It would be very easy to criticise a film like Highway. All one would need to do is to look for chinks, of which there are plenty, in this Imtiaz Ali offering. That, however, would be missing the point. Highway lives in its parts, rather than its sum, and it is in its parts that it glows effervescently.
The story line follows a linear path, starting with the accidental kidnapping of a rich young girl from Delhi and going on a long road to something close to a rediscovering of self, even though it falls a little short of that. The soul of the film is in the journey the two — the kidnapper and the kidnapped — undertake.
Veera Tripathi (Alia Bhatt) is the daughter of a rich business tycoon in Delhi, who is soon about to get married to a family as rich as hers and is out for a late-night ride with her fiancé. As luck would have it, Veera finds herself in the middle of a robbery getaway. The robbers then whisk her away to a desolate location on the outskirts of the city. Upon discovering her identity, the robbers panic and one of them, Mahabir Bhati (Randeep Hooda), decides to take her far from the city and demand ransom from her father. The rest of the film follows these two main characters in their journey that takes them from Delhi to the salt plains on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border to the rich mustard fields of Punjab to the hills of Himachal Pradesh and further up to Ladakh and finally back to Delhi.
Imtiaz makes Highway a film of realisation, rather than growing up, as most on-the-road movies tend to be. To his credit, despite this being what you can call a “heroine-oriented” film, he has given both Alia and Hooda almost equal screen space. And while Alia has sunk her teeth into her role, Hooda too shows his mettle. In many ways, this is not the same guy we saw in the 2005 gangster film D. The hollow eyes and the brooding are still there, but — and it’s difficult to put it otherwise — they have a mature ring to them. The theatre experience and a mentor in Naseeruddin Shah actually show in the sincere rendition of a Jat-Gujjar petty criminal that Hooda brings to the table.
Juxtaposed alongside him, Alia makes quite an impression. Truth be told, the story belongs to her, and you can feel that she knows that and she revels in that. But most of all, Highway belongs to Imtiaz Ali. As the captain of this ship, he has been able to extract the ebullient in the darkness. For this, he has also experimented with techniques: the use of a handheld camera to project tiredness and despair on Alia’s face as she tries to flee from her captors or shifting the focus to the background when the action is happening in the foreground are some interesting examples.
There is no sense of ennui in the film; even in its weakest and slowest moments, it never tends to languish. The attempt is obvious — Imtiaz wants his audience to feel what his characters feel, from the metamorphosis of the truck driver-kidnapper to the outburst of a girl who finds more meaning in her relationship with her abductor than her own family and friends, to the spiritual bond the two forge. Some would feel it is akin to a Stockholm syndrome. Others like me would just see it as a sincere attempt to convey a thought.
While the cinematography is brilliant, the film’s music by AR Rahman has a newness that will find a few takers. But again, that too, like the film’s difficult statement, will tread the fine line between a serious alternate film and a commercial venture. One suspects that in the final analysis, that is what could make Highway a TV favourite rather than set the cash registers ringing in the box office.