GIANT STRIDES: Alia Bhatt in Highway.


DIRECTOR: Imtiaz Ali

CAST: Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhatt, Arjun Malhotra; Durgesh Kumar, Pradeep Nagar, Saharsh Kumar Shukla, Hemant Mahaur, Shakeel Khan




FILM-makers in India generally follow the age-old tradition of a lead man wooing and winning a woman with love and through perseverance. But there’s a grim side too: he abducts the woman.

The West has often attempted films on Stockholm syndrome, a psychological phenomenon referring to when a hostage bonds with their abductor, sometimes to the point of defending them.

Bollywood too has projected the syndrome on the big screen. Recall Subhash Ghai’s Her’s. Now Imtiaz Ali’s Highway focuses on the relationship that forms between a hostage and her abductor.

First the plot. A city girl, Veera (Alia Bhatt) – young and full of life – is driving on the highway one night with her fiancé. They are scheduled to get married in four days.

Suddenly, her life is ripped away from the brocade and jewellery of the marriage to the harsh brutality of an abduction. She is taken away by a gang of criminals, but that night, they are in panic. The woman is an influential industrialist’s daughter. His links in the corridors of power make a ransom out of question. They are doomed.

But the leader of this gang, Mahabir (Randeep Hooda), is adamant. For him sending her back is not an option. He’ll do whatever it takes to see this through.

Days pass. These are days of unbelievable horror for her. But, as the tempo runs and days pass, as the scenery changes, the light changes, the sun sets and rises and the air changes, she feels she has changed as well. Gradually, a strange bond begins to develop between the victim and the oppressor. It is during 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 many films have been filmed at the panoramic locales of North India, the visual impact Highway creates is mesmeric (director of photography: Anil Mehta). From the rough terrain to the snow-clad mountains, every frame is a painting on celluloid, a veritable visual treat.

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 its entirety. While Imtiaz sets things up well, he also makes sure he injects humour into the grim and disturbing scenario. 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 on her journey with the abductor. What could be the reason behind it, you ask yourself.

Also, Randeep’s backstory, illustrated in flashbacks, 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 end is also worthy of attention.

But the writing is far from cohesive, unlike Imtiaz’s previous ventures, and the treatment/ execution of the material makes Highway an art house experience that will appeal to a small number of viewers. Add to it the lethargic pacing. You’ll need a lot of patience to sit through it.

The soundtrack (by AR Rahman) never strays from the essence of the film. However, it lacks popular appeal, for you appreciate the songs as long as they last on screen, but don’t hum the tunes once you exit the auditorium. The background score, also by Rahman, is minimal, but effective.

The dialogue is wonderful in places, but not comprehensible at times (especially lines delivered by Randeep). The show belongs to Alia, who takes giant strides in her second film. She looks stunning in the deglamorised image, surrenders herself completely to the director’s vision and delivers a knockout performance. The film will make even the sceptics take note of her 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 only gets better with every film and under Imtiaz’s direction, delivers a performance that’s pitch perfect. The supporting cast is wonderful.

On the whole, Highway is a triumph for Alia, who delivers a marvelous performance. Also, what you carry home, 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 gaga over the film, but there’s precious little for the mass audience that’s looking at the entertainment quotient from the maker of hugely admired entertainers like Jab We Met and Love Aaj Kal. –