Decoding Imtiaz Ali's Storytelling Style.
Updated: May 19, 2021
I’m fairly certain that once in your life after watching an Imtiaz Ali movie you felt like leaving everything immediately and taking off to far-off places, right? Or maybe you just connected with the lead characters- A person who seems very normal at first but battling with inner demons and struggling against the world only to realize later that their conflict is internal and experiencing an increasing gush to find one’s passion. That’s the thing with Imtiaz Ali and his storytelling. Imtiaz as a filmmaker, has such a compelling way of storytelling that mesmerizes the audience with its narrative, where he exposes the complexities of the human mind, the romance-heartbreak, and the healing journey displays the build-up of the characters like no other filmmaker can and this is what strikes the chores with the most viewers. There’s just something different about his movies and an Imtiaz Ali devotee is well-aware of his filmmaking style.
“Jahan se tum mujhe laaye ho main wapas nahi jaana chahti. Jaha bhi le jaa rahe ho wahan pohochna nahi chahti. Par ye rasta bohot achha hain, mein chahti hoon ye rasta kabhi khatam na ho.”
- a dialogue from the movie “Highway”
But what inspires the filmmaker and his storytelling? “They are all drawn from life,” he says. “I am not a cinema buff. I don’t watch a million movies. I have no other inspirations.” Ali said in an interview with Forbes. In fact, one of his movies character “Geet” was inspired by Delhi girls traveling in a Delhi bus. In the same interview he said, “Geet is a character commonly found in a Delhi bus. These girls speak incessantly to even strangers when they don’t mean a thing. You just have to listen to them.” (Interview Source- Forbes)
Imtiaz Ali had a keen interest in cinema right from his childhood. He had multiple desires, at times wished to become a management graduate, an advertising copywriter, etc but got stuck to direction and writing. “Almost everything that I had planned for myself did not come true. I was kind of swept away by some unseen force into film direction,” Ali said in a recent interview. He began his career as a production assistant with Zee TV in the mid-90s and later worked with a post-production studio and would write concepts for television. But theatre was one of his desires. Most of his films follow a particular course- the character meets, they fall in love, then gets separated, and then reunite later. Imtiaz Ali has been accused of repeating themes in his movies and has also faced criticism for his movies that the women’s role is not limited to just empowering the man. There are a few recurring elements that you will always find in Imtiaz Ali films- stories seem familiar, relatable ideas of romance, characters love the mountains, traveling is one of the essential themes, and escaping from the house. But there are more elements and trademarks in his direction and writing. But what is it that makes an Imtiaz Ali movie? Why is he the master storyteller?
Let’s read more about the recurring themes and explore his filmmaking style!
Imtiaz’s characters are ambitious and don’t give in to societal standards. He gives us characters who have embraced pain but are trying hard to detach themselves of the harsh reality. These characters portray their true self when they are away from everyone. Be it Geet, Ved, Jordan, Veera- every character is in a place that suffocates them and later runs away from it. This is usually how the character's arc progresses in his movies. In Jab We Met, Aditya leaves everything behind and gets on a train, Geet literally runs away from her house to Manali . In Highway, Veera feels suffocated in the house and the city and finds her peace on the roads. Towards the end of the film, she says, "Main hamesha kehti thi na, ki main bhaag jaaungi yahan se, mujhe sheher mein nahin rehna”. In Tamasha. Ved travels to Corsica, where he gets to be himself, away from the product manager job he does not like. In Harry Met Sejal, Harry has also run away from his home. In Socha na Tha(2005), Imtiaz Ali’s directorial debut, the characters run off at the end to get married and spend time living in the mountains. The characters just want to break free and live for themselves.
JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAINS
Imtiaz Ali’s movies are underlined with travel and a journey to the mountains. They inspire us to travel and live life to the fullest. His films show a lot of travel amidst the mountains that reflects on the concept of the ‘journey’ and portrays the character’s growth. The character of Veera from Highway, undergoes a self- realization and feels at peace in the mountains, in the song ‘Kahan ho main’ The characters in his movies are often fascinated by the mountains. Most of his films have a song sequence that truly displays the beautiful landscapes and heavenly mountains- ‘Katiya Karun’ or ‘Kahaan Hoon Main’ in the Himalayas, ‘Yes Ishq Haye’ or ‘Safarnama’ in Shimla.
In the movie, Rockstar Heer convinced Jordan to go to the mountains, "Mujhe pahadon mein jaana hai, phir se Himalayas dekhna hai." In the movie, Tamasha,, when tara reminds Ved of his true being, she says, ‘"Tum toh pahadon se baatein karte ho". In Jab We Met, Geet says, “Mai bahut jaldi bhaagne vali hun Anshuman k saath, tum aur Roop bhi bhaag lo. Fir chaaron ikkathe rahenge pahado mein.” This element in the film clearly shows how the characters long to spend time in the mountains.
CHARACTERS LONG FOR THEIR LOVE
His films showcase characters on a particular journey. His characters are (seemingly) real, raw on emotions and the filmmaker portrays an unusual but a highly relatable idea of romance in his films. The characters usually spend time apart from each other and at least one of them is seen longing for the other. In this phase, we see the male characters do something that will associate to their lover’s name to fill up the void within them. In Jab We Met, singing is the closest thing to Aditya and he associates it with Geet- female character of he film, because Geet brings back the music in his life.
The following sequence from the movie Tamasha shows how Ved longs for Tara at his worst, when he is away from her and misses her. He looks at the sky and screams- Tara.. Tara... here he associates Tara’s name with the stars in the sky. In Rockstar, Jordan becomes Ranjha to his Heer whereas in Harry met Sejal, he connects Sejal’s name to the water and waves and there is a scene of Harry Screaming Sejal’s name while looking over at the waves. This is one of the details you see repeating in all the Imtiaz Ali’s movie characters.
Kis manzil ka?
Kya chakkar hai?
Kahan chala hai dil ka rasta bin kadmon ke?
(Dialogue from the movie ‘Tamasha’)
MIRROR SHOTS AND THE USE OF TIE
In films, mirrors are used for moments of reflection, obviously, both the physical and emotional kind but there are moments when the mirror shots are used to portray the character’s dual nature or to display the existential crises the character is going through. In most of Ali’s films, the characters are going through some self-analysis or portraying the duality elements. Like in Tamasha, Ved is seen talking to himself in the mirror that shows his different personalities. In the opening scene of Jab We Met, we see Aditya standing in front of the mirror in the washroom. He looks at himself with a look of melancholy and the expression on his face shows that he is blaming himself for his misfortunes. There are similar shots in Harry Met Sejal, Love Aaj Kal, and Rockstar.
The characters in his films are stuck in situations that make them suffocate and in the same sense the tie represents the feeling of character’s distress. It feels like a chain the character is tied to, trying to break free from the situations they are stuck in. In Jab we Met, a dejected Aditya walks out of his office, takes his tie off and throws it on the ground. This element is recurred in movies like Tamasha (where Ved has to hear an earful from his boss for not wearing a tie) and in the movie Harry Met Sejal, where the tie is not seen when Harry is on the road with Sejal and the tie returns back when Sejal leaves him and he is back to the routine life.
MUSIC IN HIS FILMS
“Music can make or break a movie”, said Ali in a recent interview. It can add a stronger recall value to the films. Music has always played a crucial role in any of Ali’s movies. His movie Rockstar was a musician’s journey and undoubtedly has brilliant music by A.R Rahman. Almost all the songs for his movies are penned by Irshad Kamil who is a genius in his own might and has written some of the gems such as Sadda Haq, Nadaan Parinde, Ajj Din Chadheya, and Tum Se Hi. Irshad Kamil, A.R. Rahman and Ali himself are like the holy trinity when it comes to producing soulful music for the films. His movie, Rockstar connected with the youth, especially the song ‘Sadda Haq’ which had a strong message that stood out, even though the lyrics were difficult to understand. The song ‘Kyun Faya Kyun’ is a soothing and soulful affair in its own.
CHARACTERS MEET EACH OTHER ON A JOURNEY AND TRAVEL TOGETHER
In most of his films, strangers meet, travel together, spend time together and develop a bond like no other. For instance, in his debut film (Socha Na Tha), two youngsters discover and rediscover each other at a non-touristy beach in Goa. In Jab We Met, the characters meet on a train in Mumbai, bond over while travelling amidst Manali’s misty hills. In Harry Met Sejal, Seaj meets Harry on a tour who turns out to be her tour guide. Ved and Tara explore Corsica together. Heer and Jordan travel to Kashmir. The characters travel and create a world of their own and share things they never shared with anyone else. It is amusing how the theme of traveling is present in all of his films.
Did you know that Imtiaz Ali can be a impulsive traveller and travels without a fixed itinerary!
The authenticity of Ali’s characters often comes from his personal travel encounters—like a humble meal at a local’s home along a nondescript highway.
These were a few recurring elements found in most of Imtiaz Ali’s films. Tell us in the comments what you feel about these elements and his storytelling style!