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A conversation with 'Highway' director Imtiaz Ali

Indian director Imtiaz Ali follows his successful 2011 film Rockstar with Highway, opening today worldwide.

"Highway" promo piece.
UTV Motion Pictures

Ali's fifth feature as director, Highway, which he also scripted, stars Alia Bhatt, in what promises to be a breakout performance, and Randeep Hooda, whose portrayal of a lowlife gangster should thrust him into the highest Bollywood echelon.

But Highway is no Bollywood masala song-and-dance. Rather, it’s essentially a road film, riding the back roads of six states in the north of India while traveling from remote desert locations to high mountains.

Highway is also the culmination of Ali’s own 15-year journey of developing his concept, which evolved from a “big action drama based on class conflict with a love story thrown in” to “a melodramatic love story between unlikely partners” before finally turning into “a girl’s look at her home life while being away from it.”

Highway opens today worldwide, following its world premiere last week at the Berlin Film Festival—an extremely rare occurrence for a major Indian commercial film with international distribution and a big global release set for the following week.

Ali spoke about Highway yesterday by phone from India.

You’ve worked on the concept for Highway for many years. What brought you to it?

It was written as a short story in the beginning, for a short TV episode, which I did 12 years ago. But I was uncomfortable about it over the years because I felt the story had more to say, but I could not finish the story on TV in what amounted to 40 minutes! So I was delayed for many years, and then thought I’d make a feature film of it.

So what took so long?

I was only directing TV then, with the hope of directing films one day. So I wrote a script and tried to pitch it to producers and no one really bought into it at that point. And then I started working on my first film (Socha Na Tha, from 2005) and then tried to pitch it again and it didn’t happen again. So I did my second film (his 2007 breakthrough Jab We Met) and then pitched it again, and again it did not happen! But I always felt I wanted to make it--even if only for myself--and then now after Rockstar, my fourth film, and another year passed, this time I came back and produced it myself.

In doing it yourself, then, what were your objectives as producer/director?

My goal was to get into the story, and I’m very happy that I got to do that. There’s a certain lightness of treatment that I enjoy in the movie: There was no heavy shooting gear, no cranes or track trolley. Just basic camera and sound equipment and no lights except for the night scenes. This allowed us to go to higher places and faraway places without having to lug equipment heavier than what could be carried on our shoulders.

The film is so expansive in setting and scenery, yet revolves around an inner journey.

It’s about the girl, and the unresolved issues about society that she had in her heart while she was on the journey--the fact that she had always felt a sense of discomfort living in the city at her home, where she felt that she could not vent her feelings and had to pretend that things were okay when things were going on in her life that actually were not okay.

Alia Bhatt, as the girl, is simply extraordinary.

At the time I first wanted to make Highway into a feature, she was obviously just a kid. But when it recently became time to really do this, Alia and Randeep were my first choices, and I was lucky to get them.

Why Randeep?

I wanted to make the movie that I wanted to make, and I thought I couldn’t get a better actor and went with that. Especially since I was producing, I had more liberty to go with the right actor for the part than try for a bigger box office star--and if the movie becomes better as a result it will make it more commercial anyway.

You chose the great A.R. Rahman for the music, after working with him on Rockstar.

When I worked with him on the previous film I realized that he is a musician who goes to the depth and soul of the story, and because he’s operating from that depth his contribution is immense to the picture. He had done that in Rockstar, and in this film I realized that I needed that approach much more because when I started thinking about the movie, I did not have the songs in my mind at all.

And the way the songs are included in Highway is not typical of Bollywood.

In India, movie songs are lip-synched. But in this movie there’s just one occasion for that, the lullaby the girl sings [“Sooha Saha”]. The rest [of the songs] I knew would be in the background, so I didn’t have a brief for him, really, where I told him the movie has “X” number of songs, and the first song is at such and such a place with such and such a thing happening, and the second song, and the third—which makes the brief. “Situation” is another term in Indian film: “What is the situation of the song?” I couldn’t brief the musician [Rahman], but I wanted him to operate at a level that produces the right feelings in the music and that emerges at different points in the film.

And you let Alia sing “Sooha Saha,” instead of going with a professional “playback” singer, which is very unusual.

I realized only after casting her that she could hold a note as well, and was at least an efficient singer. And even though she was untrained, she could get by with her singing and make the scene more natural.

Did you work with Rahman, or was he on his own?

Usually Rahman and I were in constant conversation and composition while conceptualizing the film. Sometimes it’s not so much about the music but the drama, the scene, the people, the locations, or other influences. So those conversations helped both of us to realize where the songs should come, who should sing them, what instruments to use, the melodies. But I shudder to think of the risks he takes while working with me! He makes very long musical compositions, sometimes humming them into his iPhone, sometimes playing instruments and humming over some chords he plays, and sends the files to me. Sometimes they’re 25 minutes long for one particular song, and he asks me to do the first edit--and then sends back what he constructs and then produces the songs.

Do you have a musical background as well, then?

I have no musical background, and I’m totally untrained! I don’t’ know why he does this, but he insists on doing it each time. I think it’s his way of getting the film into the music, and the music into the film.

Highway takes place all over Northern India. Does the music reflect this?

Yes, but not necessarily only in the geographical sense, but also in the change of the spirit of the girl. For instance, when there is a song in the Salt Pan desert, it has influences of the region. The song in the land of Punjab that begins with the girl’s hand out of the window is in the regional Punjabi language of that area. But other songs later on give up on the regional aspect and concentrate more on what the girl is feeling, like the song in the mountains, atop of the bus: That’s not really regional, but was approached more in the Western manner to show the exuberance of someone being in a place like that or mentality like that.

Now that Highway is opening, what are your plans?

I’ll start on my favorite part of the release, which is visiting theaters and checking out the reaction of people to the film. I’ve gone to trials [screenings for invited guests], but they don’t give a very accurate reaction, because an accurate reaction happens when people pay for the tickets.

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