Highway is one of those films that is so difficult to review, only because it’s hard for me to figure out what exactly I thought of it. Interestingly, this is exactly what I felt after coming out of Imtiaz Ali‘s previous outing, Rockstar: while I couldn’t say that I loved the film on a whole (there were too many issues), I still moved around for a couple of days with the story on my mind because it stirred up emotions and made me think. Ali does that yet again with Highway, and I’ve been unable to get this film – and the lead character’s story – out of my head, despite the fact that I’m able to acknowledge so much of it didn’t work for me.
In Highway, Veera (Alia Bhatt) is a pampered, privileged girl who is all set to get married. Just a few days before her wedding, she asks her to-be-husband to take her away from all the chaos for a while and go on a drive. Unfortunately, she ends up getting kidnapped by a group of men, led by Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). In the film, I liked, first and foremost, the philosophy behind it: that sometimes, you need to be removed from a situation (or society, or your family, or your surroundings) just to see it for what it really is. It takes being kidnapped for Veera to realise that the real oppression is not in the bondage or the poverty that she is being exposed to, but rather the life she left behind, full of luxury and convenience.
The problem, though, lies in the execution of the premise. It’s hard to connect with Veera’s journey and appreciate her change of heart, only because it feels too sudden and too forced. One night, she’s petrified and trying to get away; the next morning, she seems to be mostly unfazed by the proceedings and is even making a joke or two. You could make the case that Veera was in shock, since she gives the spiel about feeling like she’s watching this all happen to someone else, but still – it’s difficult to believe that a primal feeling like fear is not taking over. Furthermore, her overall shift in feelings, from being scared to finally understanding that she’s found freedom, doesn’t feel properly developed. As a result, it remains unconvincing.
Having said that, Imtiaz Ali excels in one department: making you feel things. And the best part is, when he does this in Highway, he lets his characters and moments do the speaking – not an overarching background score. In fact, there’s one scene in particular in the film, where Alia is sitting on a rock and goes from laughing uncontrollably to crying. She’s unable to articulate what she’s feeling – she probably doesn’t fully understand it herself – but your heart swells and breaks with her in that moment because you get it, too. That’s one of the great parts of Highway being shot the way it is: you experience the journey alongside Veera and Mahabir, and the landscapes are captured so lovingly on camera that they move you in much the same way that they do Veera.
So much of the credit for evoking such responses goes to Alia Bhatt. High hopes were pinned on her after the promos, but she smashes even those expectations too. There’s a scene somewhere in the beginning, when one of her captors goes to check in on her and behaves inappropriately: Alia’s face expresses the confusion, disorientation, repulsion, vulnerability, fear and crushing sadness all at one time. Right from there to the climax scene (a long, high-intensity one), Alia doesn’t break a sweat in delivering a performance that would put even some of her older contemporaries to shame. The girl can act!
Randeep, too, deserves praise for his work in this film. He manages to deliver a restrained performance and not overdo it for the sake of capturing more attention. Alia’s character is such that she has to steal most of the limelight, but Randeep is solid and dependable throughout the film.
Highway, at the end of the day, is a lot like a road trip: there are many bumps along the way, and sometimes you lose direction… but then there are those fleeting, perfect moments that stay with you long after the trip is over and make you want to ignore all the bad parts.
Worth a watch, but how much you like Highway depends on how much you connect with the story.