Ali’s Way: A review of Highway

by Amit Upadhyaya

(Disclaimer: My opinion of Imtiaz Ali’s work has, mostly, been at odds with the views of the cinema literate audience. So, read on only at your own risk.)

Highway

Highway

Kahaan Hoon Main? These are the opening words of a song that comes in pretty late in the film. You might as well ask this question of yourself. This is a pretty disturbing film to sit through because of the sheer honesty of the filmmaker.

                The film begins with the abduction of Veera (Alia Bhatt), a young about-to-get-married girl, by Mahavir (Randeep Hooda), a hardened criminal. Unfortunately for Mahavir, she happens to be the daughter of a well-connected businessman. Mahavir, quite like the film itself, embraces the eponymous Highway at that point.

                In my opinion, seeing the film in terms of realism – as one that is trying to get ‘authentic’ about the details of the plot or be believable – would be a misreading.  The film is trying to capture a particular space of the mind. One where the characters, like the audience, have to fight their inner demons while running away from them, both at the same time. It is trying to understand what a character like Veera, a well brought-up-tameezdaar-woman, will do when she finds that she is out of the bondage of home, freer among men who happen to be her kidnappers. The Stockholm syndrome is not the point of the film. Character exploration is. All this while travelling (a leitmotif in all of Ali’s films).

                Here is a girl whose actions don’t seem believable. How can she be so comfortable around her own abductors? For a country that has been brought up on and with Ramayana, this might indeed be a troublesome idea. But it isn’t entirely rosy for feminists either. They will question her actions too. But that is precisely what Ali’s trying to do. He is exploring the idea of how a journey might change few lives. He is entirely successful in bringing those complexities and vulnerabilities on screen.

                In what is a significantly different treatment as compared to his earlier films, the frills are completely off. There are no background score cues for emotions. There is such tremendous use of silence in the sound design of the film that at times, I could hear the popcorn vending machine outside.

                Of course, Ali’s collaboration with lyricist Irshad Kamil and the great A.R. Rahman results in a score that lifts the film several notches higher. Rahman always gives what his directors ask him to. From Mani Ratnam to (jaate jaate) Yash Chopra, he has always delivered great music but never quite found a match for himself. Finally, he has found a collaborator who can challenge him. Finally, he has found a director who has been able to add something to the great composer’s music. And that works so well for a story that is as surreal and unbelievable as this.

                Anil Mehta has worked with Ali for the second time and once again, they’ve got the mood and emotions perfectly. Luckily, this being a road movie with beautiful and haunting locations in the backdrop, the result is a visual delight. Even more so because the production design aids the story and doesn’t overshadow it.

                Like always, there are problems with the screenplay but I can’t pinpoint exactly what is missing. That probably is the result of another great collaboration – that of Ali with Aarti Bajaj, his editor. They find the right pace for the story and let it take its own path.

                Veera’s character, like that of Meera and Geet, is complex in its screen avatar. She goes through so many emotions that it becomes difficult to understand her. Alia Bhatt brings it alive on screen. For an actor who debuted in Student of the Year, that is an achievement worthy of praise. Proving a foil to her softness, the rough edges are brought by Randeep Hooda. And restrained but wonderful is he. The scene where Veera asks him about his mother in a shop should be mentioned with great appreciation.

                Many people might mistake this film for a love story which it definitely isn’t. Veera and Mahavir are neither lovers nor companions. They have the most basic form of relationship that can exist between a man and woman. That is all they have.

                Imtiaz Ali has always tried to explore characters with as much honesty as he could. The result has not always been consistent; but the exception is that he always comes up with very strong female characters. This is another step towards the growth of this filmmaker whose biggest strength is the fact that he has not allowed himself to be slotted into mainstream or indie. And that is why there have been such extreme reactions to his films.

                The audience in the theatre where I saw the film only indicated that they are not yet ready for the kind of honesty Imtiaz Ali brings to Hindi films. It’s my sincere hope that one day he will find the audience he so completely deserves. Honesty must be rewarded. Mercifully, on-screen it has been.

                If Highway is anything to go by, Imtiaz Ali must be one of the most prized possessions of the Hindi film industry.

(Amit Upadhyaya, an Allahabadi turning his nose up at all things Delhi, is a student of journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. By his own admission, however, he tries to spend most of his waking hours over Bollywood – analyzing, watching, and planning future movies. He now has a gig as a sub-editor of the famous indie film website dearcinema.com)  

1 thought on “Ali’s Way: A review of Highway

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