Film-makers in India, generally, follow the age-old tradition of the lead man wooing and winning the woman with love and perseverance. Conversely, there's a grim side too, as the lead man abducts the woman at gunpoint or drags her away from her world. The West has often attempted films on 'Stockholm Syndrome', a terminology used when the hostage feels empathy/sympathy and develops positive feelings for the abductor, sometimes to the point of defending them. Bollywood too has projected the syndrome on the big screen. Recall Subhash Ghai's HERO. Now Imtiaz Ali's HIGHWAY focuses on the relationship that ensues between the kidnapped victim and her abductor.
Who would've ever thought that Imtiaz Ali would opt for an offbeat pairing in HIGHWAY [Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhatt], after casting perfectly-matched couples in JAB WE MET [Shahid, Kareena], LOVE AAJ KAL [Saif, Deepika] and ROCKSTAR [Ranbir, Nargis Fakhri]? But Imtiaz is known to think differently, he goes by the dictates of the story and his films reflect that distinct quality. HIGHWAY is no different. The film takes an altogether different route, in terms of casting as well as content. The sole aspect where one can draw parallels between Imtiaz's earlier films [JAB WE MET in particular] and HIGHWAY is that this one also traverses the landscapes of India.
The same night, the gang is in panic. The girl is an influential industrialist's daughter. His links in the corridors of power make ransom out of question. They are doomed. But the leader of this group, Mahabir [Randeep Hooda], is adamant. For him sending her back is not an option. He will do whatever it takes to see this through.
Days pass. These are days of unbelievable horror for her. But, as the tempo runs and miles turn, as the scenery changes, the light changes, the sun sets and rises and the air changes, she feels that she has changed as well.
Gradually, a strange bond begins to develop between the victim and the oppressor. It is in 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 a number of films have been filmed at the panoramic locales of North India, the visual impact that HIGHWAY creates is mesmeric [DoP: Anil Mehta]. From the rough terrain to the snow-clad mountains, every frame is a painting on celluloid, a veritable visual treat, no two opinions on that. 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 entirety. While Imtiaz sets things up wonderfully, he also makes sure he injects humor in the grim and disturbing scenario, which makes you smile/break into laughter on varied occasions. 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 with her journey with the abductor. What could be the reason behind it, you are left wondering. Also, Randeep's back story, illustrated in flashes, 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 concluding reels is also worthy of attention. But the writing is far from cohesive this time, unlike Imtiaz's previous ventures, and the treatment/execution of the material makes HIGHWAY an arthouse experience that appeals to a miniscule segment of viewers. Add to it the lethargic pacing. You ought to have a lot of patience to sit through those 2.35 hours.
The soundtrack [by maestro A.R. Rahman] never strays from the essence of the film. However, the problem is it lacks popular appeal, for you appreciate the songs as long as they last on screen, but don't hum the tunes once you make an exit from the auditorium. The background score, also by Rahman, is minimal, but effective. Dialogue are wonderful at places, but not comprehensible at times [especially those delivered by Randeep].
The show belongs to Alia Bhatt, who takes giant strides in her very second film. Alia looks stunning in the deglam look, surrenders herself completely to the director's vision and delivers a knockout performance. The film will make even the skeptics take a note of Alia's 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 Hooda is only getting better with every film and under Imtiaz's direction, delivers a performance that's pitch perfect. The supporting cast — each one of them — is wonderful.
On the whole, HIGHWAY is a triumph for Alia Bhatt, who delivers a marvelous performance. Also, what you carry home, besides Alia's winning performance, 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 ga-ga over the film, but there's precious little for the large base of mass audience that's looking at the entertainment quotient from the maker of hugely admired entertainers like JAB WE MET and LOVE AAJ KAL.