In the trailer of the upcoming Imtiaz Ali film Love Aaj Kal, there is a moment where the lead character Veer is standing quietly by himself while the stream turbulently gushes behind him. It reminded me of the scene in Ali's Highway when Veera reaches Aru Valley and gets overwhelmed by the beauty of the water around her. That's the thing with Imtiaz Ali. He refers to his own films a lot, leading to the charge that he remakes the same film. He counters it by proclaiming that stories are usually the same, just the time period changes. 'Ekko ek kahani, bas badle zamana'. His films primarily have two overarching themes. One is related to journeys. Second, is related to storytelling where he often evokes some epic romantic tale. I try to explore some additional themes in his ten films (out of which he has directed seven).
Imtiaz Ali's characters often spend time away from their beloved and find a way to be close to them by doing something associated with their lover's name. In Jab We Met, when Aditya sings, he remembers Geet because she brings back the music to his life, and she becomes his song—geet. In Tamasha, when Ved misses Tara, he looks at the stars—tara—and screams her name. In Rockstar, when Heer goes away from Jordan's life, he becomes a Ranjha to his Heer. The name Janardhan is also a play on the letters of the word Raanjhad.
In Jab Harry Met Sejal, Harry calls out Sejal's name to the waves and does a wave action with his hands. He is calling out to the water where the meaning of his lover's name is also water. In Laila Majnu (which Ali wrote), Qais keeps saying Laila and La Ilaha Illa Allah—there is no other deity but the one god. For him, there is no difference between Laila and La Ilaha. Laila has become this omnipresent deity who is everywhere. In Highway, Mahabir breaks down while crying for his mother because Veera reminds him of his Amma.
Imtiaz Ali brings out his own love for the mountains in his characters' fascination with the mountains. In Jab We Met, Geet famously said, 'Mujhe na, pahaad bahut pasand hain.' She also suggests to Aditya that he should elope with her sister and then they can also live with her and Anshuman in the mountains together. In Rockstar, Jordan goes to Kashmir on Heer's wedding and experiences the heavenly beauty of Kashmir in 'Phir Se Ud Chala'. Towards the end, Heer convinces Jordan to go to the mountains, 'Mujhe pahadon mein jaana hai, phir se Himalayas dekhna hai.'
In Highway, Veera says to Mahabir that the mountains are calling out to her, 'Aisa lag raha hai jaise ki woh mujhe bula raha hai.' The film shows her transition from a state where she is lost in the desert in 'Tu Kuja' to one where she is at peace in the mountains in 'Kahaan Hoon Main'. In Tamasha, Tara falls in love with Ved at the very moment where he is sitting peacefully in the mountains. Later, she reminds him of his real self when she says that he talks to the mountains. 'Tum toh pahadon se baatein karte ho'.
In Laila Majnu, Qais takes Laila to the mountains where he tells her that he was always fascinated with them because of their vantage point as 'hum sab ko dekh sakte hain, par humein koi nahi dekh sakta'. Someday, he wished to go on the other side of the mountain hoping that a paradise awaits him there. When the time comes, Qais manages to flee to the other side. And there, like Ved, he talks to the mountains.
Ali's characters reveal their true self when they stay far away from everyone. They want to escape to a place and create their own tiny world. In Rockstar, Ustad Jameel Khan comments about Jordan, 'Yeh apni duniya banayega'. In the climax, Heer and Jordan put a white bed sheet over themselves, and Heer says that this is their world, away from everyone where no one can do them any harm. In Highway, Veera feels suffocated at her home where she has to pretend to do all the niceties but comes fully alive when she becomes the patakha guddi who cannot be caged at home. After Mahabir's death, she tells her family, 'Main hamesha kehti thi na, ki main bhaag jaaungi yahan se, mujhe sheher mein nahin rehna'.
In Tamasha, Ved goes to Corsica, far away from his world, where he meets Tara. Yahan se kai kos door, dil aur duniya ke beech. He gets to be Don there unlike back home, where he is the product manager, stuck in a job he does not really like.
In Jab Harry Met Sejal, Harry has also run away from his home. In Laila Majnu, Qais runs away from his home, finds a tiny hut in the hills and stays with his (imaginary) Laila by his side like Veera and Mahabir did in Highway. In Socha Na Tha, Aditi and Viren run away before Aditi's engagement. In Jab We Met, Geet runs away from her home to Manali where she intends to marry Anshuman and settle down there. All these people want to just run away.
Another trait of Ali's characters is that they are often engaged (or even married) before they realize that they are in love with someone else. In Socha Na Tha, Viren was planning to marry Karen and Aditi hoped to marry Mahesh but then they realized they loved each other. In Jab We Met, Geet wanted a settled life with Anshuman, but when she was about to get married to him, she realizes that she loved Aditya. Veera and Sejal were also engaged to other men but decided to break off with their respective fiancés after they went on a journey end up falling in love with Mahabir and Harry.
Meera in Love Aaj Kal and Heer in Rockstar even get married but eventually realized that they made a mistake. In Love Aaj Kal, the first day after her wedding, Meera says to her husband that she wants to meet her old boyfriend Jai. She says, 'Main kahan hun? Yahan hun ya vahan hun? Yeh sab clear karna hai.' She sits in a car and stops it in the middle of nowhere and calls Jai, and then returns, symbolic of her own state.
The hug is another repeating motif in Ali's films. In Jab We Met, the relationship between Geet and Aditya begins when she goes and hugs him at Ratlam. The hug plays a crucial part in the film's climax where she sends a message to Anshuman that she is no longer in love with him. In Highway, Veera gives a hug to Mahabir after she narrates the story of her sexual abuse. In Rockstar, Heer asks Jordan to give her a tight hug before her wedding. In Love Aaj Kal, Meera and Jai decide to not meet any longer with one last hug and one last kiss because the tum vaali feeling, aadat will never go away if they are together. In Tamasha, a devastated Tara gives a tight hug to Ved and does not want to leave him in 'Agar Tum Saath Ho'. In Jab Harry Met Sejal, Harry asks Sejal for a hug when he is feeling emotionally vulnerable.
Mirrors are also seen in Ali's films when the characters seem to face an existential crisis. They like to have conversations with their own self. Jab We Met opens with Aditya looking at himself in the mirror unsure of what lies ahead in his life. In Love Aaj Kal, after a text from Jai that he is moving on, Meera looks at herself in the mirror and smiles to convince herself to move on as well. Mirrors become an important motif in Tamasha where they represent Ved's dual personalities. Throughout the film, he is seen talking to himself in mirrors. In Laila Majnu, too, there is the frequent use of mirror shots at different places in the film. When Qais is almost broken mentally, he looks at himself in a broken mirror. The mirror shots are also seen in Rockstar, Highway, and Jab Harry Met Sejal.
The internal claustrophobia experienced by Ali's characters manifests in various forms in his films. His characters wear a tie as it symbolizes they are tied to the ways of the world. In the early moments of Jab We Met, a desolate Aditya removes his tie and throws it away before walking on an unknown path that will go on to change his life. In Jab Harry Met Sejal, when Harry is with the tourists, he wears a tie, but when he has some time off, he removes his tie and travels in an open-top car, feeling free. In Tamasha, Ved is admonished by his boss for not wearing a tie. Later, Ved says, 'Main naukar hoon. Aap ka Maalik, tie pehen kar, lift mein chadh kar, phir aaoonga aapke aangan'. A tie represents some kind of slavery that Ali's characters are trying to break away to be free.
In Ali's world, love is often a saviour and without it, something starts happening to his characters. Heer falls sick and starts getting better only when she is in Jordan's company in Rockstar. When she meets Jordan in Prague, she tells him that she is seeing a psychologist and he replies, 'Ho gayi na paagal'. Without Tara, Ved starts losing his mind in Tamasha. Harry tells Sejal that she can save him in Jab Harry Met Sejal. Qais also becomes a shade of his former self. He is also called a paagal by everyone else. He even develops a scar (which he cannot explain as to how he got it), as if he is scarred by Laila's love. When he finally sees Laila after four years, his body could not take it and falls down just by one glimpse of her. Love is both a strength and a weakness in this world.
There are quite a few other patterns that can be seen in Ali's films, such as characters dressed as white, and their love for tea. The list can be elaborated even further proving the self-referential nature of Imtiaz Ali's films.
Ali has reinterpreted many epic stories in his films, including that of Heer-Raanjha and Laila-Majnu. In the new Love Aaj Kal, he is reinterpreting his own story keeping the title also the same. Despite the mixed response to the trailer, I am looking forward to watching this new Love Aaj Kal. As it is said these days, #HumDekhenge.