Having liked (but not loved) Jab We Met, rolled my eyes through Love Aaj Kal and despised Rockstar, my faith in director Imtiaz Ali had mostly faded. They were high schmaltz, the contrived drama and the lame message of ‘the power of love’ were unconvincing, and there was a blatant attempt at dumbing ideas down to cater to the lowest common denominator.
It’s as though Ali heard these complaints, made a checklist of the critical flaws in his past films and then went out to make a film that passionately trumps his critics. Ali’s latest venture, Highway, is not only a terrific movie, but also an achievement in commercial Bollywood cinema. As a bonus, it also has a pleasant surprise: Alia Bhatt is a major acting talent.
Highway is a character-driven film in which Bhatt plays Veera, a wealthy Delhi girl who gets kidnapped by a gang of bandits headed by Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). Like in A Life Less Ordinary, Veera is afflicted with a serious bout of Stockholm Syndrome. However, Veera is less like Cameron Diaz from that movie or the lovestruck Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor, and more like Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon – a vulnerable child with a fractured personality. Her attraction to Mahabir is confounding in one moment, heartbreaking in the next and hilarious when you least expect it to be.
If you’re an Imtiaz Ali fan, you’ll be stunned by how different Highway is compared to his previous films, in both concept and form. The first thing you’ll notice is how subtle and quiet the film is. Despite a soundtrack by AR Rahman, there is very little background music in the film. There are no tacky reaction shots and no helpful musical cues to spoonfeed the audience. The most dramatic scene of the film is enacted against pin drop silence, relying upon characters rather than background music to move you. There are no song and dance numbers, and the film plays out like an offbeat indie, crossing over to arthouse territory a lot of times.
For a film that is being released commercially, there is plenty of unconventional stuff in Highway. Often, the camera just follows Bhatt and keen movie buffs will be able to figure out the scripted scenes from the spontaneous ones, like the one in which Veera is trying to negotiate with a rock on a rapid stream. There’s another really funny bit when Veera pops in an English music CD in Mahabir’s truck and starts break dancing on the highway. Mahabir is a dacoit but isn’t a stereotypical, ‘rapey’ Punjabi gunda, he actually gets annoyed when Veera clings on to him.
Highway’s commercial elements arrive only in the second half, but they don’t get in the way of the story. It doesn’t try to be The Motorcycle Diaries or preach about Mother Nature giving the protagonists a perspective upon life. Veera changes as she travels with Mahabir across deserts and mountains, but the change is gently realized.
They’re welded together with the songs and imagery, showing the protagonists driving through various terrains. Two people discover themselves at their loneliest, and with Mr Rahman’s music trickling in the background, it’s tough to dislike what’s happening on the screen. The one legitimate criticism one could bring up is that Veera’s breakthrough scene with Mahabir, in which she opens up to him emotionally, pops up out of the blue. It’s the one time in Highway that the editing is jarring, but it’s easy to glance over because of Bhatt’s moving performance.
After watching Bhatt’s debut film, few expected Bhatt to do anything more than the safe and stereotypical song and dance comedies. In Highway, she punches the entitled star kid stereotype and shocks you with both her range and dedication. Despite Hooda’s decent performance, it is Bhatt who carries the film on her petite shoulders without breaking a sweat.
The film is practically a collage of Bhatt moments and she pulls off all the moments very well. What could have been hammy and laughable comes across as endearing. She even excels at a tremendous, five-minute long, single take shot in the climax – a million things could have gone wrong here, but Bhatt hits the right notes, thanks no doubt to Ali’s direction. With Deepika Padukone, Parineeti Chopra and now Bhatt, the future of Bollywood’s leading ladies seems bright.
A scary prospect is that Highway might not make money at the box office. Some will no doubt criticize the film’s silences, long takes and lack of naach gaana. That’ll be a shame because it’s not often that a successful commercial filmmaker has the courage to take a sharp left from the blockbuster formulae and make something that’s different. There is so much to appreciate in Highway and if it can goad other commercial filmmakers to take notice and also dare to try something new, we’ll all be richer for it.