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The new love guru
Pix by Gajanan Dudhalkar

He redefined the rules of romance with his debut film Socha Na Tha in 1995 starring Abhay Deol and Ayesha Takia. He followed this with the blockbuster Jab We Met in 2007 in which he managed to bring out the sparkling chemistry between Shahid Kapur and Kareena Kapoor (even though their off-screen relationship went kaput). Director Imtiaz Ali, who is touted as the modern love guru of Bollywood, stands out in the crowd of filmmakers with his ability to give a new spin to the age-old boy-meets-girl love story.

Ali is now ready with his third film, Love Aaj Kal, a road romance that’s typically set in a variety of places. This time his audiences can look forward to the first time pairing of Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone.

Ali loves making candyfloss films which are more than tearjerkers. He says: “I love to look at romantic films in a different way and turn the stories around to suit current times. Perhaps that’s also the reason why my characters in a love story look real,” says Ali, making himself comfortable in Saif Ali Khan’s production house, Illuminati Films, in Mumbai’s Bandra area.

(From left) The director with Love Aaj Kal stars Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone at a press conference
Pix by Gajanan Dudhalkar

There’s a lot riding on Love Aaj Kal, which is essentially a love story spanning two generations. “The film has two chapters. So there’s the frolic and despair of modern living and the innocence and compulsion of our earlier generation. It’s a story of distance and the fondness that increases with distance,” he says.

Ali shot the film in London, San Francisco, Delhi, Calcutta, Patiala, Mandwa and Mumbai on a budget of Rs 40 crore. The film is also the maiden production of Saif, who has turned producer with his company Illuminati Films in partnership with Dinesh Vijan.

For Ali, it’s nail-biting time as the countdown for the movie’s release has begun — it’s scheduled to hit theatres on July 31. And he’s only too aware that his fans have huge expectations from him especially after his last superhit film. He jokes: “I like the pre-movie euphoria. But if it fails, I am going to catch all of you for writing bad things about the film.”

Ali’s third film Love Aaj Kal is a romance spanning two generations

On the other hand, for Saif, the movie’s special not just because he is starring in it but more importantly because with it he’s making his debut as producer. He says: “Film production is like a war where you are fighting unbelievable odds. Every day of the shooting was like a battle. But I am happy that we have been able to finish the project on time.”

Once Saif heard the story, he was hooked and wanted to have Ali on board because he’s a director who doesn’t make compromises. Says Saif: “Imtiaz was very clear from the beginning that while shooting, he didn’t want me as a producer. It was more an equation of an actor and a director on the sets.”

And though Ali is a big fan of Kareena Kapoor, he didn’t give in to Saif when it came to casting Deepika in the lead role. “Saif is not the type of guy who will be at loggerheads just because his girlfriend is not in the film. The role didn’t suit Kareena and he never challenged my decision. As far as Deepika is concerned, she was very perceptive and was a natural in front of the camera,” he says.

Deepika too is full of praise for the director and says: “He’s a perfectionist and is very good at telling stories.”

But Ali, who’s rewriting the rules of mush in Hindi filmdom, hates to being categorised in a specific genre. “The choice of making only romantic films is not deliberate. I am open to all kinds of cinema but what matters the most to me is the storyline,” he adds.

Ali’s debut film Socha Na Tha starred Abhay Deol and Ayesha Takia

And though he shot to fame with the success of Jab We Met, it’s not one of his favourite films. “I know that the audience loved it but in retrospect, certain scenes were shot very badly. It’s not a kind of film I would want to replicate in future and given a chance I would want to make certain changes in it,” he admits.

However, breaking into the film industry wasn’t easy as there were several obstacles in his path. His debut film Socha Na Tha took two years to make and release because of a cash crunch. The film had Abhay Deol and Ayesha Takia in the lead and was produced by Sunny Deol’s Vijeta Films.

Initially, it was written as a three-part series for the small screen but had to be scrapped because there was no slot for it on television. “Next, I had to find a producer to finance my film which took a long time. Finally, Abhay introduced me to Sunny Deol who agreed to back it. But midway there was a huge cash crunch and so the film got delayed further,” he says. Though the film didn’t do well at the box office, it was critically appreciated and Ali had producers vying to sign him on.

Ali is currently a hot favourite with Bollywood stars and even his favourite actress Kareena recently expressed her disappointment in not bagging the role in Love Aaj Kal. The director has even convinced Neetu Singh, who has been away from the arc lights for almost three decades, to appear in one scene with husband Rishi Kapoor in Love Aaj Kal. She has refused many other directors in the past.

Pix by Rashbehari Das

Undoubtedly, life has changed 360 degrees for Ali but he’s unaffected by success. He likes to zip around Mumbai in autos and despite all the adulation, he leads a simple life. In an era of celebrity blogging, he prefers to keep a low profile but has recently started a Love Aaj Kal group on Facebook.

Is he a hard task-master on the sets? “I’m a very chilled-out guy and never get hyper on the sets,” says the soft-spoken, long-haired director. He says that he grew his hair long in order to avoid going to the salon. Saif puts it differently: “He’s the sexiest and most good looking director we have in Bollywood.”

So what are his other interests apart from directing? He laughs: “I’m a very boring person. I have a few very close friends in this industry with whom I bond and connect.”

His close buddies include directors Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan, Shivam Nair and Anurag Basu. And he’s always there for his friends. For instance, he agreed to do the role of Yakub Memon in Anurag Kashyap’s debut film Black Friday (2004). Ali also wrote the script of Ahista Ahista (2006) for his director friend Shivam Nair. Says Kashyap: “Though we make different kinds of films we are always there for each other. Imtiaz has the ability of making a formula film look different. His dialogues are fresh and crisp.”

So when he’s not busy shooting, he likes to spend time with his friends. “I love the idea of adda that is characteristic of life in Calcutta,” he says smiling. So it’s not surprising that Calcutta has been featured in his upcoming release. “As a kid growing up in Jamshedpur, I used to visit Calcutta 60 days a year. We used to stay in Elliot Road in central Calcutta and I loved walking down to Park Street. I still love the old world charm of the city,” he says.

His film Love Aaj Kal features Calcutta landmarks like the Howrah Bridge, the Lake Market, and, of course, the trams. Calcutta also happens to be his favourite city and recently he enjoyed walking the ramp at the Kolkata Fashion Week for designer Zubair Kirmani.

Ali (second from right) on the sets
of Jab We Met; (below) a still
from the film

Ali has an erratic schedule. “I don’t have a fixed routine. I write scripts whenever I get the time. I am a moderate reader and you won’t find me burying myself in books in my free time. As for this particular film, we slogged till the wee hours with both Saif and Dinesh discussing the nitty-gritty of the film,” he says.

He prefers watching movies in the neighbourhood theatre rather than on a home theatre. That’s partly because he comes from a family which owned film theatres in Jamshedpur like Jamshedpur Talkies and Karim Talkies. “As a kid, I used to catch every Amitabh Bachchan film that released in the theatres. I didn’t bunk school to watch films, but had a penchant for three-hour Bollywood masala films,” he says.

Ali, 37, grew up in Jamshedpur. While studying in DBMS English School in Jamshedpur he was actively involved in school theatre and later when he moved to Delhi for his graduation in English literature from Hindu College, he was part of a drama group called Act 1. He landed in Mumbai in 1993 to do a course in advertising and marketing at St Xavier’s College.

His first break as a television director came in a talk show, Purushkhetra, hosted by Kirron Kher on Zee TV. Then he directed Imtihaan for Star Plus. But he felt that television was not his cup of tea. He says: “I somehow feel I was a misfit in the TV industry. But if I ever get back to television, it will be to do non-fictional programmes like travel shows.”

So what’s next? On the cards is another film under the banner of Shree Ashtavinayak Cine Vision. “I have a couple of ideas in mind but have not zeroed in on any one idea that can be turned into a film,” he says.

Right now, however, all eyes will be trained on his forthcoming release.

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