as long as there are people, there will always be those who’ll be inclined to directing!

Q. You must have a muse!
A. (thinks long) I don’t actually. I have points of inspiration. Most often, the people on the streets, the ones I encounter inspire me. I’m glad that I’m inspired by their lives. At least, I’m not getting inspired by the characters in somebody else’s film(chuckles).

Q. Now that you’ve found acclaim for handling the lives of Aditi and Viren, do you feel that it’d be safer remaining in that comfort zone or do you want to risk breaking out of it? Also, as a director, do you want to stamp your signature on your films?
A. I’m ignorant of genres. Characters interest me and relationships even more. Aditi and Viren shared one relationship, my other characters share another in different dimensions. My next venture actually has two characters that have an intense relationship. The story demands its treatment. As far as stamping my signature, I don’t want to do it. My films have to be bigger than me. My final destination as a director is to disappear!

The interview concluded, we spoke for a few minutes. Little did I know that the best nugget of the whole meeting was awaiting me! Upon inquiring his source of inspiration for Socha Na Tha, Imtiaz regaled me with the following story-

“I was sitting at this café one evening. And there was this girl sitting a few chairs away. She spent nearly an hour all by herself, ordering cups of coffee and just as easily downing them. Curious, I went up to her and asked if she was waiting for someone. She said that she didn’t want to go home as her parents had called over a prospective groom to see her. She’d been through the charade many times before. As she continued talking, she got more exasperated and fumed with anger over the sorry state that still exists in our country. She didn’t have a boyfriend, so she couldn’t even rebel! I told her that rather than sitting out at a café, it’d be better if she found some time alone with the guy coming over and make him understand her predicament. As a young fellow of the same age, he’d probably understand. We talked some more and then she left, but she never actually left my mind. Socha Na Tha began as her story- Aditi’s story. As for Viren’s character, I based it on a fact of life. There are only two great tragedies in life; one- not getting what you want and two- getting what you want! There are times when you go to great lengths to get what you want, convincing the world, fighting any opposition…but once you’ve done all that and you finally get it…then what?”

I was rapt listening to him. Imtiaz had already impressed me with his debut effort, but by the end of our meeting, he’d bowled me over. Unassuming and cordial! Here’s hoping that Imtiaz Ali continues to delight us in his own inimitable manner.

- Abhishek Bandekar

15th April, 2006

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 04/25/06 20:04:28
last updated: 05/02/06 03:34:10
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