Imtiaz Ali wants to quickly run an errand in between panels and asks an event organizer whether transportation has been arranged. It appears as though a car is not ready, but he’s told one can quickly be made available especially for him. All those backstage eves-dropping on the conversation begin bracing for a tantrum from one of India’s most popular film personalities. Instead, he quietly responds: ‘That is fine. I’ll be more than happy to take a taxi.’
Within a year Ali has delivered the dramatic Rockstar as a director, and the London love triangle Cocktail as a screenwriter. His name is associated with the powerful combination of critical acclaim and box office success, making him a highly sought filmmaker. This past weekend Ali was in New York City as part of Molecule Communications’ Ticket2Bollywood, a two-day conference dedicated to learning how to break into the film industry. The director sat down with The NRI to talk about how he made it, and how he plans to stay.
The industry has been portrayed as either being very glitzy or very dark. What has your experience been like?
The industry has been very human. People are very normal, very real. This is the place with the maximum concentration of people like myself. My experience has been that it’s a fair place, it’s a good place. It’s a place where talent ultimately rules. It’s a place where people have to understand that favors don’t work. If a girl sleeps with a million people in order to get a job…she won’t. I can say that. I know how it works. I know that it’s tough, because the peak of the pyramid is really steep. We are a hugely populated nation, everyone wants to be a film star. And there’s only going to be one Shah Rukh Khan in a generation that comes from outside and becomes the biggest superstar and they have to understand that.
What is the best professional advice you've received?
That a director should never be in a hurry. Rakesh Roshan told me after I Jab We Met became successful. He had met me informally and he said just generally, ‘Don’t be in a hurry’.
Don’t be in a hurry to start a new project?
Anything. He just said ‘Don’t be in a hurry to start a new project, don’t be in a hurry to take the shot if the light is going, don’t be in a hurry to finish doing the costumes sooner than it’s required. Just don’t be in a hurry.' And directors tend to be in a hurry because there’s always something going wrong on the sets and there will never be a moment when everything’s right.
Tell us about the biggest professional setback you’ve had. How did you deal with it?
I was supposed to make Rockstar with UTV couple of years back…a couple of years before Jab We Met. It was all going well but I think just a month before we could start shooting, the project got shelved. It didn’t happen at that time. That straightaway meant that I lost a year because that’s how long I’d worked on Rockstar.
How I dealt with it …I had this long walk home. It was several kilometers. I was just talking to myself and by the end of it I was fine. Then I said, ‘Okay, so now what else? Let’s put Rockstar to the side for a while, what else do I have?’ Then I started looking back at what is Cocktail now and what is Jab We Met now. And I started looking and saying, ‘Can I make one of these?’ So I moved. What happened as a result of that is I ended up making Jab We Met, which became successful. Even more important, and a better thing that happened, is that I did not make Rockstar, which at that point I don’t think I understood that well. So it turned out to be a great thing for me.
Who has been supportive during such trying times?
I’m here only because of the kindness of strangers. People like Anupam Kher, Sunny Deol, Dharam-ji [Dharmendra]. And various other people at various levels, popular people, unknown names, random strangers. People in the Bombay film industry…it’s their kindness really. Nobody was my friend here. I did not know anyone in the city when I came. People have been extremely kind in this film industry.
What did this kindness look like?
Anupam Kher tells me ‘Direct a TV serial’. I said ‘I don’t know how, I’ve not done it in my life; I’ve not assisted anybody. I don’t know how to do it’. ‘No, no, you will do it. Do it’. And he trusted me with it.
Sunny Deol said ‘ Okay, make a movie’. I had never made a movie before. People have been very welcoming to me. I feel that warmth from every person in the film industry from the big stars to the spot boys. Like Mahesh Bhatt would just call and say ‘You’re making my next film.’ I didn’t make that film, but that is before I made any. That never happened, but that told me that Mahesh Bhatt is saying this to me. And he knew it. He just wanted to tell me that ‘Boss, get serious. Make movies now.’ That is kindness.
What about filmmakers whose films are rejected, or whose films critics are unkind to?
Maybe they are not good. They need to be practical and open. They have got to deal with themselves sometimes from a distance and look at themselves and say, ‘Okay, maybe I am a fool, maybe I have no talent. I can improve it, I will improve it, but let’s see. Today if uniformly everybody is saying that this thing in my film is not good, but I think it’s great, maybe I’m not right. Maybe they are, or, I think it’s great it’s still in my mind, and I’ve not been able to transfer it onto film’. So be open.
Are there certain qualities a person must absolutely possess to be successful in the film business?
There is only one talent, or quality that manifests in various ways and that is interest. The interest that you have to have has to be really deep for you to do this work because this work is not anything that gets over, ever. People go loony. I lost around 10 kilos during the making of Rockstar. Not because I wasn’t eating. It was for no reason.
Is there a secret to ensuring a long film career?
It's to have a rich life. Is to be involved with life. Have something to say. I’m talking in terms of a film director. So if you don’t have anything to say then you’re never making a film, or if you make them, they will be about nothing.
What is your advice to aspirants?
As long as you have the drive and desire to do it, keep doing it. Just be practical on the front that you’re not doing it for the fascination of the film industry. You’re doing it because you just feel, like, doing that work rather than getting the accolades, rather than getting the glitter and glitz, because there is no glitter or glitz.
Life is very plain and simple…it’s exactly like the lives of other people. Sometimes it is far less glamorous than the lives of regular people who at least have a dessert after lunch. Sometimes it’s not even that for the people in the film industry, I tell you. Don’t let glamor pull you, please. If glamor is pulling you then read the Stardusts, read the Filmfares to be satisfied. You don’t have to ruin your life.