March Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 10 years ago

The curse of the second half is something which befalls the most promising Indian films, and Imtiaz Ali’sHighway is no exception. The director’s fifth movie starts off in a riveting fashion, setting up the characters and sustaining their dynamics right up to the interval at which point it starts to go downhill. Which is unfortunate, because Highway is one of Imtiaz Ali’s better works to date, but the second half is flimsy and unconvincing.

Alia Bhatt plays Veera, a vivacious city girl about to be married in a few days. The ceremonial atmosphere of her house is smothering her, so she calls up her fiancé and urges him to drive with her in a car for a while. It’s late at night and he is reluctant to sabotage the prospects of their prosperous future, but gives in to Veera’s demands anyway. At a gas station, Veera is abducted by a gang of outlaws, led by the grumpy Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). All her fiancé can do is shout out in horror: ‘Told you so!’

From that point onwards, Highway becomes a story about Veera’s self-discovery and, obviously so, since it’s a road movie. All the while, we are treated to great panoramic shots of India, beautifully captured by cinematographer Anil Mehta. Composer A.R. Rahman too, is at his best. His melodious soundtrack even has a lullaby by Pakistani singer, Zebunnisa Bangash of (Zeb and Hania fame). Technically speaking, Highway is impeccable. It’s the course the narrative takes, that is hard to digest.

Initially, Mahabir is asexual, only interested in extorting money out of Veera’s filthy rich businessman father. But over the course of the film, a bizarre relationship develops between the pair. Naturally, the Stockholm Syndrome features heavily here, as Veera develops feelings of some sort for Mahabir, but both characters are equipped with ridiculous sub-plots.

Veera for her part confides that she’s been sexually abused as a child by her uncle, which is why she’s quite happy that she’s been abducted. Now, if the point Highway is trying to make is that it is okay to be wild and explore the world, why does Imtiaz Ali use Veera’s sexual abuse as a tool? What if she hadn’t been abused and what of the millions of girls in India who aren’t abused, and still can’t live their life the way they want to? Wouldn’t they want to run away from home to experience some freedom? Using sexual abuse in this fashion is a tad offensive, however noble Ali’s intentions might be.

Of course, the film tries to redeem itself with the climax, but by then it’s too late. The saving grace of Highway is, without a doubt, Alia Bhatt. In only her second film (third, if you count her cameo in Anurag Kashyap’s unreleased Ugly), she sheds the image of the vain, materialistic character she played in her first film, Student of the Year. She’s fearless in Highway, making long stretches watchable because she’s not acting at all. Her natural style is complemented by Randeep Hooda, who is equally impactful in a role which not all leading actors would be willing to play.

Celebrating its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and being received with enthusiasm (by a majorly desiaudience), one can’t help but think that India can do much better than average, especially if it’s showcasing its talent on a global and prestigious platform such as this.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue.

Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany