When a Voice Calls

By Imtiaz Ali 1

Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali was reintroduced to Rumi at a moment so perfect, it must have been fate. Just when he was desperately seeking lyrics

Photograph by Ankur Chaturvedi

Photograph by Ankur Chaturvedi

I had to write about Rumi. After all, I am supposed to be the Rumi expert in the Indian film industry. No doubt to the great consternation of the holy man’s soul, for the truth is that I don’t know much about him. But I know Rumi is right: “What you seek is seeking you.” It’s how I found him.

My uncle would tell me about Rumi, and other Persian poets like Hafiz and Ferdowsi and Saadi. I was a kid then and Rumi did not grab my attention. I was not seeking him then.

Decades later, I was shooting for my film Rockstar in Delhi. It was a rough sequence outside a hospital where Ranbir [Kapoor], playing Jordan, was being restrained by number of policemen and he was struggling and screaming to be free of them. I wanted to use a song in this part, which would lead to a concert later in the movie. We did not have a song in mind though. I got a message on my phone from a friend. I usually do not look at my phone on set. That day, despite being completely engaged with shooting, I did. It was a Rumi poem.

     Sometimes you hear a voice through the door

     Calling you,

     As a fish out of water hears the sound of waves,

      Or the hunting falcon hears the sound of the drums—

     “Come back, come back”

That was enough. Somebody had come to me and given me what I was struggling for. “The hunting falcon hears the sound of the drums—come home, come home” became “O naadaan parinde ghar aa ja” in Rockstar. And you can hear the sound of drums in the song. And the later part of the same poem became the words that begin another song in the same film: “Lift your foot, cross over, move into emptiness, of question and answer and question.” The song in the film is “Kun Faya Kun”.

Then Rumi came through email. A quote that someone else had casually sent: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I will meet you there.” These are the words Rockstar begins with: “Pata hai…”

Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi

Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi

My highest admiration goes to those poets whose words can be broken and fitted into any form of modern expression. Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi survives translation. He also speaks clearly from movie posters and merchandise boxes and WhatsApp profiles and gives accurate instructions on the next step you might take.

For my latest film [Jab Harry Met Sejal], I briefed Rahul Nanda, the publicity designer, about the story. He came up with a poster with a line underneath the title. I had not read this quote before but the movie I had made was exactly that. Rumi spoke to me from the poster of my own movie: “What you seek is seeking you.”


This article by Imtiaz Ali was published in the Oct-Dec 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly (IQ) magazine. The theme of the issue was Love. This was our 5th anniversary issue.

Rumi image source: Wiki Commons

One Comment

  1. Kapil November 18, 2017 at 8:16 am - Reply

    You are so right in saying – “My highest admiration goes to those poets whose words can be broken and fitted into any form of modern expression.”

    The words of such poets transcend time and geographical boundaries. I would also say Ghalib is the same.

    Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts.

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