Director Imtiaz Ali claims he has shed his safety armour to get on the “Highway”.

Imtiaz Ali has come a long way. From a shy, lanky teenager who used to spend most of his time in the family-owned theatres in Jamshedpur to this confident rockstar of romance on big screen. Journey has been a common element in all his films but his lasting impression continues to be “Jab We Met”. After taking ‘package’ tours to North America and Europe with “Love Aaj Kal” and “Rockstar”, as Imtiaz returns home with “Highway”, one can sense he is through the learning curve. Is it an attempt to break free or return to the safety net after a bout of what many critics call ‘blockbusteritis’?

Imtiaz likes the term and opens up. “Like ‘Jab We Met’, here again there is a reflection of the journey on the events that are happening parallel to it. In other films it was more about going there. But the journeys don’t have anything to do with each other. I had written the story much before ‘Jab We Met’. Both journeys make the protagonist realise something but different things in the sense that Geet was actually very forlorn at the end of the journey. It was kind of superficial. She didn’t find the man she was looking for and Aditya takes her out of the situation. Here the answer is within the protagonist Veera (played by Alia Bhatt). She doesn’t need prodding. She realises something very elemental not just about herself but also about living life, about the whole concept of safety and home. She realises what home is after grappling with the concept of freedom. Home is not necessarily the house you live in. It could be the highway. A sense of belonging can be established with anonymous people. Sometimes you assume that people you grew up with will provide you company and solace and often times you don’t get it,” says Imtiaz and we realise how this man ingrained Rumi’s poetry in a Jat lad in “Rockstar”.

Is he breaking the idea of urbane, fulfilled life that we often see on screen these days? “My purpose is not to break anything. This city slick girl realises that the world is not just about Defence Colony or South Extension. There is more to it and the other world could be very easy to interact with. There is lot in her body, mind and imagination that she was not even aware of.” A lot has to do with parenting, he adds. “Sometimes parents who suffered during their younger days overdo things to make the child feel protected. I have hinted at it,” he elaborates.

As for returning to safe territory, Imtiaz surprises when he says he hopes people should feel that because everything else in the film is taking him to a very unsafe zone. “There is no safety net beneath this one. The fall is directly to the ground. It is my neck on the line. I am the producer as well. I hope they realise that I am good at it because there is no decoration in it.”

That’s the word that describes his last two films, their box office status notwithstanding. They lacked the lovable rawness of “Socha Na Tha” and “Jab We Met”. “Sometimes what happens is that you realise oh! this is the kind of dialogue on which people laugh, this is the kind of trick that you can place to make people clap. Every monkey learns that. To learn more tricks you have to go deeper and avoid short cuts so that you discover something new. From ‘Rockstar’ to ‘Highway’ I am enchanted by the new discoveries and the simplicity. While Veera was breaking free it was a similar journey for me as a filmmaker.”

After three hits, Imtiaz says, there were certain entitlements that he got. “Big stars, big budget and a marketing plan for recovery…. I have got the best equipments, bulk dates from cast and crew… I look like a good director. But then I thought this was not the case when I came in with “Socha Na Tha”. I didn’t have these privileges. Am I trapped? It is like entering the fighting scene with so much ammunition. Am I good fighter or not? Can I go back to basics of a camera and two actors and make that scene work. That is the unsafe territory. So except for night scenes I have not used any artificial lights. There is only one scene where there are two cameras tracking, otherwise it was like place camera roll, place camera roll.”

Casting has been an issue with Imtiaz. If Kareena Kapoor proved to be a masterstroke in “Jab We Met”, “Nargis Fakri failed,” Imtiaz completes the sentence. But he has his reasons and one of them goes back to Giselle Monterio, the Brazilian model whom he had cast as a desi Punjabi girl in “Love Aaj Kal”. “Because Giselle experiment worked I thought this will work as well, not realising that Giselle didn’t have a long talking part. I feel that nationality and colour of skin is an external factor. The internal character is much more important for me. There was something similar between Giselle and Harleen. Like Harleen, Giselle was also from a small town in Brazil. In Nargis also I found that fitratan (nature) she was similar to Heer. However, by the end of the shooting I realised externals are as important because they engage the audience first. When you act in a language you don’t understand and I give you a long talky part you might understand the sentiments but when you speak, even if you speak correctly, the mouth moves in a different way.” This is what, he says, happened with Nargis, who is essentially a New York girl. “So casting Nargis was a big mistake. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t foresee it and I didn’t notice it beyond a point. Also unlike, Giselle, she was already a known entity before the release of the film. With somebody else the film could have reached more people. I have to admit it.”

He doesn’t foresee any such problem with Alia. “Her cultural background is similar to the character she is playing.” Same consideration applies for Randeep Hooda? “I needed somebody older to Alia who understands the texture of the language and he is a good actor.” But the two don’t guarantee an opening at the box office and Imtiaz will be the hook. “It is fine by me. I see the medium like that. When I go to watch the film I go by the director’s name. The audience should have the faith that whoever he might have cast, the film will be good. Even as a kid I used to follow it. Like you take any of Bimal Roy films. He would engage you irrespective of the fact that whether Dilip Kumar or Ashok Kumar is there or not.” We move for the shoot and Imtiaz is concerned about the lighting!

Sufi boys

Imtiaz has a fruitful association with A.R. Rahman and this time Rahman has sung a Punjabi number “Maahi Ve” for “Highway”. “It is something to look forward to. For other films I used to push him to sing but here he himself was keen. The idea came form him. He was very excited. He said that he will work very hard. That’s Rahman!” says Imtiaz.