The Darbhanga-born filmmaker has carved a niche for himself in contemporary Bollywood since he first debuted in 2005. His craft is not limited to direction; every film directed by Imtiaz Ali has been written by his hand as well. Therefore it is not surprising that Imtiaz Ali movies often have a distinct feel to them. Writing credits for films he did not direct are Ahista Ahista (2006) and Laila Majnu (2018). In recent years he has also taken the onus of producing his films.
Imtiaz’s passion for the arts stemmed from his time at Hindu College, Delhi. Here, he passionately pursued theatre, at which he was considered a natural. In his time there, Imtiaz launched Ibtida, which was the college’s dramatics society. In the same vein, it is interesting to note that Imtiaz’s acting-debut was in Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004). He played the character of terrorist Yakub Memon. Post college, the destination was Mumbai, where he signed up for a diploma course at St. Xavier’s Institute of Communication.
Prior to his foray into directing big-budget films, Imtiaz earned his stripes in television. He wrote and directed tv shows in the mid-90s such as Kurukshetra (Zee TV), Naina and Imtehaan (Doordarshan) to generally favourable responses. 2005 saw him finally direct his first film, which was a huge box-office failure. Still, Imtiaz persisted and cinephiles are thankful that he did.
On his 49th birthday, let’s dive into the filmmaker’s 8 silver-screen ventures, to differentiate the projects that worked from the ones that didn’t. Here are all Imtiaz Ali movies, ranked from worst to best:
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8. Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017)
One would be very confident in a film which stars Bollywood’s king of romance Shah Rukh Khan. One’s confidence would boom when the film is scheduled to be helmed by Imtiaz Ali. One would also be very wrong. The film has its moments, with K.U. Monahan capturing lovely European visuals and Pritam’s solid soundtrack. But a film without a concrete plot cannot be saved by ancillary elements.
Anushka Sharma arguably gives her career-worst performance in a film bereft of tonality and sense. With lines like “At least ‘someone’ will think I’m worthy of being kidnapped”, the writing didn’t give her much of a chance to begin with. Shah Rukh’s charm isn’t felt either, with the film seeming in service of the actor rather than the other way around. This is a terrible project, and something that should not be mentioned in the same vein as the Hollywood original.
Watch Jab Harry Met Sejal on Amazon
7. Love Aaj Kal (2020)
Reboots of films are often commercially protected, but are an artistic gamble. This Kartik Aryan – Sara Ali Khan film and Imtiaz’s most recent, failed to hit the mark the director has set up with previous works. The central performances were unidimensional, almost saved by the appearances of Randeep Hooda and Arushi Sharma. In an attempt to peel back the layers of complex modern love stories, the story keeps meandering until its magic is lost. The 141 minute-runtime doesn’t help matters.
Apart from the aforementioned, the disorienting usage of flashbacks is enough to hamper the viewing experience. The last nail in the coffin was self-designed; the constant comparison with the film’s 2009 namesake sealed the film’s destiny as a box-office success with nothing to offer on an artistic front. Love Aaj Kal will hopefully remind the talented director of how not to treat his favorite subject – love.
Watch Love Aaj Kal on Netflix
6. Love Aaj Kal (2009)
As mentioned, the original’s comparisons doomed the reboot, but the original wasn’t a masterpiece in itself either. Following Imtiaz’s Jab We Met, the Saif-Deepika story of past and present works, but just about. With themes of technology, distance, career versus love, the film just about works. The trait of non-linear storytelling doesn’t necessarily hurt the film except on a pacing front, but it doesn’t help it much either.
What really helps the film is Pritam’s hyper-successful soundtrack. The dialogue is memorable, if not brilliantly written. Saif Ali Khan’s performance is enjoyable in moments (shoutout to the first time he donned a turban before Sacred Games), while Deepika gives one of the more nuanced performances of her early years. Rishi Kapoor’s narration in the film is the best casting choice, however. Overall, a good film during its year of release, and one that people might look back and enjoy, especially in light of the remake.
Watch Love Aaj Kal on Amazon
5. Socha Na Tha (2005)
This was Imtiaz Ali’s first film. For a debut, it is a very earnest attempt. Proving that Imtiaz’s fascination has always lied in the realm of self-realizations and dealing with the complexities of love gives a great insight into the filmmaker’s mind. He is persistently pursuing his best rendition of love in the modern era. While this film isn’t it by miles, it is still an enjoyable film, especially for 2005.
Produced by Dharmendra, Abhay Deol debuts and is paired with a charming Ayesha Takia. The elements of travel and exes expectantly pop up, but there is something exciting about seeing an accomplished filmmaker with his hands outstretched in the dark, trying to grasp onto concrete idiosyncrasies. Ideas of career confusion and arranged marriages in India, paired with surprisingly non-cringe Hinglish work well for Socha Na Tha. A very good first attempt by Imtiaz, and a film with a re-watchable quality to it.
Watch Socha Na Tha on Amazon
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4. Jab We Met (2007)
Imtiaz Ali clearly takes into account the real-life relationship between actors before casting them as his protagonists in his love-quests. It is impressive that the director jumped from Socha Na Tha to this blockbuster in a span of two years. Pairing the bubbliest Geet (Kareena Kapoor Khan) alongside the sombre and introspective Shahid Kapoor (Aditya) was a casting masterpiece. The performances and chemistry are the brightest portion of the film, but the entire plot and dialogues hold up well. Not only this, but Jab We Met is one of the few films that has stood the test of time. That magical quality of remaining relevant across different generations is very difficult for a film to accomplish; evergreen dialogues such as Geet’s “Mein apni favorite hoon!” or her explosive “Sikhni Hoon Mai Bhatinda Ki!” lend to this quality of the film.
To the film’s credit, hit songs from 13 years ago are still thought of with fondness in the public realm. The heartfelt Tum Se Hi with Shahid in the rain and the pair’s energy during Nagada are cherished personal moments I experienced in the cinema at a young age. Moments in the film such as Shahid flushing a torn photograph point towards earnest writing from the perspective of well-rounded characters. Jab We Met is, undoubtedly, a cinematic milestone in Bollywood, marrying the commercial strength of a film with strong artistic integrity.
Watch Jab We Met on Amazon
3. Rockstar (2011)
On a personal note, I have had many issues with Rockstar over the years of revisiting it. Ideas propagated such as artists must suffer for their art and the occasionally heavy dialogue haven’t aged particularly well. But I remember being completely overwhelmed on an emotional level when I first saw the film. The film’s passion points to the fact that this could be Imtiaz’s most personal film. A classic tale of artist suffering for his art, Rockstar is told through the vessel of Janardhan-turned-Jordan (a brilliant Ranbir Kapoor) and how his relationship with Heer (Nargis Fakhri) moulds him into an artist. Fakhri was ineffective in poignant films but the fresh face carried her character well, even bagging a Filmfare nomination for her debut.
The songs in the film really don’t need to be spoken about. The cultural shock (first glimpses of anti-establishment) created in young audiences with hits like Sadda Haq and the beautiful Nadaan Parinday speaks for itself. Imtiaz’s film rages, and this rage is set up well from the protagonist’s initially innocent college-self. The dialogues (and bits of poetry) hint at Sufiism entering the director’s arsenal; the song Kun Faaya Kun adds to the same. A very convincing triumph on the director’s part. The film closes with a line from one of Rumi’s poems, which translates to: “Away, from all concepts of wrong and right, there is a field. I’ll meet you there”, which struck a chord with me on a personal level. Trivia: Imtiaz initially wanted to cast Deepika Padukone in place of Fakhri.
Watch Rockstar on Amazon
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2. Highway (2014)
This is the first film that Imtiaz produced, along with writing and directing it. Highway earned massive critical praise, and rightfully so. Taking his obsession with travel in a more domestic direction, and with a much-needed tweak to his rich-kids-meet-abroad template, the filmmaker plays out the story of Veera (a fantastic Alia Bhatt) and Mahabir (the ever-reliable Randeep Hooda). The latter is a masked bandit that kidnaps bride-to-be Veera, aiming to ransom her. It’s to Ali’s credit that he controls the tone and pace to such a degree that the romance feels organic as opposed to contrived. The movie charms with its flip on Bollywood’s loudness; silences in the film gradually build the tender equation between our leads.
Anil Mehta’s cinematography is truly sublime, especially near the travels to Himachal Pradesh. As ever, the soundtrack shines in companionship with the serene visuals. The film’s ending is what kills it, while even the middle portion gets a little dragged out despite impressive performances. From a critical standpoint, Highway definitely deserved the questions regarding glorification of kidnapping and a discussion of what Stockholm Syndrome is. The film might feel somewhat dated, but it is still top-tier honest storytelling. The idea that love can be born from the most obscure places in our lives is something I agree with, and something Imtiaz strives to prove with this film.
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1. Tamasha (2015)
The position of this film on the list is surely debatable. But let’s get something which is not up for debate, out of the way. Agar Tum Saath Ho is the most gut-wrenching song-narrative sequence in Bollywood. Alka Yagnik and Arijit Singh knock it out of the park in a song which shapeshifts from uplifting to intensely romantic to horrifying before you know it. The camerawork from cinematographer Ravi Varman is beautiful and painful, and the performances are hauntingly realistic.
This is probably Imtiaz’s magnum opus when it comes to extracting performances. Arguably Deepika Padukone’s career-best performance, it is definitely one of Ranbir’s best films as well. The two have a beautiful chemistry that is put through extreme trials by Imtiaz’s script. This is also one of Imtiaz’s most experimental project in terms of writing. What I enjoy about this director is that even when he does fail, it is always because he got caught up in trying to do something new. Most filmmakers end up in a vicious cycle of rehashing ideas that have been done a million times over.
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There are innumerable people I know who haven’t been able to connect with Ved and Tara, or for that matter with most of Imtiaz Ali’s movies. The film has received criticism of being pretentious and unrealistic, but it’s cinema! It’s supposed to transport and transcend the commonplace. Still, in the world that Imtiaz created, there were notable issues. There is an over-sending of ‘messaging’ in the film which could have been done without.
While the romantic parts held up, the ideas of following your passion and Ved’s narrative with stories were dragged out. But, the film deserves credit for trying something novel and not rehashing the engineer-passion trope so often employed as lazy writing. Tamasha is one of my favorite films to watch as an artist, one that an actor would dream to be a part of.
There we are! That’s my ranking of the best Imtiaz Ali movies. Your turn! What are your favourite films of the director? Do you agree with my ranking? Let’s talk in the comments below.
By Abhay Budki