Films don't come cheap: Imtiaz Ali

Director Imtiaz Ali on the economics that drives movies and how regional cinema can gain in the long run

He tends to make films in which the protagonists are constantly travelling from one place to another. Be it Jab We Met (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2008), Rockstar (2011) or his latest Highway (2014), his movies marry the conflict the characters are experiencing with an eventual change in their location. Appropriately enough, Highway had a houseful screening at India’s only travelling film fest: Jagran Film Festival. hitlist caught up with the acclaimed filmmaker to understand what drives him and how he reflects on non-Hindi cinema...

Imtiaz Ali
Imtiaz Ali made his directorial debut with Socha Na Tha (2005). Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Q. Not all films get a commercial release in our country. In such a scenario, don’t you think commercial cinema has an unfair advantage?
A. First of all, we need to accept the fact that cinema is a very expensive form of storytelling. Films don’t come cheap. Secondly, when a film is all set to release, it doesn’t come with a surety either that it’s going to breakeven — let alone make profit. It’s a risk producers take. Thirdly, who are we making films for? People decide for themselves what they want to watch whether it’s at a multiplex on a Friday or at a film festival during weekdays. Either way, you simply can’t take away the commercial angle. All films are meant to be commercial but not all of them succeed in becoming so. And that space needs to improve.

Alia Bhatt stars in Imtiaz Ali's Highway
Alia Bhatt stars in Imtiaz Ali's Highway

Q. Since you mentioned film festivals, Highway premiered at Berlin before releasing in our country. What difference did you notice between the audiences there and our natives here?
A. I saw that the people who turned up to watch Highway were enjoying the film thoroughly but their way of appreciating a scene or two was very nuanced. They seemed to be engrossed in the narrative. They wouldn’t move lest they miss anything. Some even lauded and whistled but at scenes where we wouldn’t usually whistle (laughs).

Q. Unlike in the West, the demarcation between an arthouse cinema and non-artsy film isn’t clear yet. Don’t you think that works against cinema in general?
A. Completely. I don’t think a film festival needs to be put into a bracket. A film is a film and calling it artsy or non-commercial is something that is best left to the experts. For an audience, a film should be made accessible in all ways possible. Any movie that’s capable of evocating some emotion in the audience in a sensitive manner has to be showcased. The film must reach its audience — anyhow. Or else, what’s the point? Many a times people tend to confuse film festivals with arthouse films alone. They assume that maybe a particular film wasn’t mean to be seen at large or wasn’t meant to taste commercial success. This assumption works against filmmakers because it’s not true. Every filmmaker makes a film — be it of any genre — with the sole intention of reaching as many audiences as possible.

Q. And how effective a role film festivals play in India?
A. A film festival contains two of my favourite words and I’m positive about the rise of film festivals. It’s because of these events that we can get the view beyond the juggernauts of commercial cinema. A world lies out there which showcases the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. These little-known films are subtle, hidden and don’t go for the obvious. They take you through a journey which you never thought you would have taken otherwise.

Q. But that luxury is generally restricted to audiences in metropolitan areas. What about smaller towns?
A. I come from a small town, Jamshedpur, where incidentally Jagran Film Festival travels to. People in tier-II and tier-III cities would mostly certainly be inspired by what they watch in a cinema hall. And if not anytime soon, sometime in the not-so-distant future, they’ll serve the film industry.

Q. What about regional cinema? How comfortable are you with it?
A. Regional cinema is a big boon — provided it’s healthy — because it’s irreplaceable. As we’ve experienced the way it has grown so much over the years. It is ultimately going to boost the national canvas.

Q. Bollywood is showing keen interest of late. However, will you be comfortable directing a film in a language other
than Hindi?
A. I’d love to do that and test my capabilities. But as a foresight, I think communication barrier will be too much for me because I rely a lot on language. Let’s see. If at all such a film happens, it’s going to be a scary and challenging for me.

Q. What drives you as a director?
A. Story. It is usually some picture or some event that is stuck in your head for some reason. It could be fictitious or an anecdote. And before you realise it, you begin to add situations to that one event and thus a world begins to develop on its own. That’s how you get a story. Once you get a story, you have this desire to share it with others. In my case, I share it with absolute strangers, through my films.

Q. Your films have stories where characters are always moving from one place to another. Will there ever be a film by you wherein characters are settled?
A. (Smiles) I can definitely try! But as a filmmaker, your personal interest matters a lot and your film reflects your own experience in some way or the other. But yes, I might make a film someday where all the characters are settled and not travelling at all.

Q. What are you currently working on?
A. I’m making a film with Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone.

Q. When you’re making a film, what is your greatest challenge?
A. To keep it as simple as possible.

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