Rajeev Masand – movies that matter : from bollywood, hollywood and everywhere else

February 21, 2014

Road, trip

Filed under: Our FIlms — Rajeev @ 11:08 pm

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.

(This review first aired on CNN-IBN)

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