I have watched the movie Highway after reading many reviews, positive feedback growing exponentially, the world going tizzy praising Alia Bhatt to kingdom come. I got a bit of flak for telling the story in my last review. So, in this review, no storytelling, just a frank critique of the artistic success and failures of the movie
It is difficult to write off and criticize a director for trying to stay off the hackneyed path of storytelling in Bollywood cinema and abandon the run of the mill story, when his attempt goes awry. He did try something but it didn’t work. That is what happened to Imtiaz Ali’s Highway. It is an ambitious attempt, with the cinematographer Anil Mehta’s lovely, clean images the movie and show us a good bit of India, (shot in Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir), but it doesn’t coalesce into a holistically successful film. To me Highway is a problematic movie. Elements in it have great beauty as I mentioned before in Anil Mehta’s cinematography, His camera caresses the changing terrain so that we can almost taste the bleached salt pans of Rajasthan and the crisp air of Kashmir. The contrast is beautifully poignant in the two characters travelling through this landscape. There is AR Rahman’s soulful music, especially Pattaka Guddi. And yet, I am left deeply dissatisfied.
Imtiaz gives us a portrait of two damaged souls who, through a journey across north India, help to heal each other. “In bondage, she found freedom.” That’s the tagline in the trailer for “Highway,” and that makes you wonder if the movie will be appalling or merely clueless. It’s neither, though it has tone trouble as it searches for a genre to contain a story with built-in believability problems. Is it a road trip movie, is it a romance? So Veera Tripathi, an affluent Delhi princess who lives in a mansion with a Rolls-Royce, ultimately finds peace in the arms of Mahabir Bhatti, a rough Gujjar criminal, played by Randeep Hooda.
The idea of a victim falling in love with her kidnapper isn’t new; everyone knows the Stockholm syndrome in which the hostage forms an emotional bond with the abuser has often been cinematic fodder, especially in Hollywood. In the kidnapping of Veera, the director doesn’t soft-pedal the violence. So, the rough treatment she receives at her abductors’ hands is fear instilling. She’s gagged and bound and slapped and tossed in the back of an old truck. One of the kidnappers gropes her. The naturalism and violence (and threat of rape) in these scenes make them an uncomfortable prelude to what comes next: a love story. But here, it is both uncomfortable and unconvincing. Veera becomes relaxed around her kidnappers fairly quickly. The movie posits kidnapping as therapy which tells us, so what if you’ve been abducted; heal yourself as you travel the undiscovered countryside. Given the horror inherent in this helpless and life threatening situation, this just feels false and fundamentally wrong.
Imtiaz tries his best to create tender moments of interaction between the over animated Veera and monosyllabic Mahabir, but the fact of the abduction means that a creepiness hovers over the romance, which has other obstacles to overcome, most important the class difference. Veera romanticizes her kidnapping and to her it is a free pass to see the world anew, but for Mahabir it is only a dead end, a poor man on the run. Even if some artistic license is granted to the director, the story wanders sometimes reminding me of “It Happened One Night”, but there is no continuity of tone and thus the wavering between realism and Bollywood masala, which does not allow me to buy into this story Imtiaz, is portraying.
The casting of the movie has tried, what is now a done to death formula, of casting actors who do not show or bring to mind any immediate chemistry, reminds me of Kareena Kapoor’s casting with Imran Khan. Alia Bhatt has openness and emotional transparency but one can’t seem to look beyond her character’s naivety, tantrums, gullible actions and the forced realization of the truth of life, and one never quite believes that she’s attracted to Mahabir. Randeep Hooda has very little in terms of transformation of character to showcase in the story yet his inner turmoil peeks through the grim exterior and he plays to his strengths as the brooding, introvert and ultimately a tortured soul.
In the end the movie becomes a fantasy story of finding so called freedom, whether it says marriage is the compromise and bondage and to find freedom one must take up a journey, I do not know. What I do know is there was much potential in the core of the story yet the awkward introduction and the immaturity of the supposedly ‘female centric’ character of Veera takes away too much from the story. Alia Bhatt may have done wonders in terms of playing the part of a rich girl with a heart of a bird wanting to soar, who is only too glad to forget all about her family and fiancée in her new adventure with the ‘stranger’ but one can’t stop wishing for a better screenplay and characterization with a lot more maturity and perhaps an age appropriate casting. Something strongly makes me feel, that the character sketch was done to suit the actor instead of the other way round.
Ultimately, for me Highway is yet another, Bollywood movie, which hyped by the media, loved by the crowds, leaves absolutely no lasting impression on my mind.
Reference Sources: India Today, Hindustan Times, NDTV India