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Three For The Road

Team Highway, Imtiaz Ali, Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda, in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): How was Imtiaz Ali to work with?

Alia Bhatt (AB): It’s every actor’s dream to work with Imitaz Ali and it happened just after my first film. I am really grateful to have been given a great script like this one. Neither of us knew if I would be able to pull it off. He knew I was from an urban environment, was protected and I have not seen very much of life. I am very young and probably that was the similarity between me and my character.

I would have to coin a new word to describe what it was like working with Imtiaz. On a personal level, it was life-changing and as an actor, I learnt so much from him. It was very exciting because I learnt something new every day. Every successive scene and shot he took helped me get under the skin of the character.

Imtiaz Ali (IA): I had not thought it would be great casting her but I realised, later, that she has a very high emotional quotient. So I thought it would be interesting to see how she would react to situations and how she was in the story.

BOI: How about you, Randeep?

Randeep Hooda (RH): The best thing about Imtiaz is that you don’t feel alone around him, even though he never intrudes into your space as an actor. I believe he is the only director who so goes through the emotions that you as an actor are experiencing because he has written the material himself. Then, very quietly and subtly, he suggests something. But his instructions are not really scene-specific. He best instructions he has given me was that this character was…well, he SMSed me one night saying, ‘Phlegm in his chest’. Maine socha bhai bimaar ho gaya hai, antibiotic le le. (Laughs)

He called me at 4 am and said he felt my character has phlegm stuck in the chest. That was the biggest pointer he gave me. It was quite similar to Tishu (Tigmanshu Dhulia). When Tishu while filming Saheb Biwi Gangster, he had told me that although my character was the gangster in the film, he wanted it to be sympathetic. He wanted me to be child-like. So, while shooting Highway, before every shot, I ‘coughed’ up that phlegm. I would cringe and screw my face into a grimace. That would be the starting point of that scene, and then I would carry it forward. He made me feel that I could just be the character and not give a damn about whether the cameras would catch it. That’s a very unique quality in Imtiaz.

IA: He was playing an angst-ridden character, like phlegm trapped in his chest. During the time when we were shooting, he was that character. Also, when we travelled from one place to another and we weren’t shooting, he used to drive the truck that he drives in the film.

BOI: Were you given any instructions to this effect?

AB: Instructions-wise, I had to be fed a lot more. What we would do is talk and read a scene together. We had rehearsals, and Imtiaz would say, ‘Alia, just read, don’t perform.’ I realised that just reading and talking about what must have happened before helped me paint a little picture for myself.

Also, I wanted to feel like a loner and be on my own, so I told my mother and my sister not to accompany me on shoots. This helped me get into the part and the head space of this character Veera. So those four five days kicked my character into the space I had to be in.

Imtiaz doesn’t actually instruct you; he doesn’t tell you what to do. He gives you an emotion, he acts it out. He says, ‘If you are angry, it’s out there; you aren’t going to hide it.’ As Randeep said, there was no acting; it was just kind of ‘being’. Every time I would act, he would say. ‘don’t play.’

IA: I guess it was easy for Alia to be the character she plays in the film as she comes from a protected environment and has never seen life on the road.

BOI: Randeep, did Imtiaz ever tell you why he chose you for your character?

RH: Yeah, he had watched Monsoon Wedding and he felt I was the best thing in the film. I was surprised because when I was in Venice, the American distributor told me I was the only one who was not ‘acting’ in the film. I took that really badly. I was in a shambles in Venice and I wanted to get out of that place as soon as possible. I thought it was no place for me so I joined Naseer’s (Naseeruddin Shah) studio.

Today, I would take a statement like that as a compliment. So there’s that, and he had seen a few of my plays. He said he didn’t want an actor who looked like he had just stepped out of a vanity van. So I guess the way I approach my work is also the way he approaches his.

IA: He was the obvious choice. He knows the terrain I was talking about. He knew some of the people he had to play, and he understood the dynamics. I admired him as an actor when I watched him on stage.

BOI: Alia, were you surprised when Imtiaz approached you since you had done just one film at the time?

AB: Obviously! I was at the Marrakech Film Festival and had met him a month before that at the premiere of Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. One month later, I was in Marrakech and he messaged me, asking if we could meet. I was with Varun (Dhawan) then and I was so excited that I showed him the message. He said, ‘Shhh! Don’t go overboard about it, Alia, just react normally.’

We met after I returned from Marrakech and I thought it was another script. I thought it was the one with Ranbir (Kapoor) because that was the film he was making next but he told me it was another film.

It was a really tiny script and I was anxious to read it. When I did, I was bowled over. After a while, it hit me that I was going to play that character. When I called the next day, he said, ‘Alia, do you like it?’ I said, ‘I love it!’

IA: I first met her when she was five years old, so I must have written the story for her when she was five. I thought this should be the girl to play that role. Let me wait 15 years. (Laughs)

BOI: Being an industry girl, you know that every script has its destiny…

AB: Yes, this was my destiny!

BOI: Imtiaz, is there any specific reason the film was shot linear?

IA: I thought up the story a long time ago and I had written the script in many different ways. But I didn’t use any of that. I left it open and said, let’s see what happens. I knew I had a good story. I had good actors who were suitable to the roles, and then I thought let’s not plan too much. So the only way to do that was to go linear as I would know what would happen in a particular scene before I moved on to the next. I thought there would be a greater feeling of going forward.

BOI: Randeep, how did it begin for you?

RH: I got a call from one of his assistants, Abhishek, who said Imtiaz wanted to cast me. I didn’t take it seriously. I said, ‘Yeah, ok’ and forgot about it. Then one day, Mukesh Chhabra called me. THE CASTING DIRECTOR MUKESH CHHABRA! Bahut zyada hawa kha raha hai woh, theek karna padega usko! He asked me to meet Imtiaz. He gave me the script and I read it twice. First, I read it for the story and then I read it for the character. I was thrilled.

I took Imtiaz to meet these Gujjar boys who were also criminals and we spent a couple of evenings with them. We recorded their dialect and found a dialect coach to get the dialect right. There, we picked up a truck. He asked me, ‘Aap chalaoge kya TATA 407?’ And I agreed. The two of us started traveling to meet the Gujjar people.

I went to Imtiaz with lots of different looks… a white eye, scar on my face and black teeth. I think he wanted it to appeal to female audiences so he shot down all my suggestions and decided on a normal look. I wanted a different look because I felt it was important that for people to think there was nothing in common between Alia and me. So, I went about lying in the sun, I stopped combing my hair, stopped applying cream to my face. I started drinking more and told to myself, ‘Yeh, badhiya role hai! Six pack ki jagah aap peg lagate ho.’ (Laughs)

When we were shooting in Jammu and Kashmir, Imtiaz told me, ‘Sir, bade chikne lag rahe ho.’ I said, ‘Achcha, nikalo vodka.’ I started drinking in the afternoon, which meant that the next morning I would look like back the end of a donkey, which surprisingly appeals to a lot of women.

BOI: Alia, according to Varun Dhawan, who recently visited our office, you cried while reading the script.

AB: Yes, there was a point when Imtiaz called me to his office and asked me to narrate the script to everyone. I wondered why he wanted me to do that but I had read the script two to three times by then so I started narrating it to his team and the assistant directors who were present.

During the narration, there were experiences my character goes through and they made me emotional. Then I called up Varun to say, ‘You know, I narrated the script and cried. Can you imagine that?’ Crying was a big deal for me, I was not sad.

RH: (Cuts in) This happens when somebody is doing their first, second or third film. But after you’ve played a lot of characters, you have to bring in a change. People always say you try to look intense whereas I always try to do something different with every character I play. You have to keep yourself interesting for filmmakers and the audience. To achieve this, you have to learn new things.

BOI: Also, according to Varun Dhawan, Alia will win the National Award for this role.

RH: Inshallah! I hope so too.

BOI: Alia, what do you think?

AB: I also hope.

RH: I know certain other National Award winners as well and other award winners. I hope you get it. Then click a picture with the award and upload it on Twitter (Laughs).

IA: I should pay Varun Dhwan. (Laughs)

BOI: For promoting the film?

IA: Yes, I hope he is right. National Award? Yeah!!!

BOI: Randeep, what do you think of Alia’s performance in the film?

RH: Her performance is very honest. She is very alive in her role. When she’s going through the gamut of emotions in the film, it’s infectious. It’s a great quality to have as an actor and she has it.

BOI: Alia, what do you think of Randeep’s performance?

AB: Every time I think about his character, Mahabir Bhati, I get emotional. He doesn’t have many lines in the film and that’s what his character is all about – he doesn’t say very much and yet he does. I have always considered him a great actor but after watching the rushes, I realised how brilliant he was. You can do it only when you’re really affected by the character. And he was. He was so into that character that he would seat alone, grumpy. Like King Kong.

RH: (Cuts in) In the movie only. Otherwise, I am more like Jack Nicholson (Laughs).

BOI: Imtiaz, how good or bad were Randeep and Alia in the film?

IA: How can I answer that? That would be a comment on my job! I hope that they are good.

BOI: Alia, going by the trailer, it looks like you are afraid of Randeep and vice versa.

RH: That is the intrigue factor we are trying to build so that people watch the film to unravel it. I think the campaign is very experimental and I think they have got a positive response. Sajid (Nadiadwala) said to me, ‘Achcha hua Bhatts ki film nahi lag rahi hai’.

BOI: Because Alia Bhatt is in it?

RH: Because Alia is there and also humne bhi waha kaafi papad bel rakhe hain. (Laughs)

BOI: It looks like the perfect blend of commercial and at the same time…

RH: (Cuts in) Imtiaz and she are going all over the town saying it’s a very special film.

AB: (Cuts in) I never said it’s not a commercial film.

RH: It’s a different film. My definition of a commercial film is when it connects with the maximum number of people possible. For me, that’s a commercial film.

AB: It’s definitely not a niche film and can appeal to a 14-year-old and an 85-year-old too. But that commercial or masala factor is not there.

RH: What do you mean? You’re not wearing high heels, short skirts, chewing on your lipstick and doing that dance with your bag.

AB: Yes, you’re the sex quotient in this film.

RH: Wait till women start drooling over this ugly, smelly guy.

AB: Wherever we went, women would be, like, ‘Hi Randeep!’ And I was, like, where did you get this and why are they attracted to this monster in the film?

RH: It’s about all the papad I belo-ed over the years. And the movies I did with Sunny Leone.

BOI: Alia, you have also sung a song in the film?

AB: Yes, one never dreams one will get to sing for AR Rahman.

BOI: Randeep, you didn’t get a chance to do a song?

RH: Yes, and I will never work with them again! (Laughs)

AB: But you got to hit me.

RH: Imtiaz said, ‘Darna mat, kheech ke maarna. Lagna chahiye usko, I want that feeling. Phir bhi maine kam hi maara poora haath nahi laga.

AB: Oh, please! You hit me very hard.

RH: Poora haath kheech ke maarte hai na tab aati hain kaan mein jhanjhanahat.

AB: I felt as if my jaw was broken.

RH: I loved the reaction although I was very worried but she came up to me and hugged me.

AB: The shot was, he slaps me and I fall to the ground. Basically, after he slaps me, cut ho gaya. But since I was on the ground, crying, everyone on the sets was staring at me, thinking, ‘Is she going to quit the film now?’ I realised how bad he must have been feeling so I got up and hugged him.

BOI: Imtiaz, what’s your take on the music?

IA: I think music is the most interesting thing I get to do as director on the film.

BOI: And what role does it play in your narrative?

IA: Initially, I thought there wouldn’t be much music in Rockstar but then I realised gradually that with all my films, music keeps getting more important as we move along. There are nine songs in the film.

BOI: Randeep, high-content cinema versus commercial cinema is a hot topic of debate, and you are typically associated with content films. Moreover, there are craftsmen like Imtiaz Ali and Raj Kumar Hirani that bridge this divide.

RH: I think they make good movies, movies that connect with a lot of people. They do not shy away from including songs in their movies but these songs communicate a lot. Songs are, by far, the biggest tool to reach the audience as we don’t have rock stars in our country. Every sub-culture we have needs music and this is viable in India through cinema. Imtiaz and Hirani use songs. They are not scared of using songs simply because it’s a content-driven film. They use songs so well that they take the story forward.

There is no such thing as ‘commercial’ or ‘non-commercial’ films. Obviously, films that are made on big budgets with big stars have that big-movie feel to them. Obviously, when you’re reaching out to a large common denominator, you cannot have too much content. But there is the other kind of cinema too. A lot has changed since 2005. There was a time when there was a lot of confusion and that was when I did not have work. Now, I am not dancing and I don’t cater to the Prem’s and Raj’s characters that used to be there but now I am getting work. Things are changing and it’s also a perception-driven industry and this is driven by marketing. So the difference between ‘commercial’ cinema and ‘independent’ cinema lies only in the marketing.

IA: I don’t think there is any such divide. I think films made by Shyam Benegal were much more commercial than those made by other filmmakers of that era. I believe a movie that is made with certain price and gets more money is commercial rather than one that has stardust but doesn’t really make any money.

BOI: But it is said that, at the end of the day, the box office is the best judge of a film.

RH: Absolutely. Box office numbers tell you how many people watched your film in cinemas as collections depend on the number of people who come to the cinemas.

AB: Also, if a film does not open well, it can always picks up later and turn into a good film, like Kahaani, Shahid and Vicky Donor. A good film will always do well. I think when Barfi! made Rs 100 crore, people were like, this kind of film without having Ranbir Kapoor having to romance in a conventional manner… It doesn’t have to do particularly well because of that. So, like Randeep says, the scope is changing. Now there is scope for a young actor like me to work with Randeep. People have commented on how unusual our pairing is but unusual is good, right? There is scope for the unconventional now.

BOI: What was the different between Highway and SOTY? And do you think it is more difficult to deliver a successful film second time around or is one’s first film tougher?

AB: Your first film chooses you and for your second film, you have to prove that you have had a good debut. For me, it was Karan Johar who was backing us, a hit music album, etc. If I had stuck to the high-school or college space, people would have wondered, what next? I think surprising people is a different kind of excitement.

BOI: Was that the attraction in signing Highway?

AB: I knew it was different. But I didn’t expect people to wonder why such a big risk? I knew it was different but it was ‘good different’ and I knew I would benefit on a personal and professional level. My dad had said it is going to change your life and your career. Now half that has been achieved; it has already changed my life.

BOI: Randeep, did people tell you too that this film would change your life?

RH: A lot of people say that but I am yet to see that. As I mentioned earlier, about commercial cinema… I have done a Jannat 2, Murder 3, Jism 2 and now I am doing a Kick. So I am doing both spectrums. If this movie works out, then it would be great. Also, I don’t really know how or what it takes to change it all. I have tried to plan my career and failed, so dekhi jaegi jo hoga.

A successful film alone does not mean anything. You have to keep at it and keep delivering if you want a long career. A movie alone cannot make or break a career.

BOI: Are you excited that you’re going to Berlin with your second film? And, Randeep, is this your first film going to Berlin?

RH: No, Monsoon Weeding did travel to a lot of festivals and Rang Rasiya too. So I have done this festival circuit before. I am just going to go there and drink beer. (Laughs)

AB: I am very excited. First, because I have a German connection. My maternal grandmother was from Germany. And her father, my great-grandfather, joined an underground newspaper that was against Hitler.

RH: Oh wow! I didn’t know that.

AB: Yes.

RH: That’s interesting! (Laughs)

AB: This was in the 1930s. They had to leave the country because he was running an underground newspaper and was jailed for two years. Hitler couldn’t do much to him as he was German and Hitler’s campaign was against the Jews. So my grandmother was sent away from her country and when she heard I was going to Berlin, she was very excited. When my grandfather was 19 years old, he also went to Germany with Ram Gopal.

RH: (Cuts in) Varma? (Laughs)

AB: (Laughs) Not Ram Gopal Varma; Ram Gopal, the musician. He performed at the Schiller theatre in Berlin. So it is doubly exciting for me.

RH: I am actually surprised that this movie is going to a festival because it is not that intellectual festival kind of film. Sure, it is a very emotional film but it is really a film that connects across the board. It is not a festival film from any point of view.

AB: Just be happy.

RH: But we are all surprised, including Imtiaz. It is usually another set of directors that make films that are selected for festivals.

BOI: Like who?

RH: (Laughs) I don’t know, You have the magazine, you tell me.

BOI: How close is the film to the script that was narrated to you?

AB: I can’t say as it is the director’s vision.

RH: Pretty close, according to me.

BOI: Did you improvise on the sets or did you closely follow the script?

RH: I think there were some scenes that were a little… Alia, why don’t you answer that?

AB: There were moments and little scenes in the film which were not in the script which were actually inspired by the locations. Imtiaz wanted to shoot at those locations. My favourite moments came out of Imtiaz saying, ‘We have some time so let’s do something here.’ And magic happens! But it was never, like, now we have to do this scene, so ab hum is line pe ye karenge. Or let’s say these lines and you hold my hand this way or not like that. I think every scene was approached not like a scene but as a part of a motion because we shot at a linear manner. Randeep, remember you were saying, ‘Previous scene kya shoot kiya tha?’

RH: (Cuts in) Yes. He did not lock the script. He had a feeling that we would improvise as we went along. So if a certain scene happened in a certain way, obviously the next one would be influenced by that. So we did improvise like that.

AB: It was never driven by an emotion or that we had to do this scene well. You know, that I had to be good in this scene. That was never the motivation.

BOI: What was it like traveling by truck?

AB: Superb! The Tata 407 is a very important character in this film. I was actually very depressed when I had to leave it.

BOI: Randeep, weren’t you asked not to talk to the media initially? Also, your look was kept secret.

RH: It was strategy. They wanted me to come in later. This character is a little mysterious and if I talked about it before the promos were released, it wouldn’t have made any sense.

AB: They wanted to set out a particular idea for his character. You know, people tend to get a little confused about this paring.

RH: Haan, Bhatt camp ki picture toh nahi hai. (Laughs)

AB: So the idea was for his character to get accepted first and then get talked about.

BOI: Imtiaz, would you like to share some things about Alia and Randeep.

IA: I think Alia is very transparent. She is very young and has a very active heart. Sometimes, you’re even scared for her. She has got great perception, an instinct and an emotional attachment that are beyond knowledge. And, of course, that fact that she is beautiful. Now I shall praise Randeep.

RH: Noooo!

IA: I paid him a huge compliment recently. He said he was a fan of James Bond films when he was in Delhi and he used to want to be like that. He was, like, ‘How did I become an actor? I should have been like him.’ So, I thought he could be the James Bond of Indian films, especially since Daniel Craig is turning out to be more real. I think that is a big compliment. It is also very heartwarming for a director to see that this actor is actually living the life of the character during the time the film was shot.

AB: He would sleep in the same clothes.

BOI: He also came up with different looks for his character.

RH: And Imtiaz shot all of them down.

IA: He wanted to severely damage his face and his reputation of a handsome young man. I protected him from that.

RH: Better sense prevailed. (Laughs)

BOI: Imtiaz, how satisfied are you with the film?

IA: I am very happy that it has been made as it has stayed with me for very long.

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