This is really very hard for me to put this in down in words what I loved about Highway or why I loved it. There are moments when Alia Bhatt's character, Veera, laughs and cries and doesn't know why she is expressing her emotions this way. Honestly, I decided not to review this film. Not because I don't want to, I really want to. Except this is one of those rare times where I might not be able to explain why I loved a film so much.
Highway is a film that starts like a typical genre film about a girl being kidnapped. The rest of it is not like a genre film about a girl being kidnapped at all. It is probably not even like an Imtiaz Ali film. Then again, this might be the film he's been wanting to make all this while. Everybody loved Jab We Met (2007), a film so likable and perfectly mainstream. Love Aaj Kal (2009) and Rockstar (2011) divided the audience. The latter more than the former but the latter also garnered more passionate support thanks to Ranbir Kapoor's performance and A. R. Rahman's brilliant music. Highway will certainly divide the audience as well.
There is a moment in the film where Veera asks Mahabir (Randeep Hooda) if he likes mountains or beaches. I'm a mountain person. It's not that I dislike beaches but I just prefer mountains. I think this would have a lot to do with whether you connect with this film or not. This film borders on a fantastical road movie, sometimes it becomes a love story and then it becomes a film about a girl's emancipation from her cage. She connects with nature, outside and inside. The first half of the film is more conventional but the more it went away from conventions; the more I fell in love with it, by the time it went for interval I already had goose bumps. It happened gradually and at the end it reached a crescendo.
Alia Bhatt is absolutely stunning in this film. She acts her heart out. She made an appearance on her mentor's chat show recently and said she considers Parineeti Chopra her competition. Like anyone who has seen her in Student of the Year (2012), I laughed off her comment as wishful thinking. Here she is giving solid competition to her and probably even outdoing her at places. More than anything, I admire her decision to do a film like this one when she could have done any other, safer film. I'm sure she will do movies that make her a star and capture the attention of the mainstream audience but it feels great to witness young talent taking a bold chance instead of treading the usual path. The film has a denouement. After the climax, the film goes on for about 10 minutes and she lets it all go. I was absolutely astonished and overwhelmed with emotion. The inexplicable kind.
Randeep Hooda plays the typical brooding silent but angry criminal. He doesn't overdo it; neither does he underplay it so much that we don't see a performance. This is a performance that could get sidelined because of Alia Bhatt's explosive turn but it is definitely his finest hour. Anil Mehta captures the beauty of the north Indian terrain and the vast expanse of the Himalayan foothills. There is silence in his images. A. R. Rahman hardly goes wrong. Patakha Guddi and Maahi Ve are one of the most wonderful songs he has ever created. I'm beginning to think he writes lyrics for them as well and then a lyricist translates them into Hindi.
There might be many flaws in the film as far as balanced critique is concerned. It's a slow- paced film but so is life. Its ideas are sublime and silent but so is the bliss and peace during a meditative state. When films try to be spiritual, they end up being intellectual. As I confessed at the beginning of the review, I wouldn't be aware of the flaws because I was too busy being in love with the film and love, as they say, is quite blind.
They also say it's not the destination but the journey that matters. Everyone quotes it but not many know what it means or want to feel it. I don't know if I know what it means but Imtiaz Ali knows and he has beautifully depicted it on screen. All our roads lead to one destination. How we go there is on us. It's my way or the "high"way. Ali takes the second route and offers us a chance to travel with him. Travel inside. There are so many filmmakers who would make thrilling entertainment out of the same material. They might have the character being raped and turn it into a social document or a gripping race against time escape-movie. Imtiaz Ali has the guts to infuse the film with love. It's not a love story but a film about love, it's a film about breaking free from the things that bind you, taking us away from love. It is never maudlin or sentimental. It doesn't stop to be a heavy-handed sermon either. It's a cathartic, profound experience.
I was a puddle at the end of the film and I don't know why. How do I explain why I was tearful? Artists can always do things they want to without having to explain their creative decisions. Critics are not artists. We are just an audience who has been given the privilege to write about our reaction to cinematic products, works of art and everything else in between. I apologize for not being able to give you valid reasons why this is an artistic triumph but I feel it is. Imtiaz Ali may not be considered an artist. For me, he most certainly is and Highway is his most beautiful expression.