Highway Movie Review by Taran Adarsh

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Film-makers in India, generally, follow the age-old tradition of the lead man wooing and winning the woman with love and perseverance. Conversely, there’s a grim side too, as the lead man abducts the woman at gunpoint or drags her away from her world. The West has often attempted films on ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, a terminology used when the hostage feels empathy/sympathy and develops positive feelings for the abductor, sometimes to the point of defending them. Bollywood too has projected the syndrome on the big screen. Recall Subhash Ghai’s HERO. Now Imtiaz Ali’s HIGHWAY focuses on the relationship that ensues between the kidnapped victim and her abductor.

Who would’ve ever thought that Imtiaz Ali would opt for an offbeat pairing in HIGHWAY [Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhatt], after casting perfectly-matched couples in JAB WE MET [Shahid, Kareena], LOVE AAJ KAL [Saif, Deepika] and ROCKSTAR [Ranbir, Nargis Fakhri]? But Imtiaz is known to think differently, he goes by the dictates of the story and his films reflect that distinct quality. HIGHWAY is no different. The film takes an altogether different route, in terms of casting as well as content. The sole aspect where one can draw parallels between Imtiaz’s earlier films [JAB WE MET in particular] and HIGHWAY is that this one also traverses the landscapes of India.

First the plot before we move forward. A city girl, Veera [Alia Bhatt] — young, full of life — is on the highway at night. With her fiancé. They are scheduled to get married in four days. Suddenly, her life is swung away from the brocade and jewellery of marriage to the harsh brutality of abduction. She is taken away by this group of rustic criminals.

The same night, the gang is in panic. The girl is an influential industrialist’s daughter. His links in the corridors of power make ransom out of question. They are doomed. But the leader of this group, Mahabir [Randeep Hooda], is adamant. For him sending her back is not an option. He will do whatever it takes to see this through.

Days pass. These are days of unbelievable horror for her. But, as the tempo runs and miles turn, as the scenery changes, the light changes, the sun sets and rises and the air changes, she feels that she has changed as well.

Gradually, a strange bond begins to develop between the victim and the oppressor. It is in this captivity that she, for the first time in her life, feels free. But they are not made for each other. She does not want to return to where she came from. She does not want to reach where he is taking her. She wishes this journey to never end.

Although a number of films have been filmed at the panoramic locales of North India, the visual impact that HIGHWAY creates is mesmeric [DoP: Anil Mehta]. From the rough terrain to the snow-clad mountains, every frame is a painting on celluloid, a veritable visual treat, no two opinions on that. In fact, Imtiaz changes the terrain to convey the status of the relationship — rough and dilapidated exteriors, lush green fields, snow-filled paths… the relationship is projected through the journey the protagonists take in the film.

But the writing is a cause for concern. The screenplay is engaging in the first hour, though not in entirety. While Imtiaz sets things up wonderfully, he also makes sure he injects humor in the grim and disturbing scenario, which makes you smile/break into laughter on varied occasions. However, the writing hits a roadblock on several occasions. There’s a vital sequence in the first half when the tempo is stopped by the cops, but instead of screaming out for help, the victim decides to hide herself and continue with her journey with the abductor. What could be the reason behind it, you are left wondering. Also, Randeep’s back story, illustrated in flashes, seems totally inconsequential, since there’s no mention of any major incident that prompted Randeep to pick up the gun. The second hour stagnates as far as the writing is concerned. The focus is more on visuals — it becomes a travelogue actually — with barely a couple of episodes grabbing your attention. Fortunately, the turn of events towards the penultimate stages brings the film back on track.

A few moments have the unmistakable stamp of a fine storyteller… The conflict between the victim and her abductor appears real in the initial stages. Ditto for the moment when Alia reveals a dark secret, prior to the intermission. The twist in the tale towards the concluding reels is also worthy of attention. But the writing is far from cohesive this time, unlike Imtiaz’s previous ventures, and the treatment/execution of the material makes HIGHWAY an arthouse experience that appeals to a miniscule segment of viewers. Add to it the lethargic pacing. You ought to have a lot of patience to sit through those 2.35 hours.

The soundtrack [by maestro A.R. Rahman] never strays from the essence of the film. However, the problem is it lacks popular appeal, for you appreciate the songs as long as they last on screen, but don’t hum the tunes once you make an exit from the auditorium. The background score, also by Rahman, is minimal, but effective. Dialogue are wonderful at places, but not comprehensible at times [especially those delivered by Randeep].

The show belongs to Alia Bhatt, who takes giant strides in her very second film. Alia looks stunning in the deglam look, surrenders herself completely to the director’s vision and delivers a knockout performance. The film will make even the skeptics take a note of Alia’s talent, as she handles several challenging episodes in the film like a seasoned, mature performer. Her lengthy sequence in the climax is absolutely terrific. Randeep Hooda is only getting better with every film and under Imtiaz’s direction, delivers a performance that’s pitch perfect. The supporting cast — each one of them — is wonderful.

On the whole, HIGHWAY is a triumph for Alia Bhatt, who delivers a marvelous performance. Also, what you carry home, besides Alia’s winning performance, are the stunning visuals, especially towards the second hour. But the treatment of the written material restricts its appeal largely. The connoisseurs of cinema and a tiny segment of the movie-going audience may go ga-ga over the film, but there’s precious little for the large base of mass audience that’s looking at the entertainment quotient from the maker of hugely admired entertainers like JAB WE MET and LOVE AAJ KAL.

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  1. Avatar
    sputnik 6 years ago

    Highway Movie Review by Sukanya Verma

    It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Imtiaz Ali.

    Ever so astir, Ali’s storytelling wears wings as do his creations known to take off impulsively or wander about to unforeseen destinations in a bid to discover, seek, escape or just because.

    In journey lie stories, a search for sights and self.

    Be it Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal or Rockstar, the filmmaker has explored this attribute regularly (and refreshingly) in all his movies.

    But in his latest venture, Highway, he uses travel like artistry, a narrative form to unfold the adventures of its two leading protagonists learning (and unlearning) a few precious lessons about the capricious course life follows when tackled head-on.

    Though he doesn’t dwell upon the scenery enough to extract an allegory, there’s both warm familiarity and exotic wonderment to the visual delights he paints before us through Anil Mehta’s majestic cinematography. One seldom acknowledges, forget applaud, the merits of recce after watching a film.

    Courtesy Ali and Mehta, Highway is a worthy exception.

    As pleasant it sounds, Highway isn’t merely concerned with cataloguing the virginal, versatile landscapes of Northern India. Often it’s the only ray of cheer to offset the grimness concealed within two wounded souls.

    They meet under frightening circumstances.

    Exhausted by the Big Fat Indian Wedding scenario at home Veera (Alia Bhatt), an influential tycoon’s daughter — few days shy of tying the knot to another dour-faced industrialist type — sneaks out of her South Delhi kothi for a breather only to land herself in a nightmarish situation.

    Veera is violently abducted by four frowzy men sporting thick Haryanvi accents. Their leader Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) drags her by the hair through a field in the wee hours and dumps her in the back of his stifling truck.

    Director Imtiaz Ali captures her horror and suffocation vividly — Veera sobs bitterly, struggles to free herself in vain. In one throbbing scene, she gets away from a desolate warehouse and feverishly sprints towards any sign of rescue only to realise there is none. Finally, under the gorgeously studded starry sky, she collapses on the vast Sambhar salt plans, cries some more and returns to her unyielding captors.

    Ali then moves on to the trickiest part of this travel tale — the shake hand.

    Even though it’s accompanied by her own sense of disbelief, Veera (too) easily warms up to her situation and instinctively insists there be camaraderie between her and Mahabir/Co. She, like every Imtiaz Ali heroine — they’re all different versions of the same woman — is a blend of whim, naivety and verbosity.

    While the foul-tempered Mahabir is unrelenting and threatens to sell her off in flesh trade, Goru (Durgesh Kumar plays the creepy devil to perfection) is sly and slimy; Tonk (Pradeep Nagar doesn’t get much scope) is indifferent whereas Aadoo (a flawless Saharsh Kumar Shukla) is confused between awe and sympathy.

    Disregarding class barriers to construct implausible romances is not a novel concept. Highway is a lot bolder in this aspect even if never entirely successful in its realisation.

    Inner demons are the real obstacles in their path. Fascinating but not enough to overlook the mistiming of Veera’s dark disclosures to Mahabir. The desperation underlining her unusual candour or misplaced humour would seem sadder if there was more evidence to explain her trust in hostile strangers/kidnappers/criminals.

    Rather Ali, echoing Veera’s sentiments, decides he doesn’t wish to return to reality and moves further towards a dreamier destination.

    There’s a surreal strength in travel; absolute disconnect from routine makes way for carefree spontaneity. Highway doesn’t elude itself from its virtues and deliberately refrains from depicting the presumed chaos in Veera’s household. The only disadvantage is, in its absence, Ali relies too much on the interaction between Veera and Mahabir, which is uncharacteristically smooth sailing and unconvincingly personal.

    Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh or Kashmir, the locations are never spelled out in its 133 minutes running time only implied through culture, climate and clothing. Every state radiates its own charm but Highway hits a pure and meditative mode on arriving in Kashmir’s ethereal Aru Valley.

    Ali unearths so much soul in these serene settings; he sparsely uses A R Rahman’s rousing soundtrack to dramatize its presence. Except when he does, the upshot is unfailingly effective.

    As is Alia Bhatt. If Student of the Year launched her as star, Highway brings forth her pluck as an actress. She’s extraordinary here. Given the extent of uncertainty her Veera experiences, she gamely fulfills every challenge, rising above the matter with a sparkling belief in her convictions. There’s a steady resilience about her, which contradicts her dainty daisy demeanour and makes a powerful case of her disturbing admissions. Especially when pointing out the sickening hypocrisy of the so-called elite society.

    Randeep Hooda’s Mahabir rarely speaks. An enigmatic, aloof albeit tainted figure, he doesn’t articulate his feelings like Alia but studies her with hidden curiosity. There are bitter outbursts though, which hint at a history of socio-economic hierarchy and oppression. Empathetic to the complex notes of Mahabir, Hooda unleashes his ire in the intense ‘Kutta Kutte Ki Maut Marega’ scene.

    Comfort not chemistry is what outlines the attraction between Alia and Randeep as they amble along higher altitudes of make believe.

    Yes, they could be heroes. But just for one day.

    Rating: 3/5

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    sputnik 6 years ago

    Highway Movie Review by Rajeev Masand

    Rating: 2

    February 21, 2014

    Cast: Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhatt

    Director: Imtiaz Ali

    At one point in writer-director Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, Alia Bhatt’s character Veera, who has been kidnapped and taken hostage in the back of a truck, pops in an English music CD and begins gyrating to a tune in the middle of an empty road. Like us in the audience, her kidnapper Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) is dumbstruck. He stares at her in disbelief.

    Veera, after all, is unusually cheerful for a rich brat who has been whisked off at gunpoint, slapped around by louts, and transported far away from her home. She’s also developed feelings for Mahabir. It’s a classic case of Stockholm syndrome, but the message of the movie is especially disturbing in a society grappling with women’s safety. Think about it.

    Taking a clean break from the glossy romantic comedies he’s had great success with, Ali expands the road-trip motif that has run through most of his films into a full-fledged premise in Highway. Days before her wedding, while on a late night drive with her fiance, Veera witnesses a shootout at a gas station, and within minutes she’s abducted by a gang of thugs. The gang’s leader, Mahabir, in an attempt to escape the clutches of the law, takes off with her on a seemingly never-ending trek across North India…from Delhi to Haryana, to the deserts of Rajasthan, then to Punjab and all the way up to the mountains in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir.

    Shot remarkably by Anil Mehta, whose camera captures not only the astonishing beauty of India’s landscapes, but also knows exactly when to stay on a moment – like that bit in which Veera, perched on a rock by a gushing stream, breaks into unbridled, involuntary laughter then into tears just as unexpectedly – the film looks and feels sharply textured and authentic. We get the bustle of roadside dhaabas and markets, the raspy-voiced tunes of folk singers dotting the open roads, and the sight of clouds wafting in the skies above one’s head. The film’s dreamy visuals are perfectly complemented by AR Rahman’s terrific tracks, and a minimal background score that’s never intrusive.

    Swept away by emotion, seduced by these sights and sounds, and relieved to be out of her claustrophobic home in the city, Veera’s quick transformation from helpless victim to enthusiastic co-traveler is nevertheless unconvincing. Equally clunky is the catalyst that draws this unlikely pair closer. As it turns out, both Veera and Mahabir are haunted by deep dark secrets from their childhood, and unburdening their hearts proves cathartic. But a scene in which Mahabir flashbacks to a happy place in his memory is giggle-inducing.

    It’s here, in the film’s inert second half, that it all comes undone. Ironically, even as the journey continues, there’s virtually no plot movement to keep you engaged. A few moments of humor aside, Highway becomes a slog. Blame it on the undercooked script, or the fact that Ali stretches the film’s overarching theme (finding one’s freedom in captivity) so thin that it’s reduced to an empty cliché.

    But even when the material fails him, his leading lady seldom does. Bhatt, in only her second film role, is refreshingly natural as she skillfully nails the vulnerability and the tenacity of her character. Hooda, meanwhile, fills out the part of the brooding thug as if he were born to play it. There’s a simmering intensity to his performance that nicely balances out Alia’s fragility.

    The film – a brave experiment on Ali’s part, who uses long stretches of silence, improv dialogues, and characters over plot to drive the narrative – doesn’t necessarily work. It’s meandering and indulgent in many parts, tiring you out well before it’s over.

    I’m going with two out of five for Highway. A beautiful mess, but a mess nonetheless.

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      Bored 6 years ago

      Agree with Masand on the beautiful mess part – it is well shot. Ali probably watched monsoon wedding and jab we met back to back before making this film.

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    dwnpiyush 6 years ago

    The movie was interesting but it sucked all the happiness out from me. No feel good factor. Dark and disturbing.

    • Avatar
      hithere 6 years ago

      If you believe the director it is a decent ride. But if start applying logic then it looks like a contrived movie. Alia acted well in couple of scene and rest of movie she acted self. The bus-stop scene where she needed pleading, she falters big time.

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