Expresso Season 2, Episode 2: Failure gives you more than success, says Imtiaz Ali

One of the proverbs bandied about freely in the film industry is “I don’t let success or failure affect me.” Most say it but filmmaker Imtiaz Ali, widely hailed as the present generation Yash Chopra, famous for his intense and romantic dramas does wear his success and failure lightly, with the bemused air of a philosopher. It is also something of a singular achievement that despite the box office turbulence his films have endured, the director’s popularity within the film fraternity remains intact.

Ever since he popularised Kareena Kapoor as Geet in Jab We Met, female actors, in particular, have looked to him for that one memorable role of a lifetime. He’s worked with the A-listers including Ranbir Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan among actors and Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma and of course, Kareena Kapoor among female actors.

Ali’s meteoric rise as a filmmaker is one of life’s paradoxes because growing up in Bihar, the beginning of his filmmaking journey was tentative, not a certainty. He grew up in Patna and Jamshedpur and a career in media was the closest to filmmaking he had ever imagined.

As we speak about Bihar’s obsession with UPSC (civil services), Ali admits that he did consider it as a career option besides engineering. Although luckily for him he got distracted by theatre and briefly, even toyed with the idea of becoming a basketball player! Eventually, it was English Literature in Delhi University’s Hindu College that he settled for, with the ambition of doing something in the media. A lot of theatre followed and eventually when he moved to Mumbai, it was with the hope of a career in advertising. “When I started my life in Jamshedpur doing theatre, I always wanted to do something with the media. There was no way of dreaming that one would be a film director.”

His closest brush with cinema was at Kareem Mansion, his relative’s living quarters in Jamshedpur with three cinema halls on the premises. Ali recollects making friends with the projectionist and helping him occasionally. “He (the projectionist) used to smoke bidi in the projection room and I helped him load and unload the reels so I had that very Cinema Paradiso kind of experience where there’s a small hole and you stand and look into this world of people. There’s a certain smell and out worldly experience of some woman dancing (on screen) or some guy hitting, people whistling etc. So yeah that world was very fascinating and I am glad that in some way I am a part of it.”

Although his voyage into movies is one that has been smooth sailing for the most part, he did have his share of disappointments though. One such was his lack of success in advertising but he quickly moved on to television and achieved a degree of success before moving on to films. In fact, his first film Socha Na Tha was originally a part of a telefilm series and the slot for the series was cancelled later. In fact, it was not Socha Na Tha but another film for Mahesh Bhatt that was supposed to be his first but fate willed otherwise. “Bhatt sa’ab actually was the first guy who said you should direct a film for my company. It never happened otherwise he would have been even more of a godfather to me,” muses Ali with a smile.

Speaking of that phase he says, “Failure gives you more than success if you don’t count money. Or let me rephrase it. Failure gives you more than success in the long term. Like I didn’t get into advertising. It was a failure every day for a year and now I shudder to think what would have happened if I did get into advertising. So I feel yeah, some films of mine didn’t do very well but it must make me stronger in some way or teach me new things or change things in some better way, give me more learning which is more precious than what success gives you.”

The rest, as they say, is history and the director can’t imagine his life in any other profession. Filmmaking remains a passion and over the years, it is the love for cinema that has provided a common ground for bonding with his actor colleagues like Ranbir Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone being the most famous ones.

“The actor always wants to feel that the director is going to watch his back really. The director wants to feel the same way about an actor; like if I say something to him (Ranbir Kapoor) which is not making sense, he will either make sense of it or tell me it’s not making sense. And if you can get that, it becomes very exciting. Sometimes you are doing rehearsals in a room and some of us like Shah Rukh, Ranbir and Deepika would love to sit in a huddle and discuss. We are groupies. We don’t even do it for the scenes. We do it because we like it. With Ranbir, it’s always going to be about some story which has something to do with cinema. It’s the same with Deepika and Shah Rukh.”

What’s rather intriguing is that his proximity to stars has given Ali an alternate reading to what is widely perceived as an advantage of being a star kid. He views their narrower exposure to life experiences as a limitation, even for his daughter Ida now a bona fide member of the film industry.

“Being the father of an industry kid, it’s not something that makes me particularly happy because I know for a fact that it is not going to stand her (Ida) in any stead. The only advantage she might have is that her steps might fall right walking in this terrain but aside of that the chances of her success or failure will not be determined by the fact that she has anything to do with anybody in the film industry. There have been enough examples of people who have done or not done well despite the same relationship. And I know because we have spent enough time with Ranbir and other people born into this industry to understand that it is only perception that they get a lot of help. The disadvantage is that they come in with no new story to the film industry. For Ranbir or Ida to be unique and to have certain flavours that are not available otherwise abundantly in the film industry is that they have to work harder. What do you make your story on? When Amitabh Bachchan stands on screen, you know that this guy has had a journey. For Ranbir to achieve the same is more difficult because he has not traversed that path,” he explains.

Meanwhile in his personal life, of the many roles he has played, being father to Ida is something he believes he is good at. Ali fesses up that he has a good real-life example to borrow from — his own father.

“My father was the ideal father. Much of what I might have acquired in my life is through him. I would like to be a better father for my daughter is the constant refrain that comes every time I think of my father. With Ida, I just thought it would be interesting for me to be real with her and just open up. So it’s a step further from the previous generation but it’s some influence of my father that I am like that with Ida.”

He wistfully adds, “We tell each other stories all the time ever since she was old enough to understand language. We just discuss a lot of things – concepts and politics. Sometimes I tell her about something that happens in politics. Now she tells me a lot about what is going on in the world.”

Besides Ida growing into a fine young Miss, it’s a happy time for Ali who is exploring short films along with features, balancing his myriad creative interests. His only indulgence outside of creative leaps in films in an otherwise Spartan life is carefully handpicked tea! Ali owns up to being something of a tea snob!

“Tea… I have become very refined about my taste in tea. I get it from Darjeeling frown in certain estates and I have made friends with those guys to make sure the best quality tea comes to me. I know about gardens in Darjeeling and their quality as well as somebody knows about French Wines and grapes and the gardens there. It’s (tea) sometimes expensive as well but it’s not that expensive. I do carry the tea that I drink everywhere in the world. So that’s my only indulgence. I make my own tea, piss off everyone at the restaurant or hotel I stay in, Ali divulges sheepishly.

Good taste, in a man of creativity, we’d say for as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Some people will tell you, there is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment, in a chest of tea.” Priyanka Sinha Jha is a senior journalist, author and digital-media specialist.

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