I was gonna write about Imtiaz, but then I realized I really had to write about two directos. One for Imtiaz and Ranbir, one for Imtiaz and anyone else.
Imtiaz Ali had a long slow start in his career. He found his voice at age 34, after years of preparation. Child of an average non-filmi family, he got involved in theater troupes in college and then went on to get a communications degree in Bombay at a decent local school (not IIFT, the premier national school for film). Then there were years of working on TV shows, honing his skills as a director and a writer. And finally, only after all of that, was his first film Socha Na Tha produced.
Socha Na Tha was something very different, it is a romance in which all the conflicts are internal. Our hero was in love with one girl, and then fell in deeper love with another girl, and had to figure out what he was going to do about that. Our heroine was a “good girl” who fell in love with someone she wasn’t supposed to love and had to decide what she was going to do about that. There are no fight scenes, there are no unreasonable parents, there are no artificial deadlines. And yet, the film is addictive and dramatic and pulls you right in because you care so much about these internal demons. And the sweet kind lead characters.
Socha Na Tha was Abhay Deol’s first movie, and Ayesha Takia’s (although another film released first). I don’t know what kind of preparation they went through, but they fully embodied their characters, especially in their joint scenes. The dialogue doesn’t tell us how they feel or what they are thinking, it is the little micro expressions, the way they tilt their heads and smile at each other, the half started and then stopped hand gestures. Both of them went on to give great performances in other films (Abhay in Dev D and so many others, and Ayesha in Dor), but it is remarkable how good they were here, in their very first film.
That is one of Imtiaz’s greatest strengths, bringing out great performances. Or maybe it is a necessity for the kind of film he wants to make and so he learned to develop that skill? Imtiaz likes to tell stories of the changes that happen inside our hearts and minds and souls every day, not the big exciting stories with gangsters and all of that, but the ones that matter deep on the inside. You can’t tell those stories through flashy songs and great one liners, you need the kind of subtle internal performance that is almost invisible, that feels like you are just watching a real person, a real person you know so well that you can read their mind by reading their face.
Imtiaz’s next film Jab We Met brought together Shahid Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor who had co-starred multiple times and were dating in real life. And yet, somehow, he brought out something new and better and different from each of them, and more importantly, from the chemistry they had together. Then came Love Aaj Kal, and again he worked some kind of wonder with Deepika and Saif.
With Highway, Imtiaz took an inexperienced teenage girl, and an inexperienced highly trained and talented much older actor an somehow guided them towards building something between each other. And building up their own characters with all the complexities required for their individual parts at the same time. And then there is Jab Harry Met Sejal. Two actors who had co-starred twice before and knew each other well in real life, one of them an actress slowly coming into greater and greater skill levels and the other an actor at the top of his game. Once again, Imtiaz gave them the space and the support to find the heart of their characters, and to build something totally unique and wonderful between each other.
Imtiaz’s films fit into the tidy category of “romance”, but really I would rather call them “dual character studies”. Imtiaz takes two characters, and two actors, and builds up an internal conflict within each of them. And then he puts them together and lets them play off of each other until that internal conflict is resolved by the contrast. I could just as easily see him directing Jab Harry Met Sejal about a lonely tour guide and a lonely teenage boy and how they find a strange family relationship with each other that gives both of them the strength to break their patterns. Highway, for example, truly ISN’T a romance. That’s the point, these two characters are so broken that they will never be able to have a romantic relationship. And that’s okay, they find something else with each other, something that satisfies them.
The two central characters have strong complex internal struggles, and they are surrounded by caring interesting people as well. We don’t see their struggles, but we know they must exist. In Socha Na Tha, the abandoned fiancee gets a sensitive treatment that made me think she could have had a film all her own. In Jab Harry Met Sejal, the hero’s best friend is kind and warm and strangely wise, not to mention has his own loneliness and his own romance. Imtiaz’s world is one in which everyone has damage, and everyone is trying to do better. And the only way to be healed is to reach out to others, to open yourself to the shared pain and love of the universe. We see that over and over again in his films, the moment when the heart opens up and suddenly everything changes.
This is the Imtiaz we see in Socha Na Tha, in Jab We Met, in Love Aaj Kal, in Highway, and in Jab Harry Met Sejal. All of these films say, in their own way, “love is the answer”. In Socha Na Tha, our hero and heroine are tormented and uncomfortable within themselves until they accept that they love each other. They don’t have to do anything about it, just accept that this feeling exists, welcome it in. In Jab We Met, love heals heartbreak of all kinds, family trauma and relationship trauma and even grief. In Love Aaj Kal, our hero and heroine run from love because they think there is more to life than love. And in the end, they discover life is nothing without love. In Highway, with love comes inner peace and strength and healing. And with Jab Harry Met Sejal, love brings a whole new life. Imtiaz is a Sufi, for him love is God and God is love and love is people. God is everything and everyone and every heart. That is the message we get over and over again, close your eyes and open your heart and let peace flow in.
And then there is Imtiaz with Ranbir. Like his other movies, Imtiaz with Ranbir deals with internal stories. Not much “happens” in their films, it is all about what is going on inside. But unlike his other movies, the answer doesn’t seem to be love. Or other people. Instead, it is something entirely contained within Ranbir. The Ranbir characters in Rockstar and Tamasha, if everyone else in the world disappeared they could still be happy. All they need is their own personal satisfaction.
It’s hard to figure out how Imtiaz can see so clearly and so deeply in his other films, and be so strangely blind in his films with Ranbir. Maybe it is because he relies so much on collaboration? In his other films, you can see how he let the actors work with him and bring out something new and deep and different scene by scene. For Highway, Randeep Hooda decided not to talk to Alia even when not filming, to let their connection build onscreen and off at the same pace. For Jab Harry Met Sejal, Shahrukh and Anushka were old friends who had already played together in multiple films and clearly worked together to figure out how to be these new characters. Imtiaz was fine with both techniques, whatever worked best for his actors. But with Ranbir, I think relying on his actor is steering him down a bad path.
Ranbir’s greatest weakness is collaboration. When I think of him performing, I can’t think of him really giving to his scene partners. There’s a certain talent some actors have to make their scene partners look good. They ease them along, shine them up, relax them. It’s nothing you can put your finger on, but it is there. In Hindi film, Deepika Padukone and Abhishek Bachchan are two people that spring to mind. I don’t necessarily notice them in a scene, but I notice that their scene partner is suddenly giving the performance of their career. With Ranbir, he doesn’t have that at all. When I think of his scene partners, I can’t even remember them. His performances are all about what his character is feeling, what his character is saying, he doesn’t even seem capable of caring about the character opposite him.
His best performances use this weakness and make it a strength. In Wake Up Sid, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, his character is intended to be immature and self-focused. The journey of the film is towards him understanding that the needs of others are as important as his own. Although, come to think of it, we don’t really get the scenes after he has learned that. The film ends with one grand gesture, before we have to see and believe in Ranbir’s performance as a mature person who cares for others.
And so we have Imtiaz trustingly handing off his vision to one of his two lead actors, Ranbir. And Ranbir taking it and malforming it into something totally different. It’s the only explanation I can think of for why the two Ranbir-Imtiaz films feel so shockingly different from every other movie Imtiaz has made.
In Tamasha and Rockstar, suddenly the story becomes all about Ranbir. It’s not a message that everyone has pain and love will heal you, it is a message that Ranbir, only Ranbir, has pain. And only Ranbir can heal himself.
There are two issues with the Ranbir-Imtiaz films, the narrative and the message. For narrative, they are empty. You can’t have a film that is just about one person. You need some other character to feel present and real, some conflict at some point between two people. If it is just the Ranbir Show, than you might as well stay home and lose yourself in your own thoughts. Come to think of it, that is probably why so many angsty internet boys love them, because it is like seeing their own thoughts (“I’m the most sensitive troubled talented person in the world, what should I do about it?”) up onscreen.
But the message is what really disturbs me. Both Tamasha and Rockstar are about an artist struggling to express himself. And the message is that this is the most important thing in the world. Because Ranbir ends up dominating the film, to the extent that no other actors or characters have a completed storyline, suddenly Imtiaz’s usual message of “go on your personal journey and find peace” becomes “your personal journey is the only journey, the only thing that matters”. In Socha Na Tha and Jab We Met, our hero finds happiness by accepting his responsibilities and finding ways to find joy within them. In Love Aaj Kal, our hero finds happiness by giving up his own desires and ambitions and choosing love instead. In Highway, our hero finds peace by sacrificing himself for someone who has suffered more than he has. And in Tamasha and Rockstar, our hero finds joy by pursuing his own artistic desires to the exclusion of family responsibilities, social responsibilities, even responsibility to the woman he claims to love.
I can picture a version of Tamasha, for instance, with a different actor in the lead role. If we replace Ranbir with Ranveer Singh (a very generous scene partner), suddenly the moments between him and Deepika are not all about the hero’s pain with Deepika’s erased, but about the two of them together. The story is now the double tragedy of the man who is unfulfilled in an empty life and the woman who loves him and is being dragged down with him. The message is that the hero has to find fulfillment not just for himself, but because it can help bring happiness to everyone around him. And in a larger sense, that art is there to heal and bring joy to people, not just for the artist. In Rockstar, it would be a harder change, there is so much in the script itself that does not make sense, but I can look at Shahid Kapoor’s performance in Udta Punjab. When he played an out of control singing star and attacked the family and others who loved him, I felt the pain of his family, I felt the broken relationships behind him. Because it wasn’t just about Shahid, he let us feel for those around him. I wanted him to do better for himself, and so he would stop hurting those who loved him.
But when you combine an internal conflict based plot and a director who is ready to hand control over to his actors, with a surprisingly selfish central actor, suddenly a film that could and should have had the message of everyone connected, art as healing for the world, and a sacrifice that the artist makes, now has a message of the entire world being laid at the feet of one man.
In conclusion, watch every movie Imtiaz Ali makes so long as he is not working with Ranbir Kapoor.