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Indian Director Imtiaz Ali: 'I'm Supposed to Be a Vulgar Sellout' (Berlin Q&A)

Imtiaz Ali - Director - 'Highway' H
Nadiadwala/UTV
Imtiaz Ali

Ahead of the Berlinale premiere of romantic drama "Highway," the director discusses the growth of Indian cinema, the departure from his signature style and his new shooting style (no script).

Starting out in television, Indian director Imtiaz Ali made his feature debut with 2005's Socha Na Tha.

His 2007 follow-up Jab We Met delivered his first major commercial hit. The romantic drama starred actress Kareena Kapoor and actor Shahid Kapoor and defined Ali's signature style: a fresh take on contemporary relationships.

He continued in this vein with 2009's Love Aaj Kal, starring Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone. With 2011's Rockstar, Ali established rising star Ranbir Kapoor as the next big thing. Kapoor delivered a critically acclaimed performance as a love-lorn college student-turned-rock icon.

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In what is seen as a departure from his earlier work, Ali's latest Highway screens in Berlin in the Panorama section, with a score by Oscar-winning composer A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire). The film stars up-and-coming actress Alia Bhatt as a young woman about to be married who is abducted and experiences a life-changing journey with her kidnapper, played by Randeep Hooda.

Ahead of Highway's Berlinale premiere, the director spoke with THR about working without a script, A.R. Rahman's unconventional methods, his critics and what excites him about Indian cinemas new creative diversity. 

THR: When it was announced that Highway was going to screen at Berlin, you said you were surprised at the selection. Why is that?

Imtiaz Ali: I think it's about my ignorance of the whole festival scene. I really don't know much about that world. I didn't make the film to go to any festival. And none of my earlier films have gone to any festival. I am supposed to be a vulgar sellout kind of entertainer. I am not an intellectual, you know, so that's why I was surprised.

Unlike your earlier films, where you worked with major stars, this time the principal female character is played by a relative newcomer, Alia Bhatt.

The story has been in my mind for a long time. Its really about gaining a perception about your home by being away from it. If I have to paraphrase it in one sentence, it's really about gaining freedom. Some years ago, I made a half-hour episode for a TV series and that's where I first got a hint for this story. And over time, it changed form and genres until I just gave up. And then it all settled down to this journey of two characters. As for the central female lead, I thought I would cast someone with some experience of life -- someone who had probably been through some relationships. I didn't think I would cast a relatively new actor but when I met Alia Bhatt I realized that despite being a newcomer (she debuted in 2012's romantic comedy Student of the Year), she had a certain maturity about her. So the fact that she was new and vulnerable actually helped record this journey better.

Highway seems like a departure from your earlier films, such as Rockstar and Jab We Met.

There is a break from the past in how I approached this project. To start with, this is the first time I went on set without a script. The reason was that you realize that many of the ideas you thought of don't really apply when you are actually shooting on location. And we were shooting in some really far-out places. It's one thing to have the security of a pre-structured scene or dialog, but reality can change that. I mean, I had the basic storyline mapped out so we shot in linear.

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So the actors did a lot of improvising? 

Well, it was more about them actually connecting better with the story. Most often, they would end up saying what was expected of them with reference to the story. But more than improvising, I think it was really about them establishing a deep connection. Another thing that was totally different from the way I have worked in the past is that this was the first time I used minimum lighting and other equipment. I used as much natural light as possible. I also didn't go for a large camera setup -- such as cranes and dollies. I wanted the cameras to be easily transported as we were shooting in difficult locations such as mountains. So if I thought the shot would look better from a higher angle, we could move the equipment faster than if we had a heavy setup. It was good to travel light. This is also the first time I shot in digital as all my earlier films have been shot on 35mm film.

How do you see Berlin as a platform for Highway?

Honestly, I have no idea what kind of audience is going to see this film in Berlin. But what I am excited about is that perhaps it's going to be an audience that probably doesn't usually get to see an Indian film. So in that sense, I am keen to see how they respond. I am more interested to know who they are and how they watch my film. What I would like them to take away is that there are various voices in Indian cinema.

The film's music is by Oscar winning composer A. R. Rahman, who is well-known internationally. You worked with him in your earlier films -- how was it working with him again?

There was another departure for me in the way I approached the music. For one, it's always surprising to see how Rahman works on every project. There is no structure that he follows so it's always a new experience. The unique thing this time was that the songs were recorded after the film was shot, except one track that was sung by Alia (who also makes her singing debut). The film features nine songs. The only conversation I had with Rahman at the outset was about what kind of songs we wanted from various genres, such as Punjabi folk or other styles.

You also co-produced Highway. Are you interested in expanding your production activities?

Not really; I just want to direct. But given the nature of this project, I had to produce it as well. Since it's different from my earlier work, I didn't want it to be sold to distributors like my previous films Jab We Met or Rockstar. The film is produced by Sajid Nadiadwala. The deals we did with distributors are purely on commission basis, meaning they won't lose any money on it [as only actual revenues will be shared without any fixed minimum guarantee commitments as is sometimes the norm]. Overseas distribution is handled by UTV, and while we have the India rights, they are also releasing it domestically on our behalf.

How do you view the current evolution of Indian cinema?

What excites me is how all kinds of cinema are now working: from [Bollywood superstar] Salman Khan's films to [action blockbuster] Dhoom:3 to the new crop of independent films. The footprint of  Indian cinema is growing. When I made my first film Socha Na Tha, that was considered very offbeat. Now things have become broader, for a wider mix of cinema to co-exist successfully.