My relationship with Imtiaz Ali's films is… uh, complicated. An essay I did for Yahoo! Originals
Ali plays the situation for laughs, even as he ends the sequence with a police raid that drives all Hotel Decent's occupants out the back staircase in various stages of decency. But the fact that being out at night – on a street, on a platform, in a certain sort of hotel – means that a woman either is, or is assumed to be, a sex worker, points us to one of Ali's pet themes: the great unfreedom of the respectable Indian woman.
|Imtiaz Ali (right) with his stars Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt, on the sets of Highway.|
But Ali's chosen adventure test for his heroines, appearing in film after film, can feel ridiculously reductive. In Rockstar (2011), the “neat and clean, hi-fi” heroine Heer must prove her craziness by going to watch desi porn in a cinema and drink desi daaru. If Heer transforms to being cool in JJ's eyes by having Jungli Jawani and Prague's red light district on her to-do list, expressing her desire to watch a striptease in America pushes the gentle Aditi up a notch in Viren's scale of things in Socha Na Tha(2005), Ali's directorial debut. Meera in Love Aaj Kal (2009), too, must pass the test by getting drunk on desi liquor, letting it pour out to a row of men at a dhaaba in the song “Chorbazaari do nainon ki”.
There is much else that repeats itself in Imtiaz Ali's films. Clearly still a believer in the janam-janam wala love that we and our cinema are supposed to have graduated from, Ali likes nothing so much as creating cool modern-day characters who scoff at it – only to find themselves sucked inexorably into its maelstroms. His men and women fumble along in their relationships, mistaking love for friendship, lust for love. Most of the time, the men are more confused. The exception is Jab We Met,whereKareena takes ages to figure out that she isn't actually in love with the hot boy she ran away from home for. And perhaps Shivam Nair's Ahista-Ahista (2006), for which Ali wrote a script that rehearses the central premise of Jab We Met (2007) – the runaway girl, destroyed by being stood up by her lover, finds support from a helpful stranger and begins to wonder if she's in love with him. Usually, though, it's the man who's dating the hot woman and doesn't get that he's really in love with the quiet one. Until things get messy – think of Abhay Deol's unending confusion in Socha Na Tha, and later Saif Ali Khan's in Homi Adajania's Cocktail (2012), whose script Ali wrote. Sometimes, as in Love Aaj Kal, there's no other woman competing for his attentions – he's just blind to the power of what he has. This is the practical flirt, the platonic friend, the man who doesn't think love really exists. And in any case, how is it possible that the cool woman he's been spending time with might turn out to have such uncool ideas as lifelong love? The emotion is so ubiquitous to his characters that Ali has a standard line for it. Actually, two. “Tum mere pyar vyar mein toh nahi pad gayi? Shaadi kar ke bachhe paida karne ka plan toh nahi bana chuki?(You haven't gone and fallen in love with me or something, have you? Hatched a plan to marry me and have my children?)” Saif Ali Khan's Gautam says it in Love Aaj Kal, Ranbir Kapoor's JJ says it in Rockstar, even Randeep Hooda's Gujjar kidnapper gets to say a version of it in Highway. Later, of course, that incredulity comes full circle: the man who falls tragically, uncontrollably in love can scarcely believe it has happened to him.
The girl's rich family is always a caricature. In Socha Na Tha, in Rockstar and now in Highway, they function only as placeholders for tradition/'honour'/patriarchy, guards to her prison. And the girl, unquestioning until now but secretly yearning to break free, finally finds the courage to do so in that final moment before her arranged marriage. The mild “Time hai, toh masti kar lo” philosophy of Ayesha Takia's Aditi in Socha Na Tha has become a little more desperate by the time we get toRockstar, when Nargis Fakhri's simpering Heer takes off to Kashmir with Ranbir Kapoor's JJ days before marrying another man. Jab We Met, where the primary journey is not the bride-to-be's planned escape but simply happenstance, was the exception here, too. But now, with Highway, Ali has returned to the theme – and how.
With Highway, Ali takes his 'sheltered girl' character and pushes her out into a real world she has never even imagined. Alia Bhatt's Veera is, like all Ali's previous heroines, on the brink of an arranged marriage, but her desire for freedom has not gone beyond idle fantasy. She speaks, like so many posh urban PYTs, of leaving the stifling city and going away to live in the hills. But when she steals out the night before her wedding, it is only on a drive along the highway with her uninterested, irritated fiance. However, if Veera has barely understood her own impulse for freedom when the film starts, she is also the only Imtiaz Ali heroine to embrace it when it seems to appear, in however unlikely a form. In the form, in fact, of an abduction.
Ali has always understood that romance needs frisson. In almost all his films, he underlines the pleasures of the clandestine meeting, chhup chhup ke milna – the danger of being discovered is half the fun. So when Socha Na Tha's protagonists meet in an arranged marriage scenario, there can be no romance. It's after the boy rejects the girl that he decides he rather enjoys talking to her. And when the families turn against the idea entirely is when it begins to seem like real love. Love Aaj Kal is a paean to old-style romance, juxtaposing the contemporary Jai-Meera affair – so amicably practical that they can throw a party to mark their break-up – with the remembered romance of Veer and Harleen, built entirely of fragments: the stolen glance, the fleeting touch, the secret assignation in the Purana Qila, with the girl's friends on one hand and the guy's friends on the other. Ali spends much of the film showing us the great gulf that divides the old world and the new, and his attempts to sculpt a bridge between them are often unsuccessful. The farewell at the airport can no longer feel earthshaking if you're going to be on the phone to each other in about ten minutes. But in having Jai and Meera discover the joys of the secret rendezvous, Love Aaj Kal feels like it's on to something. As they steal away from their current significant others, they also steal away from the older 'proper' relationship version of themselves, and suddenly everything is a lot more fun.
In most of Ali's earlier films, though, the frisson of the illegitimate is achieved with mere token transgression. Rockstar, perhaps, went the furthest in this regard, extending the posh girl's desire for ‘slumming it’ with desi porn and desi daru to the shock of finding herself in love with the desi Pitampura boy, a boy whose very name is so irredeemably unfashionable that she must turn Janardhan Jakhar into Jordan. But that reluctance, the posh girl's refusal to allow that she might actually be in love with this most unsuitable boy, remains buried deep within Rockstar – a subtext that dare not speak its name. It's possibly what made the film so utterly frustrating – the fact that Ali seems to want us to believe that what holds the alabaster-skinned Heer back for so long is some inexplicable, unshakeable fidelity to her cipher of a husband, rather than simply her inability to deal with herself.
With Highway, Ali refashions all his pet themes into something bolder and more fantastic than anything he's done before. He launches his heroine on a journey not of her own making, in circumstances that ought to make her very afraid. Kidnapped by a gang of rough-tongued Gujjars, Alia Bhatt's Veera Tripathi is indeed terrified to start with. But as the film progresses, she starts to find herself revelling in the journey. That's the other favourite Imtiaz Ali theme, of course – the journey, working in the most obvious way as the road to self-discovery, and for his women, to discovering the possibility of freedom – necessarily in the company of a man. These tropes might seem tired, but at least in Highway Ali seems finally to push them further. The poor little rich girl here isn't just slumming it with a slightly inappropriate boyfriend – she is entering into a relationship with her properly subaltern abductor. And simultaneously with a country she has never quite looked at before.
Ali's use of natural locales has always tended towards the picturesque, and here, too, Anil Mehta's cinematography creates an enchantingly lovely landscape that aids the film's dreamlike quality. But again, Highway is a departure of sorts, because Ali tries for elemental instead of pretty. When, early on, Veera is desperate to escape, Mahabir Bhati – an impressive Randeep Hooda, full of suppressed rage – lets her loose at the edge of the desert. She breaks into a run, not even stopping to think, and before she knows it she is deep in the cruel Thar, the ground cakey with salt beneath her chapped feet. There is a sense of terrible fatality in Veera's moonlit return to her abductors, and the half-collapsing embrace with which she falls upon Mahabir. It is a disturbing moment if you choose to read it that way – the world itself is too harsh for the woman, even when set free: she can only negotiate it with the aid of a man.
Later, Mahabir plays protector again, by driving away his creepy gangmate Goru (Saharsh Kumar Shukla, absolutely stellar as the caressing harasser). Eventually, Ali puts the words in his heroine's mouth. She wants to stay on with Mahabir, Veera says, because with him she feels as she has never felt before – that she can do anything at all, and he will take care of things (“tum sambhaal loge”). The feeling is a powerful one; it tugs at the heartstrings. But it cannot enthuse me that the deepest emotion Ali attributes to his otherwise brave heroine is a desire for protection (and it feels even more manipulative that her buried hatred for the world she grew up in involves a buried memory of child sexual abuse). Yet if it is true that Ali's heroines almost always need a man to find their freedom, it is equally true that his heroes only come into their own by falling in love – with a woman.
Highway's romance can never be, of course. Ali does what he did in Rockstar, choosing to gratify his audience's presumed sense of discomfort with the love affair at the deepest level by killing off one partner. Still, it is a long way to have come from Socha Na Tha, where the lovers are Oberois and Malhotras, Punjabi Khatris from the same mall-hopping world, and the 'wrongness' of the match a fiction that had to be constructed from slivers of plot. In Highway, when the apple-cheeked rich girl with a Brahmin surname begins to see the Bhati extortionist as a man with a difficult childhood, the Hindi film begins to return to what it once did as a matter of course: to let us imagine that such connections can be made; that another world is possible.