Article Hindi

Excerpt: How Imtiaz Ali fell in love with books

A journey back in time with the Jab Harry Met Sejal director to his roots.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Rakesh Anand Bakshi

Imtiaz Ali was born in Jamshedpur, joined theatre group Act One in Delhi, and was president of the Dramatic Society of Hindu College, New Delhi. He arrived in Mumbai to join a course in advertising and marketing at the Xavier Institute of Communications and got his first job with Crest Communications in 1994. He worked as a writer and director of non-fiction and fiction shows on TV for seven years and directed his first feature film Socha Na Tha in 2005. From his first job as a production assistant with Zee TV in 1994 to his first film as director, it was a journey of 11 years.

I first met Imtiaz Ali when he visited a production house I was working with; he had come in to pitch his script. I realized he was a great narrator of stories. His narration of each script lasted between one and two hours, without stopping or pausing and without referring to any document. He narrated them purely from memory. They must have resided deep within him. He maintained eye contact throughout the narration and did not relent until it was finished.

I saw his first film, Socha Na Tha (2005), after I saw his second, Jab We Met (2007). Before he made Socha Na Tha, I met him accidentally at the office of a producer-director. I was there to pitch my script when he happened to be there. In those brief moments in the lobby, he came across as encouraging and affectionate, even though we were not friends.

His films that I love the most are Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal. When I walked out of the cinema after watching Jab We Met, I remember feeling immensely entertained and the feeling remained with me for a long time.

Years later, when I met him for my book after Rockstar (2011) had been released, he was the same humble and affectionate person I had met years earlier when he did not have any film to his credit.

When I gifted him the first print copy of our book, he held her fondly, opening it randomly, brought her closer and smelled her pages, just as I do when I buy a new book, and told me in a ‘brotherhood’ way, “It took you four years to write this book, your first book.” (Pause) “It took me four to make my first film. I hope this book will bring you more than you can see now.”

Most of the directors I featured in our anthology Directors’ Diaries read a lot as a child or young adult, so I asked him if he was a book addict or lover and if he has a memory of when he began reading books in earnest. He looked away in space and in an instant I knew he had travelled to a place I wanted to follow him to.

Imtiaz Ali speaks:

An interesting incident from my childhood is, when we were living in Patna, in the afternoon it would get very hot so we children were not permitted to play in the sun. The elders would shove us kids into a big room and lock the doors from outside until the temperatures were lower.

Initially, I would wait to run out and play cricket when the doors were unlocked at 4:30 pm. But one day, locked in that room, I began to look around wondering if there were things in that room we could play with. I noticed the room had loads of books stacked up in innumerable shelves against the walls. I can still recollect that the room even had a mildewed smell of the teak wood furniture and leatherbound hard covers of those books.

From afar, the books looked the same, just like how a cluster of trees looks the same from a distance, but when you move closer you may realize they are different species of trees. I went closer to the books and pulled out a few from their resting places on the shelves, and peeped inside one of them simply out of curiosity.

This particular book that I had randomly selected to peep into was a Shakespearean play. I began to read it, and was able to comprehend the story even though many of the words were unfamiliar to me then. Even though I was not able to comprehend the concepts and thoughts of the writer completely, I was able to appreciate his play of words, the way it was being expressed, and the implications.

Thereafter, when we were shoved into that room full of books, I would pick up any book and read it from just about any page that I happened to chance upon. And soon I began to enjoy my time in that locked room. My relationship with those books in that large room with teak furniture, in a huge house that had suddenly gone silent in the heat of the afternoon, continued for the next few years.

A decade later when I was studying literature in school and college, those afternoon siesta-time readings came to my rescue. Most of what I was reading formally in school or college I had already read at home earlier. The reading of literature gave me a depth of understanding as well, which has helped me as a writer and director too.

The second most significant occurrence, with reference to how books influenced me, was many years later when I was travelling by train. At Jamshedpur station, there was an AH Wheeler bookshop. I did not have much money on me so I picked up an inexpensive book. It must have cost Rs5. It seemed simple in appearance and it had writings in Sanskrit and translations in Hindi and English. I began to read it randomly, and realized it has verses from the Bhagavad Gita. I was fascinated. I knew about the source of the book because I had many Hindu neighbours. Gradually, I began reading the Bhagavad Gita verses little by little, and they were easy to understand.

I think if you do anything with an open mind, without barriers, you comprehend things easily. The scriptures, from any religion, were not meant for scholars alone, they were meant for the common people. I understood that as clearly as I had comprehended Shakespeare as a child. And, as I continued to read the Gita, I understood then there is nothing like that in this world from whatever else I have read. Generations of wisdom like that just opens you up and changes you forever.

This excerpt is part of a selection made specially for readers by Rakesh Anand Bakshi from his anthology on twelve eminent directors, Directors’ Diaries – The Road To Their First Film, published by HarperCollins India.

Listen to Imtiaz Ali on his love for reading here: