35mm Reflections: HIGHWAY (2014)

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Once in a while, every director makes a film that stands out as a marker—a cinematic lodestone, if you will—of how his thoughts and his control over his craft are ready to move on to the next level. This film may not do well commercially, but it signals a definite change in his technique. It means he is ready to introspect on his craft, almost as if the filmmaker is ready for the tag of an auteur.

Every filmmaker has that film, lurking somewhere in that filmography. For someone as celebrated as Mani Ratnam, that moment of truth came way back in 1986 with the release of the Tamil film MOUNA RAAGAM (Silent Symphony), after four back-to-back movies that did not do so well commercially. MOUNA RAAGAM had all the quintessential elements of a standard romantic film, and it had a winsome Revathy as the bubbly, sprightly Divya, but Ratnam combined all these elements into a film that critiqued the social norms governing marriage and teenage love. It showed everyone the first glimpse of a director who was willing to treat cinematic story-telling as an art, and not as a business proposition.

Gautham Menon, another celebrated Tamil director nowadays (half of whose Tamil filmography seems to have been remade in Hindi), had his moment too in 2010, with the twin movies based on the same story, VINNAITHAANDI VARUVAAYA (Tamil) and YE MAAYA CHESAVE (Telugu). The stories were the same, but both films had two different endings. With VTV especially, audiences found a filmmaker willing to push the envelope and completely upturn the notions of a typically-soppy romantic film. Unfortunately, when Menon wanted to remake the same film in Hindi, the film backfired. (EKK DEEWANA THA, remember?)

When he made a quiet entry into the big bad world of Hindi cinema in 2005 with SOCHA NA THA,  no one thought much of Imtiaz Ali as a filmmaker. The film did average business, but achieved a sort of cult following, thanks to its numerous reruns on TV. Besides being a launchpad for Abhay Deol and Ayesha Takia, it was a refreshingly original take on the confusion surrounding commitment and the institution of marriage. But above all, it was a quirky, romantic film, made from the heart.

After that, Ali’s fortunes as a filmmaker rose with every successive film. With JAB WE MET in 2007, LOVE AAJ KAL in 2009, ROCKSTAR in 2011 and COCKTAIL in 2012 (which he wrote, but didn’t direct), Imtiaz Ali became a byword for frothy romantic films that tried their own deconstruction of popular notions of love. These movies had big stars, catchy soundtracks, snappy dialogues and memorable characters.

However, somewhere that honest, fearless voice we’d last seen in SOCHA NA THA had got lost. Until today, that is.

HIGHWAY, which opened today, is unlike anything we’ve seen from Ali. The core idea, obviously, comes from a similarly-titled telefilm he had directed for the RISHTEY series on Zee TV in 1999. But the telefilm had a sort of rushed closure befitting its limited length. The 2014 version, however, has no such compunctions.

Veera (Alia Bhatt), is an upper-class Delhi girl, daughter of a business tycoon and getting ready for her own wedding. Feeling claustrophobic because of all the wedding preparations, she sneaks out on a midnight drive with her fiancé Vinay. However, everything goes horribly wrong when both of them get inadvertently embroiled in a shootout at a petrol pump, and Veera is taken hostage by a gang of Jat criminals, led by the gruff Mahabir Bhati (Randeep Hooda). Realizing they’ve taken on the entire system by kidnapping Veera, Mahabir and his gang try to drive her away, but she always keeps coming back to them. The funny part is that Veera enjoys tagging along with them, wherever they go.

It is a strange scenario, but Imtiaz Ali crafts a tale that uses a mix of Veera’s monologues, Mahabir’s reticence, long silences and the forever-changing North Indian countryside, in order to portray the odd relationship between kidnapper and hostage. Both have endured abuse they’d like to forget about, but by being in close proximity, both open up to each other. And this is really where HIGHWAY takes off. Where other so-called romantic films would harp on the concept of “happily ever after”, this film dares to delve into the effect of love and understanding on an emotionally-scarred individual, setting up for a positively moving finale. It is a very polarizing film—many people would balk at the idea of a hostage falling for her kidnapper—but if you have some semblance of patience, it is a very moving film.

Ali may be the captain of the ship here, but his technical crew is in fine form here. Anil Mehta shows why he is one of the best cinematographers around—the sort of shots he takes on digital is worth savouring. Coupled with Aarti Bajaj’s languorous editing, it makes for poetry on screen. A.R. Rahman’s score is sparse, only accentuating the silences in the film. Casting director Mukesh Chhabra comes up trumps in this film too, casting actors in memorable avatars.

But if HIGHWAY belongs to anybody, it is the two leads. As Veera, Alia Bhatt delivers what many might term as a career-defining performance. Vulnerable, yet stubborn, Alia’s Veera obviously brings back memories of JAB WE MET’s Geet; but then, Veera is a more layered character. Other actresses would’ve messed it up with a lack of spontaneity, but Alia Bhatt pulls it off. Randeep Hooda effectively underplays Mahabir, but he portrays himself as a hardened guy who cracks every now and then.

HIGHWAY ain’t everyone’s cup of tea. You’ll either love the movie or hate it. But if you have the patience and the willingness to enjoy some different, you might just enjoy Imtiaz Ali’s latest. I just think he may be ready for that auteur tag now. I end this review with Devansh Patel’s terrific tweet:-

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