Dir. Imtiaz Ali
Imtiaz Ali's Highway opens with a series of quick-cut scenes, preparations for a young woman's wedding - women browsing sarees and putting on mehndi, workers hanging buntings and decorating tables. The scenes are confined to a small rectangle at the center of an otherwise black screen, an effective (if unsubtle) way to convey the small, boxed-in nature of these rituals and the life they are concomitant with. It is not long before the young woman in question, Veera Tripathy (Alia Bhatt), breathlessly escapes, high-tailing it out of the courtyard of her family's home, an enormous mansion that evokes the homes of rich families of escapist Bollywood cinema of the 90s; Veera runs to take her last breath before succumbing to a marriage celebration straight out of Hum aapke hain kaun.
Naturally things don't quite go as planned for Veera; she begs her anxious fiancé to drive her out of town, where a wrong-place-wrong-time sort of interaction lands her in the clutches of a dour, angry criminal, Mahabir Bhati (Randeep Hooda). Mahabir plans to convert Veera into money, either by ransoming her or selling her off to a kotha - he doesn't much care which. Indeed, Mahabir doesn't much care about anything; he is too depressed, and his outlook too bleak, to see his existence as anything other than doomed and worthless. In one of the film's more cliché moments (there are a few), Mahabir dismisses the potential consequences of murder - he's already killed three people, so what will the authorities do if he kills again, hang him four times?
Surely you can see where this is going. The persistent tenderness and vulnerability of young Veera eventually cracks this man's hardened shell, because in movieland, all a ruthless criminal needs to relocate his lost humanity is a few days in the company of a naïve and occasionally annoying girl.
This story is not badly told, but I cannot help but wonder why Imtiaz Ali felt that it needed telling. No matter how well-made, it's a very tired premise with a very high ick factor. It is almost certainly possible to tell a deeply compelling story about a victim of Stockholm Syndrome. A story that explores the lasting damage of the trauma of the adbuction, and the victim's struggle to recover from it, could be quite fascinating. But Highway is not that story. Veera doesn't suffer damage as a result of her kidnapping; to the contrary, her kidnapping cures her damage. This is perhaps why the movie does not sit well with me, despite its abundance of craft.
The underlying reason for Veera's drive toward escape, for those cramped opening scenes and her explosive burst into the night, she reveals to her kidnappers verbally one evening, unasked; she seems compelled to tell, to lift the lid off the truths her family has forced her to stuff into a box. The nature of these truths is not hugely surprising either - sexual abuse at the hands of a favored uncle - but the telling marks the first time that Mahabir shows any kind of affectation other than clenched rage, and the result is an interesting scene. It is not so much Veera's tale itself that generates the interest, but the rapt reaction of Mahabir, in the background and out of focus behind her. The ultimate resolution and confrontation between Veera and her abuser, though, is clunky; the same scene was handled much more deftly in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding.
None of this is to say that Highway is not a very good movie in many ways. It is visually gorgeous, soaring from the wheat fields of Punjab to the mountain villages of Himachal. Even the film's indoor locations are arresting; an early sequence shot in an abandoned salt warehouse is magnificently eerie; bright white motes dance in the sunlight and the dusted characters look like living ghosts. Even Veera herself exclaims that she's never seen a place like this. And there are some emotionally affecting moments in the film, magnified by very good performances from Bhatt and Hooda. The strongest of these comes toward the end, when the two have found a mountain cabin to squat in. Veera bustles about, tidying blankets and preparing food. Mahabir watches from the doorway. He tries several times to enter, hesitating, trying again; he cannot manage it, and he breaks down. The simple domesticity of the scene, the evocation of his lost childhood and the lost love of his mother, is more than he can bear.
It is to Highway's credit that the connection between Mahabir and Veera never turns romantic or sexual; it offsets somewhat the creepy nature of the Stockholm Syndrome conceit and the pure repellence of the "tough-guy softened by sweet woman" trope. Instead of an opportunistic, superficial attraction, Highway at least tries to present something of greater depth - two damaged people who find something in each other's company that they may not have even known they needed. In its best moments, it is successful and moving. Overall, though, I just don't find it all that affecting. The nature of the story itself is just too off-putting, the use of kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome to bring the broken principals into one another's orbit. Imtiaz Ali may have felt this particular story needed to be told, but I do not feel it is a story I needed to hear.