Highway review: Trip with Alia Bhatt on road with potholes
Bhatt and Hooda are both superb as Veera and Mahabir, two difficult roles that are made harder by the fact that the writing doesn't help build their characters.
If you've gone on a road trip in India, then you'll know that usually, when you first get out of the city and on the highway, the roads are decent. Then, as the distance from the city increases, the potholes become larger, the gravel is looser and there are bound to be a few awkward jolts along the way. If you've got a good driver, then you won't feel those moments as much as you would otherwise. In this sense, Imtiaz Ali's film Highway is true to its title. It starts smoothly and then relies upon a talented cast to carry the viewer across the twists, detours and speedbreakers.
Veera (Alia Bhatt) is taken hostage by a group of criminals led by Mahabir (Randeep Hooda), who realise later that she's the daughter of a wealthy Delhi businessman. Mahabir, who appears to moonlight as a truck driver, decides to bundle Veera into the back of a truck and start driving across north India. Since the film's trailer tells us about Veera's attachment to Mahabir, it's no spoiler to disclose that she quickly transitions from a bound and gagged victim to a young girl on a road trip.
This is the point at which interval strikes. When we return to Highway, it's transformed from a gritty, realistic thriller about a kidnap to an 'Incredible India' commercial. There are picturesque landscapes, impromptu dances in the middle of the road and hospitable villagers who will do things like braid a woman's hair.
Post-interval, Highway is faced with crossroads. Should it turn into love-story territory or take the exit that will allow it to explore serious issues like child sex abuse? Or will Veera's story careen into Bollywood melodrama because after all, Highway is a commercial release? Ali flounders as a writer and director when faced with these choices. It's only because he's cast two very gifted actors as his lead pair that the audience is distracted from how Highway gets lost along the way. Powerful as their performances may be, they can't entirely make up for the film meandering and its story ending disappointingly.
Bhatt and Hooda are both superb as Veera and Mahabir, two difficult roles that are made harder by the fact that the writing doesn't help build their characters. The dialogues that Bhatt has to deliver, for instance, are unwieldy and laboured. She conveys so much more when she's silent and relying upon her tremendously expressive face to communicate. Ali's script would have Veera switch her vulnerability on and off, depending upon whether or not his plot needs an 'emotional' moment. So Veera will reveal deep-rooted insecurities at one point and then, a few scenes later, act with uncharacteristic degree of confidence. Bhatt smooths over many such rough edges with her performance, which seems all the more outstanding because of how bland she was in Student of the Year. Still, there are a few jarring moments that she can't help, like in the final climax when she's made to scream (twice; for emphasis, presumably) in the middle of a family gathering.
Hooda has a more challenging time with Mahabir partly because Mahabir is intensely unpleasant initially but in the second half, is transformed from villain to hero. One of Hooda's most powerful moments comes soon after Veera is kidnapped. At one point, she tries to escape and Mahabir catches her. Instead of stopping her, he roughly shoves her away and tells her to run if she wants to. His face is rigid with the cruel certainty that she won't survive long in an unfamiliar landscape and that she'll return to him, with her spirit broken, which is exactly what happens. Like Bhatt, Hooda is also at his best when he doesn't have to speak the dialogues written for him.
Once the second half starts, however, Ali presents Mahabir as the good guy, full of gruffness and little kindness. But is the fact that he loves his mother supposed to make up for his hitting Veera? Should we forget that he dragged her by her hair, uncaring of her stumbling and crying out in pain, because he got her a new set of clothes? Does Mahabir taking Veera to see the mountain she wants to see make up for him accusing Veera of being improperly dressed (she was wearing short-sleeved t-shirt and pants, but not her full-sleeved jacket) when one of Mahabir's men tried to molest Veera? It seems so from Ali's storytelling.
That Veera is drawn to Mahabir isn't difficult to stomach — Stockholm Syndrome is a plausible explanation — but the fact that Ali does his damnedest to make the audience fall in love with Mahabir is disturbing. Mahabir begins as a brute and transitions into an awkward, strong-but-silent romantic hero post-interval. He isn't really abusive, Highway suggests, but was forced into this pattern of behaviour by his circumstances.
Mahabir and Veera's relationship is given a whitewash of innocence, which is either Ali attempting to make us forget this is a kidnapper and his hostage we're watching, or a very problematic portrayal of a victim as one who cannot see the reality of her circumstances. Considering Ali is said to have spent 15-odd years figuring this story out, it doesn't seem too much to expect that he would have worked out the inconsistencies between the initial and latter sections of his plot and storytelling.
The interval is a curse upon Indian cinema. It interrupts the movie-watching experience, destroys a film's pace and has little going for it but the money made from popcorn sales. In Highway, however, it seems to have impacted the writing too, because this film is clearly divided by the interval into two parts that make up a schizophrenic whole.
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