Once upon a time there lived a handsome prince in the kingdom of Jordan. Young and carefree, he loved playing with his pet dog, and riding his white pony through his estate’s cobbled streets, soaking in the aromas of fresh fruits and fatty meats. Although he was the king’s ninth and youngest son, the prince was known to solve problems with his common sense, goodness and positivity.
This is the bedtime story filmmaker Imtiaz Ali’s daughter, Ida, grew up listening to. She is now 16, has finished her Class 10 exams, and is soon set to visit Jordan with her dad. Ida is now old enough to realise that the real Jordan is a place more layered than in the fairy tales she heard. And dashing as Jordan’s current crown prince Hussein bin Abdullah might be, he is more likely to be taming a Ducati than riding a pony.
“Jordan was a fictional place I created in both Ida’s mind and mine since she was two,” says Ali, who “randomly” decided to weave a fairy tale around Jordan one night. “Now that we’re planning to go there real soon, we’re excited about exploring a country that has been part of our imagination for years.”
What fascinates Ali is how imagination and stories feed off each other through the prism of a real location or even a fictional land. Unsurprisingly then, most of his movies embody or unravel this thought. In his debut film Socha Na Tha (2005), for instance, two youngsters discover and rediscover each other at a non-touristy beach in Goa. In his first blockbuster Jab We Met (2007), two strangers meet on a train in Mumbai, bond in Madhya Pradesh and have a moment amidst Manali’s misty hills. Rockstar (2011) essays a man’s singer-to-rock star journey, and the love he finds and loses along the way, in Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, houseboats in Kashmir’s Dal Lake, and Prague’s State Opera. In Tamasha (2015), his protagonists romance in the postcard-pretty French island of Corsica. And in his upcoming film, Jab Harry Met Sejal, Shah Rukh Khan plays a Punjabi tourist guide in Portugal.
Exhaustive as this list might read, it’s indicative of how the theme of travel is integral to the plot in almost all of Ali’s movies. In this interview with the National Geographic Traveller India, 46-year-old Ali tells us how his mind can never exist without a story and how each story has something to do with the places he visits and the people he meets.
Q: Locations are more than just pretty backdrops in your films. The theme of travel and the journeys taken by your characters are often deeply woven into the narrative. Your thoughts?
A: As a filmmaker, I don’t know why I do the things I do. Sometimes I do wonder, but chiefly, I’m not even interested in finding out. For me, there has always been a relationship between imagination, stories and travelling. Also, when I travel to a place to shoot, I discover it many times over. I meet many people. I see 25 options for one location. I must have scoured all the beaches in Goa before settling on one. I went to Prague several times before I shot Rockstar there. Travel is part of my work, and the more I travel, newer are the details that crop up each time. These details then become the thread between travel, imagination and stories. It’s a spiral situation.
Also, I often assume a false identity while travelling. So, on a bus or a train, I would tell co-passengers that I’m a writer and leave it at that. When I grew a little older, I would say that I can’t disclose where I work. I’ve even presented myself as a spy.
Q: Why would you pose as somebody else while travelling?
A: Well… to make myself more interesting to others, and to myself. Then I lapse into being that person for the rest of the journey. Even now, if somebody doesn’t recognise me, I don’t claim to be myself. This way, the interesting people I meet, out of the zone of everyday life, seep into my movies. When I write stories then, these motifs appear and reappear. So that’s why there’s a girl on a train (in Jab We Met); that’s why you escape to Goa (Socha Na Tha); that’s how travel comes into my stories.
Q: You had mentioned in earlier interviews how Geet’s character in Jab We Met had traces of a woman you met on a bus in Delhi. Can you tell us other personal travel encounters that have made it to your films?
A: (After a long pause, a poster of Jab Harry Met Sejal on his desk catches his eye) Oh yes, look at this poster! This was shot in Lisbon’s Alfama district. There’s a backstory to this. I had been to the same spot five years ago with 10 close friends. The bars, promenades, lanes, wooden walkways, hotels, and clubs… all the places I visited with my friends are in this film. Now, in retrospect I wonder, was I having a great time with my friends or was I actually subconsciously working? Maybe I was.
Q: Your movies often bring to fore your characters’ internal turmoil or their sense of self-exploration. But in the end there’s always some resolve, isn’t there?
A: It all depends on the story. It’s unlikely that a story will not end with some sort of resolve of some kind. The resolve could be anything—just a compromise with the fact that the journey doesn’t end is also a resolve, isn’t it?
Q: Does this mean you always look at places and people through a filmmaker’s lens even on a holiday?
A: I’ve often wondered about the same. For instance, when I see a beautiful sunset, my first instinct is to record that moment and use it in a film. When I’m shooting at a beautiful location with a solo bench somewhere, I often go like, “I wish I had the time to sit on that bench and enjoy the sunset.” I find it impossible to exist without a story in the mind. But I really can’t escape the experiences I have as a person. And the person can never escape the fact that the director is always watching.
Q: Where all have you travelled so far?
A: I’ve travelled across Europe. While you can see Corsica, Prague and Portugal in my movies, there are other destinations that I love in that part of the world. Bosnia is one of them. It has Sufi shrines and a sizeable Muslim population. There’s a lot of Turkish influence, and interestingly it’s the younger generation that’s trying to be religious.
In Southeast Asia, I find Hong Kong fascinating because of its metropolitan culture and the vintage vibe. Since the Chinese take a lot of pride in their culture and food, even today nobody f***s around with dim sums here. I’ve also travelled across Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, and there’s nothing in this world like Kashmir; it’s exotic, and culturally and naturally rich. It leaves you with a spiritual, blissful feeling.
Q: How do you pick your destinations?
A: While the politics of a place is not an influence, knowing a bit of local politics makes travel more interesting for me. It is about the cultural experiences, not visual ones. I see that culture in the food, people and music, even if these sights are not visually exhilarating. I’m more interested in how cultures evolve within a certain time period and confines of geography. I’m not interested in wilderness only. I’m also interested in knowing how a small hamlet in the Amazon rainforest has adapted to its topography—why the chimneys are designed the way they are; why the food is cooked the way it is.
Q: When do you typically feel like taking off?
A: Mostly, I’ve been travelling around for work, and it does not always take me to exotic locations; even a place like Ahmedabad counts as “travel”. If I have to travel for an event, and if the choice is, say, between Bangalore and Pondicherry, I will choose Pondicherry because its culture is more unique to me.
Q: Yash Chopra popularised Switzerland. Tamasha introduced us to Corsica. The Hindi film industry is known to boost tourism from time to time. But personally, to what extent does a place affect you, your perspective, your mood?
A: Quite a lot. I feel places leave an indelible impression on people. I read somewhere an interesting observation made by Ernest Hemingway. He spent some money to take his daughters on a holiday. He spent much more money in refurbishing their bathrooms. Two decades later, his daughters kept thanking him for the holiday, not the fancy bathrooms. So yes, travel can alter your perspectives. It can change you forever. As a filmmaker, I’m glad to have shot in offbeat locations, and that has given a fillip to smaller and more interesting places. After we shot Rockstar in Prague, the Czech Republic said the number of Indian tourists shot up. Somebody started a Jab We Met bus tour in Manali. Over the weeks I spend in locations, I am able to get under the skin of a place like a regular tourist might not. And I hope that helps other travellers discover these places better.
Q: Do you easily befriend people on your travels?
A: I actually do. For instance, once I was roaming the streets of Lisbon after my friends left the city. I walked into a souvenir store, where a Bangladeshi man recognised me because he had watched Jab We Met. He invited me to his place, fed me mutton curry and rice, and hosted me for the night. At 4 a.m., his friends picked me up and drove me around the docks of Lisbon, where many Bangladeshis work. They then dropped me to the airport for my flight to Belgium.
Q: Take us through the contents of your suitcase.
A: A box of Darjeeling First Flush tea from a tea estate called Namring, where I once holidayed with my family. I carry a special strainer and I brew the tea myself. In fact, I like that tea so much that I carried it to another tea estate in Sri Lanka, and those guys were like “Sir, our tea is fresh too.” Otherwise, I’m a light traveller. I carry my MacBook, but still like the romance of a notebook (there’s one on his desk).
Q: Are you a planner? Do you draw up an itinerary?
A: The best travel plan is to have none, and the best travel guide is the one you write while you travel.
I never take a guide along, never do any prior research, even for a personal holiday. I’ve lived in Mumbai for years and I come from Jamshedpur but I don’t know everything about these two places. So I’ve compromised with the fact that I may not be able to see everything everywhere I go. Sometimes I go to the same cafeteria thrice a day. I’m happy to spend time there, admiring the river in front of it. But if a conversation with a waiter or a fellow diner leads me elsewhere, I’ll get into my car and drive. I remember walking into a café somewhere in Italy and ordering bufala cheese (mozzarella made from the milk of an Asian water buffalo). When somebody told me how the best bufala is served in Naples, I knew where I had to be next. So, I’m a very open traveller. I don’t like to box myself. A regimen during a holiday is mind-numbing for me.
Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is former Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.