Highway review: Umesh and Girish Kulkarni's latest is a triumph for Marathi cinema and FTII
Highway is another triumph for Marathi cinema. The film’s emotional impact make Highway one of the most arresting movies of the year.
After watching Highway – Ek Selfie Aarpaar there was only one question on my mind – why can’t Umesh and Girish Kulkarni make every single motion picture?
Over the past few years Umesh and Girish Kulkarni have led the Marathi film renaissance with a string of stunning films like Valu, Vihir and Deool. All of these films have in common deeply nuanced observations of dissimilar people, with a good measure of dark social commentary. Highway is their most ambitious film and again, they’ve delivered beyond expectations.
Talk about being an out-of-the-box, art film experiment on a mainstream level. The entire film is set on the Pune-Mumbai expressway. There are a billion characters in the film, placed in cars, trucks and buses. The audience is treated to a kaleidoscope of these characters swirling around, unintentionally clashing at times, with a plot being crafted out of their interactions with one another. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Indian cinema.
A TV star (Huma Qureshi) going to a political event, being constantly brought into a conversation by a stereotypical political goon (Shrikant Yadav). A corporate stooge (Sunil Barve) trying to deal with office politics on the phone while his pregnant wife harangues him. A hen-pecked husband (Kishor Kadam) being lambasted for cheating on his wife. A socialite (Tisca Chopra) ferrying a rent boy for a clandestine massage. A bunch of Telugu villagers hitching a ride in a truck and carrying a mysterious box. A couple (Renuka Shahane plays one half of this duo) embroiled in an accident. A sex worker (Mukta Barve) and her mother; a schizophrenic (Kishor Chaugule) with a bird cage in his hands; an NRI (Girish Kulkarni) in town to meet his hospitalized dad, unwilling to share his cab with a football fan (Nipun Dharmadhikari).
And those are just the central characters. There is a whole cast of others packed in various shared cabs, also in the mix.
The camera stays inside the vehicles for most part, focusing on the characters and occasionally giving us an exterior shot to get an idea of the journey. The camera simply moves through the various cars, randomly grabbing a line or two from various characters and moving on to the next. We focus on the people’s conversations, trying to decipher what their respective backgrounds are and what lies in store for them in this journey.
Highway isn’t a great movie only because of its plot or experimental shooting style. Every character in the film has enough layers to deserve a film of their own - there’s something simmering below everyone’s surface. The script demands powerful performances and that’s precisely is extracted from the actors. The people in the film are either entertaining, or fascinating or both and the Kulkarnis find some darkly hilarious banter in some of the characters’ ideological clashes.
When was the last time you laughed in an Indian film because of the characters than for the contrived comedic scenarios they are put in? The comic timing in Highway is impeccable – Girish Kulkarni in particular brings the house down with his perennially-awkward NRI character, befuddled by his driver constantly talking on the phone, and someone else sharing his private taxi.
The second half takes an unexpected turn as a traffic gridlock brings everyone to a standstill, finally mixing everyone together. It’s quite stunning to watch the movie unfold organically, as people sit around chit chatting. There is some commentary on the human condition, themes of the choice between a career and a marriage – issues we can all relate to at some level. Some of the subplots aren’t given as much weight as the others, but the effect is that of paint strokes in an Impressionist painting.
Ultimately Highway is another triumph for Marathi cinema. The Kulkarnis’ experiments with plot, their eagerness to go where few filmmakers dare to go, and the film’s emotional impact make Highway one of the most arresting movies of the year. By the end of the film, there are three takeaways. One, it’s great to see Renuka Shahane once again on the big screen. Two, why has no one thought of making a film on the famed Mumbai-Pune shared taxis even though it’s such a ubiquitous transaction? And three, FTII needs to survive - because it produces people like Umesh Kulkarni.
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