Having liked (but not loved) Jab We Met, rolled my eyes through Love Aaj Kal and despised Rockstar, my faith in director Imtiaz Ali had mostly faded. I didn’t much appreciate the schmaltz, the contrived drama and the lame message of ‘the power of love’ in his previous two films. Nor did I dig their blatantly commercial elements, dumbed down to cater to lower common denominators.
It seems like Mr Ali somehow heard my complaints, made a checklist of things I hated in his movies and passionately made a film that trumps those elements. I had grossly misjudged his filmmaking prowess, because his latest venture Highway is not only a terrific movie but also an achievement in commercial Bollywood cinema. As a bonus, it also has a pleasant surprise - Alia Bhatt is a major acting talent.
Highway is a character driven piece rather than a plot driven one so the less you know about the plot, the better. Alia plays Veera, a wealthy Delhi girl who gets kidnapped by a gang of bandits headed by Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). Like in A Life Less Ordinary, Veera is afflicted with a serious bout of Stockholm Syndrome. However Veera is not like Cameron Diaz from that movie, or the Robert Redford starstruck Faye Dunaway in Three Days of Condor, she’s more like Zhang Ziyi in Couching Tiger – a vulnerable little kid with a fractured personality. Her attraction to Mahabir is confounding in one moment, heartbreaking in the next and hilarious when you least expect it to be.
If you’re an Imtiaz Ali fan you’ll be stunned by how different Highway is compared to his previous films. It’s not just different in concept but in form as well. The first thing you’ll notice is how subtle and quiet the film is. Despite a soundtrack by AR Rahman there is very little background music in the film. There are no tacky reaction shots and no helpful musical cues to spoonfeed you the emotions. The most dramatic scene of the film is enacted against pin drop silence, relying upon characters rather than background music to move you. There are no song and dance numbers either - in fact the film plays out like an offbeat indie, even crossing over to indulgent arthouse territory at times. It’s also quite dark, and more affective than expected.
For a commercial film, there is plenty of unconventional stuff in Highway. Often, the camera just follows Alia as she goes impromptu. Keen movie buffs will be able to figure out the scripted scenes from the spontaneous ones, the best of which is Veera trying to negotiate with a rock on a rapid stream. There’s a really funny bit when Veera pops in an English music CD in Mahabir’s truck and starts break dancing on the highway. Mahabir is a dacoit but isn’t a stereotypical rapey Puanjabi gunda, he actually gets annoyed when Veera constantly clings on to him. The first half is completely unpredictable, the ‘commercial’ elements arrive only in the second half, but they don’t get in the way of the story. They’re welded together with the songs and imagery of the protagonists driving through various terrains. It’s two people discovering themselves when they are at their loneliest, and with Mr Rahman’s music trickling lightly it’s tough to dislike what’s happening on the screen.
Highway does not try to be Motorcycle Diaries or preach about Mother Nature giving you a perspective on life. Veera changes as she travels with Mahabir across deserts and mountains, but it’s not corny like Hrithik crying after a swim in Zindagi na milegi dobara. Veera’s change is gently realized, and she has a reason to behave the way she does. The one legitimate criticism one could bring up is that Veera’s breakthrough with Mahabir, where she opens up to him emotionally, kind of pops up out of the blue. It’s the one time where the editing is jarring, but it’s easy to glance over because the scene itself is very moving courtesy of Alia’s performance.
After watching her debut film, like many others I did not expect Alia to do anything more than safe commercial song and dance comedies. In Highway Alia punches the entitled star kid stereotype and pretty much shocks you with her range and dedication. Despite Hooda’s decent performance Alia carries the whole film on her shoulders without breaking a sweat. She had difficult material to deal with and the film is practically a collage of Alia moments, and she pulls off those moments very well. A lot of times Veera exhibits cooky behavior yet Alia manages to make Veera endearing when she so easily could have been hammy and laughable. She even has a tremendous five minute long single take dramatic shot in the climax – a million things could have gone wrong here but she hits the right notes, thanks no doubt to Ali’s solid direction. With Deepika, Parineeti and now Alia in the younger generation the future of Bollywood seems bright.
A scary prospect is that Highway might not make money because people expecting a typical Imtiaz Ali commercial film will not find what they’re looking for. Some will no doubt criticize the film’s silences, long takes and lack of naach gaana. That’ll be a shame because it’s not often that a big commercial filmmaker gathers the courage to make something different and becomes successful at it. There is so much to appreciate in Highway and if it can goad other commercial filmmakers to take notice and also dare to try something new, we’ll all be richer for it.
(First published in Firstpost)