During the first few minutes of Highway, Dolce Namak leaned over to me and whispered, “nobody does an opening sequence like Imtiaz Ali,” and I couldn’t agree more. If the title hadn’t tipped you off already, the opening sequence makes clear that in Highway Imtiaz Ali continues his fascination with journeys, both literal and emotional. Expectations were high going into Highway, since Imtiaz Ali’s previous film Rockstar is one I love quite fiercely. However I was not disappointed by Highway. In fact I loved it so much I’m having trouble expressing myself, but I have tried my best. It’s tempting to compare Highway to Rockstar, since both films have elements in common, but they are in fact very different films. While Rockstar had a very epic feel about it, Highway, in contrast, feels very intimate.
Alia Bhatt is Veera, the daughter of a rich industrialist, who in the midst of her wedding preparations finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is taken hostage by a gang of thugs which includes Randeep Hooda’s Mahabir. At first their treatment of her is quite brutal, and hard to watch. But slowly and delicately the dynamic between Veera and Mahabir begins to change. The delicate way the changing dynamic is handled is brilliant. This is not a movie about a girl who falls in love with her kidnapper, Stockholm-syndrome style; this a movie about two damaged people who form a connection and help each other overcome their respective traumas. The movie is equally delicate and brilliant when handling the connection between Veera and Mahabir, keeping it ambiguous. Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda have great chemistry, but there are no declarations of love, and while they embrace, they never kiss.
Highway makes deft use of symbolism, and never more so than in the route Veera and Mahabir take over the course of the film. They start in the gritty outskirts of Delhi, then travel through the Rajasthani desert, before crossing the green fields of Punjab and finally entering the snowy mountains of Himachal Pradesh and the Edenic green valleys of Kashmir. Unfortunately, like any true Eden they must be expelled from it. A gunshot rings out (I didn’t notice it at the time but Baradwaj Rangan points out that this gunshot mirrors the one that marked Veera and Mahabir’s initial meeting) and Veera finds herself back at home in Delhi, a house filmed in such a way that it becomes a literal gilded cage. What follows is a wrenching climactic scene. (Baradwaj Rangan dismisses this scene as unnecessary. Aseem Chhabra is dismissive of this entire aspect of the plot, and doesn’t mention the climactic scene at all in his review. To which I can only say that these men need to check their privilege. That scene is so important, not just for the character of Veera, but also I think for audience members who have gone through a similar experience). In another example of symbolism in the film, when we first meet Veera she speaks in “Hinglish,” but during this scene at the end of the film she speaks entirely in Hindi, making the use of English by her family and friends seem conspicuous and jarring.
Alia Bhatt gives an astonishing performance. It’s not perfect, but it’s so raw and unmannered. I really think only someone relatively new to Bollywood could have pulled it off the way she does. Randeep Hooda is excellent as well, but he is necessarily overshadowed by Alia, whose Veera is more outgoing, while his Mahabir is more taciturn. And they are both supported by an excellent group of character actors. It’s hard to believe they started shooting the film without a script. Now, whether the dialogues were improvised by the actors or whether Imtiaz Ali wrote them on location hasn’t been made clear, but regardless it wasn’t something that felt obvious while watching. A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack for Highway was not an instant favourite like his soundtrack for Rockstar, but it worked beautifully in the context of the film (yes, even Wanna Mash Up?). And I especially appreciated the sparing use of background score, which helps create the sense of intimacy in the film.
Finally, Baradwaj Rangan criticizes Imtiaz Ali’s “tendency to close his films with kitschy greeting-card visuals.” But I must admit that I am exactly the type of sentimental person on whom these visuals are effective. When that Rumi quote appeared on screen at the end of Rockstar I started to cry unexpected tears. And the final moments of Highway had tears streaming down my face as well. But while the end of Highway made me sad, it was also satisfying: realistic, but still providing closure, and most importantly – hopeful.
“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost