There's this joke that Imtiaz Ali makes the same film over and over again. In my book, that's like saying we have the same relationship over and over again. No two equations are identical. There is always a different texture to the feelings involved, the sounds and mistakes made. But it's easy to see why this lack of "versatility" is attacked; in this era of technology and diminishing attention spans, there is a curious and derivative oneness to the designs of urban romance.
The problems might seem self-afflicted and flimsy to another time of faces. Much of Ali's work – his persistent voice – is not a representation of this oneness, but a reaction to it. It is a constant search, and his version of how dramatic and conflicted and vast he hopes for an era's perception of love to be.
Each of his six films so far has built upon the generic idea of modern-day love and (mainstream) existentiality, centered upon characters that would be insignificant if the cameras weren't on them. The entire concept of coming of age through love and vice versa is, by definition, an immodest one. But it is also an endless one – one that assumes the presence of dysfunctional roots (stemming from family, ambition and forced tradition) to make the healing suit Ali's aural template of first-world angst.
Perhaps this simplistic accusation is a result of the fact that this particular storyteller has a penchant for repeating certain motifs: lost souls, traveling (an entire generation has woken up to the exoticism of Europe and the Himalayas through his filmography), love at second sight, A.R. Rahman's music as more of a script than mood device, and unconventional "gut-feel" narratives (coupled with complex, quasi-musical editing patterns).
For better or worse, I've grown up with this language between 2005 and 2017. Which means I've had plenty of time to reflect upon whether it has grown with me, too. The answers keep changing.
However, here are his films, ranked from worst (in the mildest sense of the term) to best. To be very clear – he hasn't made a bad film. Perhaps the most valid compliment a contemporary Hindi-language filmmaker can be afforded is this: every year, this ranking pattern has changed in my head. Just like the evolving relevance of some of his riskier films, subject to the phase of life we occupy.
Right now, at this moment, on the eve of his seventh, Jab Harry Met Sejal, it goes thus:
6. LOVE AAJ KAL (2009)
Ali's follow-up to the immensely popular Jab We Met was a conscious attempt to "adult" up the dynamics of urban companionship. It had pretentious devices like mutual-break-up parties as well as relatively mature themes of regret superseding the hotheadedness of ambition.
This was also the beginning of his experiments with over-ambitious casting and the whimsical narrative form of feelings – he juxtaposed the flashy indecisiveness of an NRI couple (Saif Ali Khan and a pre-Cocktail Deepika Padukone) with the rustic assertiveness of a period love story (Saif with Brazilian model, Giselli Monteiro).
5. JAB WE MET (2007)
It's been a full decade since Imtiaz Ali's calling card hit Indian cinemas. Who can forget the iconic 'Hotel Decent' scene, the tacky night train-journey shots that preceded it, Pritam's breezy soundtrack, a comically frustrated fiancé named Anshuman and Dara Singh's theatrically patriarchal aura? Jab We Met was all about Kareena Kapoor's Punjabi manic-pixie avatar, Geet, but there were strands of many Ranbir Kapoors to follow in Shahid Kapoor's lost-little-rich-boy industrialist character.
This well-acted film was also the beginning of Imtiaz Ali's broad-stroke relationship with the narrative identity of his protagonists' vocations: Shahid's rejuvenated career and telecommunication schemes are inspired by Geet, Ranbir's art-inclined personas are the catalysts in Rockstar and Tamasha, Saif's architectural ambitions mold his confusion in Love Aaj Kal, and even Randeep Hooda's Jatt smuggler turn goes a long way in defining the redemption he never earns in Highway. Shah Rukh's European tour-guide role in the upcoming Jab Harry Met Sejal seems a natural extension of this template.
Read the script of Jab We Met here.
3. ROCKSTAR (2011), TAMASHA (2015)
I cannot separate these two – both swashbuckling, brave, daring, angry, messy and equally divisive storytelling in their own ways. The almost auteur-ish anti-structure of Rockstar's character-driven narrative represents the chaotic and hazy mental roadmap of Ranbir's volatile Delhiite, Jordan (a.k.a Janardhan Jakhar).
It doesn't always come together as a conventional graph – and often bears the continuity of an extended Guns N' Roses music video – but the film is so overpowered by a unique career-best performance and an obsessively beautiful soundtrack that even Nargis Fakhri's fatal debut barely ruins its furious tonal power.
Read the script of Rockstar here.
Tamasha's fable-like structure, meanwhile, defies our notions of Indian story-building and treatment. Though the ponderous film outwardly seems to be about Ved's mental health condition, Ved's identity crisis, Ved's true calling and Ved's dissection of heartbreak, it attains heft because of Deepika Padukone's Tara in her finest turn yet.
The lack of order in fact perversely reflects a straitjacketed Ved's slow-motion meltdown. In stark contrast to Love Aaj Kal's pretend-thesis on separation anxiety, Tamasha's breakup scene is an instant classic, set to Irshad Kamil's melancholic Agar Tum Saath Ho – a song that taps all the (right) insecurities at the best of times. I didn't know what to make of Tamasha (watch it here) when I first watched it. But I've found depth and truth to most of its parts with each successive viewing, though I'm yet to process it as a whole.
Read the script of Tamasha here.
2. HIGHWAY (2014)
Imtiaz Ali's saddest film spiritually felt like his first film – the one he had perhaps always wanted to make. A few commercial hits later, he made Highway, with an untested star daughter (a hypnotic Alia Bhatt, after lowering the bar with Student of the Year), a truck and the (single) mother of Himachali road trips. The stripped-to-bones film tracks the life-altering journey of a sheltered city girl who finds freedom and Stockholm-syndrome-ish love after being abducted by a gang of Haryanvi crooks.
Bhatt established herself overnight as a serious young force by delivering a frighteningly vulnerable performance in an exceptionally demanding environment. One can argue that Highway (watch it here) was a most un-Imtiaz movie – a low-budget "creative" lull between his storms of dichotomous coming-of-age extravaganzas, like returning to theatre to reignite the fire of filmmaking. But if you look closely, it's all there. The same themes, with a slightly more exclusive brand of social commentary. The same trips. Without the extra baggage.
Read the script of Highway here.
1. SOCHA NA THA (2005)
At times, the prelude to a career – unadulterated, innocent, foolish – is the essence of one. Especially, in hindsight. Before Imtiaz Ali became the Imtiaz Ali, before he overthought and dissected the hues of partnerships, and before he carried with him the burden of an entire cross-section of aspirational sensitivity, there was Socha Na Tha. Uncomplicated, pure, new. And accessible.
The voice was yet to crack. There was Abhay Deol (the anti-Deol) in his unabashed first film, a teenaged Ayesha Takia making a charmingly felt debut, and a traditional family-aversive template turned on its head with a bunch of vivid supporting performances (Sohrab Ardeshir, Raj Zutshi, Suresh Oberoi, Ayesha Jhulka and Manish Choudhary).
And there were the seeds of everything we've grown to appreciate about the introspective storyteller: young flakiness, noncommittal hearts, wrong choices, a road trip, empathetic exes and eloping. This film has strangely grown in stature with every new film he directs. Not that he tarnishes its legacy at all. On the contrary, his evolution has been time-respecting and necessary. But the first words are invariably the most memorable.
Watch Socha Na Tha here.