An Jo on Highway
In HIGHWAY, Imtiaz Ali lays naked his strengths, and his limitations. I have always felt and gauged Ali as a wannabe; a wannabe stuck between Johar/SRK’s Yash Raj and Ratnam. That is a huge leap and a bigger gap. And I find him increasingly pulled back toward Joharisms while trying his darndest to reach Ratnam’s heights. And the tragedy or truth, whichever way you want to look at it, is that he is more of a Johar than a Mani Ratnam. And not surprisingly, his works appear more honest when they veer toward Joharisms. If one were to look at his body of work, it appears he is more at home with Johar’s school of ‘thought’ – albeit with more depth thrown in around his characters’ emotional passages. His most honest work, then, remains JAB WE MET (an upgraded working of Johar’s punctuations); while his most interesting, but flawed work’s baton shall pass on from ROCKSTAR to HIGHWAY.( And his most dishonest, quick-buck movie shall remain LOVE AAJ KAL, a bad re-working of 2nd rate Hollywood rom-coms. )
HIGHWAY had me hooked from start to finish, as one watched in awe and disappointment at the same time regarding the potential and final delivery of a premise that the director explored years back in a television format. As unbelievable as it may sound, the serial-format of HIGHWAY, shown on India’s then-nascent channels, still comes across far stronger and impactful, irrespective of its shoddy technical ‘achievements.’ There is really nothing to write about the ‘story’ per-se; the story lies in the ‘journey’, as Alia Bhatt’s Veera (Shweta, Sapna, Saritha – never interested in these common names are we?) finds bondage with an earthy, ‘dirty’ pimp/robber’s journey more meaningful than her riches-laden life in South Delhi’s elite colony. She is one of those rich girls that suddenly discover that the sky is blue, or the possibility that you can forget life and its dirty tricks for a few moments when you just rumble your fingers through flowers or the sands of Rajasthan or the brooks of Himachal. The film is then a journey of Alia’s Veera enjoying and living the escapisms of a non-AC life through the survival-escapades of Hooda’s Mahabir. In the process, she tries to deal with daddy/uncle issues through the character of Mahabir that seems to provide her with a rustic but sure safety net. Of course, this journey is the meat here, doesn’t matter what is the start and what is the end; Imtiaz actually makes Veera say that, to spell out and direct our heart and brains in that direction.
He definitely keeps this journey interesting through his bit-attention to the diversity of India through the folk songs of Rajasthan or the shepherding through the floral and faunal riches of Himachal. In the process, he puts to best use Rahman’s musical ensemble. Those pieces that appeared unsatisfactory album-wise really appear conjoined to the narrative of this film and justify their presence superbly. It’s really a fine usage, especially when gradually being played in the background and then brought into the fore-ground (Soona Sa & Patthaka Gudi).
Cinematography is a character and that this character is full of blood and life here is an understatement. One really gets the human mood-swings of this film’s characters through the various landmarks in the journey. Nothing in terms of the visuals is excessive or restrained. It finely complements the maker’s vision. Hooda’s Mahabir is always in a high-fuse mode throughout the rustic and burning lanes of Rajasthan while he starts cooling down along the borders of Himachal and ‘thaws’ in to his concealed and buried emotions on the snow-capped areas of HP.
Hooda is superb as the bursting-at-the-seams guy carrying a burden of back-story that ‘justifies’ his hatred for the rich. He could have gone wrong in the portrayal required here sticking to a constipated grimace a la Vivek Oberoi but he truly nails the character with his controlled and implosive performance. The scene where he tries to ‘accept’ the fact that he could possibly get to be a part of the familial life with the woman cooking and waiting for him is remarkable both for Imtiaz’s scenic-depth and Hooda’s understanding and depiction. He deserves accolades, rich ones, for his act. Alia is good here but there is a sleight-of-hand in her performance via her characterization. When she starts talking philosophically, it appears she is talking way out of turn and age because the emotional depth required for these lines is not quite exhibited by her act. But then, why would, and why should, an audience analyze the philosophical confusions of a teen-aged protagonist just discovering—to paraphrase Lennon— that life is what happens when you are not dreaming of Justin Beiber and ‘cute’ guys? So most of the time, you do go along with her ‘awkwardness’ and her confusions; and her selfishness. (Bluntly put, she is literally using Hooda’s character to escape from the drudgery of her impending marriage and stuck-up traditions and her daddy/uncle issues; but SHE doesn’t realize that she is using him and we realize that she doesn’t realizes that she is using him. You see, in such circumstances, it is always pre-ordained who bites the intentional bullet while the accidental bullet could always be left to fate). But when she is asked to do heavy-duty scenes (the pre-climax scene with ‘Monsoon Wedding’ hang-over) suddenly which don’t really gel-in with her emotional range, she falters and it shows. Of course, and the fact that she is stepping into the shoes of Kartika Rane, a much superior actress does work to her disadvantage.
Imtiaz is surely in better form here and shows some commendable depth in few scenes: Veera worried about ‘tameezdari’ and what Hooda’s Mahabir would think thanks to her supposed lack of manners at a time when all that Mahabir and his accomplices are worried about is safeguarding their posteriors from the cops; the afore-mentioned scene of Hooda’s coming to terms with the possibility of a familial life; the hilarious character of the side-kick who dances in abandon with Alia and who makes it extra-ordinarily clear that he would dance the same steps to Pandit Bhimsen or Beyonce, genre be damned; Alia sitting atop a mound amidst the waters and trying to make sense of her feelings and her future; making Veera clutch a copy of WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES in the climax when she stares yonder indicating a progression in her attempts to assert her identity as a woman; Hooda talking about ‘plans’, about marriage, kids while Alia blankly saying she doesn’t want marriage or kids or anything but just wants to keep continuing this journey. [This is a remarkable talk mirroring the 2 classes since Imtiaz lays bare a somewhat oft-forgotten paradox that philosophy is mainly affordable when you have everything worldly going for you. Veera can live and enjoy ‘uncertainty’ since she has got ALL that Mahabir is fighting for with his life; Veera can sit in havelis and dream of never going back and philosophize about the sky, the rivers, and the journeys while Mahabir is always stuck to ‘plans’ and routine as that is what poverty does to people anywhere on this planet – you get stuck in horrible routines, you can’t get out of the routines, so you get drunk, beat the very woman that feeds you & the very kids that breathe innocence, and die a bit everyday when you sleep. ]
And yet, with all the sensitivity and intelligence shown by Imtiaz, he succumbs to making the members of her elite family one-dimensional and cardboard-cut: Those that wear expensive glasses and drink even more expensive wines and book tickets for holidays only abroad, those that are always walking around with markers for ‘us’ and ‘them.’ And this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conflict via classes was not really required. Because the tendency to sweep abuses under the carpet fearing shame is universal and cuts across classes; the strata of our society are truly ‘united’ here. So Imtiaz couldn’t find a single character in Veera’s family that could empathize with what happened to her and stand for her, while the ruffian goes all out and doesn’t even so much as lustily lock eyes with her even while she walks along in the by-lanes with her hips swaying as though she were parading the Spring ’14 collections. This literal way of cross-connecting feelings, responsibilities, and ethics doesn’t really work, although it does hark back to that memorable Amitabh’s outburst in Agneepath, ‘Yeh Saala Oonchi society ka log..’
To me, a movie has never been always about a ‘sum’ of its parts. They can be inter-changed for our pleasure. In some films like KAHAANI or SHOLAY or even TWOWS, the sums swallows up the parts to leading to an exhilarating experience or in some films like DIL SE, the parts in themselves, soak up the experience. HIGHWAY belongs to the latter category. There are many nuggets of joy here that one becomes privy to…and they linger long.
Watch HIGHWAY. Don’t sum up the experience but savor in the parts. And you will really like some parts, if not all. And that is the experience with which you walk out: A collage of partial experiences that ends up more memorable than a ‘wholesome’ experience.