Highway review: Imtiaz Ali's best, but could be his least successful film

Suprateek Chatterjee

Feb 21, 2014 09:35:26 IST

Silence is golden and Imtiaz Ali knows this all too well. In his latest feature, Highway, the director known for making crowd-pleasers such as Jab We Met and Rockstar, uses silence so effectively that it’s almost a directorial flourish. Highway has some lovely writing, beautiful cinematography and stellar acting from the two leads, Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda, but silence is the unsung hero of Ali's new film.

This is noteworthy because the Hindi film industry traditionally avoids silence like the plague, preferring to allow the background score to tell a parallel story, much like a sign-language interpreter narrating the story to a deaf audience. Even in his previous films, Ali, perhaps constrained by the diktats of commercial filmmaking, felt the need to riff on every emotion (although more subtly than most of his contemporaries). In Highway, Ali shows us how and what to feel, instead of telling us. The background music composed by AR Rahman is used sparingly and some of the best, most emotionally-charged moments allow the characters’ lines to hang in silences and be absorbed by the audience, in an atmosphere of thickening emotion, without the distraction of hearing a wailing violin or a contemplative guitar.

Highway review: Imtiaz Alis best, but could be his least successful film

A still from Highway. Agencies.

The writing forms the backbone of  Highway even though it doesn't have much of a plot. A young, seemingly-naïve Delhi girl, Veera Tripathi (Bhatt), is the daughter of an obscenely wealthy man and she is abducted by Mahabir (Hooda) and his gang. As they travel across six states – from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir – Veera succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome and starts developing a fondness for her captor.

However, as the title suggests, this movie is about the journey and not the destination – as elucidated by Veera at one point. And what a journey it is, featuring some beautiful vistas that will make you want to pack your bags and go exploring north India (courtesy Anil Mehta’s stunning cinematography). Ali’s taken us travelling before in Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kaland Rockstar, but here he approaches the journey with an agenda-free, spiritual cleanliness. There’s no “Look at how beautiful our country is” or the “I am a famous cinematographer and therefore I will be self-indulgent” conceit – we see everything that Veera sees and it makes us feel the way she does.

Which brings us to Highway’s biggest strength: Alia Bhatt. Like Veera, Bhatt is a privileged urban kid. She's likeable, but brash, naïve and largely ignorant about small-town and rural life. When she sits on a rock in the middle of a gushing stream in Himachal Pradesh and laughs to herself till she cries, it’s obvious that she is actually feeling those emotions herself. When she acts playfully defiant with her none-too-jovial captors, you laugh because you can imagine a sheltered girl like her talking like that with a mixture of fearlessness and false security.

Bhatt’s is perfect casting and it's difficult to think of another actress in Bollywood who would have suited that role as well as Bhatt does. But aside from the resonances between Veera and Bhatt, she also pulls off some clumsily-written monologues that could have translated horrendously to screen. Again, it’s the honesty that works. Bhatt makes Veera’s internal journey her own and makes us believe we’re watching more than just a performance.

Accolades must go to Hooda too, who shines with his brilliant, balanced performance as Mahabir, a violent man with a seemingly impenetrable exterior. As he struggles to find what little remains of his humanity, his speech changes from guttural barks to sullen utterances. His is one of those roles in which the character graph is a languid incline and there is little opportunity to truly cut loose. Hooda eschews all temptations to chew scenery and paces himself brilliantly. Why aren’t we watching him in more films?

Highway traverses diverse cinematic terrain -- from coming-of-age tale to socially relevant drama – without ever breaking stride and Ali has said in interviews that he'd been wanting to make this film for the past 15 years. I would like to think that, with a cast this good and a technical crew as accomplished (aside from Mehta and Rahman, it boasts of Resul Pookutty’s sound design), he has succeeded in making the film he had wanted.

It highlights Ali's love for honest storytelling and his disdain for artifice. This is by far Ali's most accomplished film. Perhaps this means Highway will be his least commercially successful one. But, hey, let’s just be happy it got made.

Updated Date: Feb 21, 2014 09:54:47 IST