Whenever I go on road trips, I always enjoy the long drive on highways, listening to music, looking at the vast expanse of nature before my eyes. Snow-capped mountains, blue skies, and green hills and forests paint the car windows to create a beautiful image that makes me feel connected with the natural world and its splendors. Such is the effect of Imtiaz Ali’s film Highway.
One late night in New Delhi, Veera (Alia Bhatt), the only daughter of an illustrious police officer, is kidnapped by Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) and his associates. The rest of the film centers around the adventures Veera experiences as a kidnappee, engaging in self-exploration and introspection.
One main strength of Highway as a film is its cinematography, for which credit goes to Anil Mehta. The beautiful picturesque locations in rural parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh effectively create a world from which neither Veera nor the audience wants to escape. It makes us want to travel to the innermost nooks and crannies of these northern Indian states. This expansive visual in Veera’s journey with the kidnappers contrasts with the very small aspect ratio used to show the world of Veera’s family in scenes of marriage prep and the police frantically searching for Veera. The juxtaposition of expansion and compression reflects different worlds of Veera and her views of those worlds. The aspect ratio compression represents the world from which she wants to escape, and the expansion symbolizes her desires to be free and independent from the claustrophobia of rich city life. Interestingly, the way in which Veera’s family’s lifestyle is portrayed makes the audience feel suffocated too, even though it is a similar posh lavishness depicted and made appealable in films like K3G and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.
Vis-a-vis the cinematography, Imtiaz Ali fleshes out his protagonists more clearly. Initially, Veera is an obedient and polite victim of kidnapping, asking her kidnappers to come out of her stuffy room for fresh air. As the movie progresses, however, Imtiaz Ali slowly builds up Veera’s courage and her true sense of self begins to emerge as she spends more time with her kidnappers. The irony of being free in bondage is clearly shown in Veera’s monologues when she says,
“Hi Veera… Kaise ho? (How are you?) Kaise ho… Sochke bathaati hoon (I’ll think about it and tell you)”
She constantly questions her thoughts, feelings, and actions, which allows her to better understand and rationalize why she feels different emotions than a typical kidnapping victim. These precious moments of self-exploration and introspection beautifully capture Veera stepping out of the confusion that had permeated her entire life. The confusion between lies and truth that exists in the rich city lifestyle essentially reflects the concept of Maya from Hindu Vedantic philosophy. Through her journey as a kidnapping victim, Veera escapes from that superficial Maya and experiences true liberation in her connection with nature.
Elements of human nature are very well captured in this off-beat Hindi flick. The protagonists’ troubling pasts keep the audience hooked as the director creates and maintains the suspense and our desire to know more about Veera and Mahabir. In the beginning, Veera attempts to run away from the kidnappers, a natural fight-or-flight reaction as a kidnapping victim. However, upon traversing into the desert of Rajasthan and realizing what lies ahead of her is barren land, she returns to the kidnappers as a loyal and dutiful victim. In one scene where Veera discusses her traumatic past experiences, Mahabir, a rough and tough kind of guy, subtly displays his sympathy for her by giving her a hug. This instance, combined with Mahabir’s love for and connection with his mother, lends emotional depth and an innate humanness to Mahabir’s otherwise angry young man persona. His interactions with Veera allow him to be more in touch with his emotions, particularly with the guilt he feels for his criminal actions. The relationship between Veera and Mahabir is a deep, complex, and highly spiritual one. They need one other to discover and express their true selves. By the end of the film, Imtiaz Ali has made us fall in love with these protagonists and with Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt for essaying their roles so phenomenally.
While Veera is with the kidnapers, her bubbly personality is not much different from hyper Kareena Kapoor as Geet in Jab We Met. Although both of these Imtiaz Ali heroines have a childlike innocence, one difference is that Veera is constantly introspecting and aware of her thoughts and feelings, getting to know herself. Veera, the character, has also probably never been alone prior to being kidnapped so her journey is very much a self-discovery process. Needless to say, A.R. Rahman’s mellifluous music and background score did great justice to the film and complemented the picturesque nature and protagonists’ innately human and spiritually enriching character development excellently.
Final Verdict: Highway is a film about adventure, freedom, independence, self-exploration, compassion, and just being and living. None of Imtiaz Ali’s recent films have centered around clear plot and Highway dutifully follows suit. Even though he has created the same meandering feel of Rockstar, Imtiaz Ali touches our heartstrings by naturally developing his characters in a unique yet desirable way.