At the outset or at least from the trailers Highway may come across as dealing with Stockholm Syndrome. But as the film progresses and we journey with two vagabonds – one perpetually trapped in it and another gradually reveling in the freedom of it – we realize that these two characters are the perfect foil to each other. It’s more complex and it is also more reciprocal than the typical story dealing with the syndrome. They don’t outright work in tandem but the the ebb and flow of it and the way this relationship leads to its logical conclusion is what the film is about and therein lies the genius of Imtiaz Ali.
Ali chooses to begin proceedings with power play. He doesn’t establish the attraction (attraction is a wrong word) right-away and rather switches between his characters emotionally dominating one another. Randeep Hooda’s Mahabir Bhatti is first the typical criminal hitting, scolding, screaming at his hostage Veera (Alia Bhatt). This runs through much of the first half and the kidnapper holds supreme command over his hostage. At one point he’s established his position so clearly that he lets her run away into the dead of the night confident that she has nowhere to go and will be limping back soon enough. This is a brilliant moment and Ali swaps between Veera in closeup frantically running and the expanding horizon. Tu Kuja’s haunting vocals resound in the background, its lines calling for help for a Veera so convincingly outwitted by Mahabir.
In the very first scene Veera propositions to her fiance that they must leave the city, travel and live in the mountains. After two days of dumbfoundedness, it dawns on her that she’s got her wish. As she decides to enjoy the road trip that she’s in, her guards come off and begins to play in the mind of Mahabir. The highpoint of this arresting – at times sad, at times funny – portion is the unexpected shocking reveal from Veera that leaves Mahabir speechless. If it could jolt you up from your seat like that, just imagine what it would do to the abductor? The catch here is we don’t even know about this abductor and this freewheeling Veera turns the key to that mystery. The shoe has changed foot. We get to know his story and the kind of trauma in his life that for the first time he’s the vulnerable of the two. There is a poignant scene where Veera asks him if his mother is alright and the heartbreaking moment reveals a lot about both of them. They are both people that needed a bit of care, a bit of attention and a lot of affection. That they would find it in the unlikeliest of places is what Highway is about. The awaz dedo written behind their truck acquires an altogether different meaning.
Ali goes for symmetry in his filmmaking. He begins and ends his story with the sound of a gunshot. If Veera tries to escape from Mahabir unsuccessfully first, it’s Mahabir’s turn to try in vain to escape from Veera later on. Both the gunshot moments work so well because of the snail’s pace that Ali has adopted here. He lingers on every frame and every shot not just seconds longer but full minutes longer. He follows Veera and Mahabir in their short lived life together and these are portions with little dialog, little background score, only shots of them finding their way around the hills or settling in a shelter under the mountains. When it is all too quiet you are awakened by the gunshot. Ali keeps the relationship undefined and credit to him for that. It’s simply two people escaping their perceived reality, acknowledging their past and being there for one another. That’s all they ever wanted that was unreachable till they found each other.
While the final scene works the events immediately following Veera’s rehabilitation are a a downer. There is a discrepancy between Alia’s performance and that of everyone else’s. It falls flat with no sense of dismay, shame or shock from any of the family members to Veera’s calculated outburst in that scene. This is Alia Bhatt’s film as much as it is Imtiaz Ali’s. It’s a task to pick her best moment as the film is rife with them. Ali has always been known for writing great roles for women and Alia’s Veera is probably his best yet. Her vulnerability, her authority, her hold over Mahabir, her feminist instincts and her maternal instincts. Everything is a complete revelation. This is already the finest performance of the year. Parineeti Chopra has one tough nut competition in Alia Bhatt.
It’s remarkable how Imtiaz Ali contextualizes music in his films. The songs in Highway go a long way in making the film what it is. The helplessness of Tu Kuja, the coming of age freedom of Patakha Guddi, the lullaby in Sooha Saaha slowly transgressing from the mother to Veera, the new union questioning an uncertain future in Kahan Hoon Main and a ballad combining beginnings and endings in Heera. A.R. Rahman, whatever he does, should never stop collaborating with Imtiaz Ali.