Dir: Imtiaz Ali | Cinema of Our Time | India | 2014 | 135 mins
While Imtiaz Ali’s first two films may be seen as standard Bollywood fare, musical delights and sweet love stories, in his latest effort, as with 2011’s Rockstar, Ali showcases a deeper, more complex tale. Highway is ambitious in its exploration of topics, ranging from the ever-growing divide between India’s rich and poor to Stockholm syndrome. The film tells the story of Veera Tripathi (Alia Bhatt), a sheltered and sensible girl of the highest social standing living in a wealthy Delhi suburb. We begin in the midst of Veera’s wedding preparations for her upcoming nuptials to an equally sensible and appropriate suitor; all is well until the restless Veera decides to go for a joy ride, persuading her fiance, Vinay, to take her on the highway.
As it goes, the ride does not go as planned, and soon, Veera’s desire for the open road and adventure are thwarted by a group of petty criminals who kidnap her. The sheltered rich girl is alarmed and understandably afraid of the men who have captured her. The band of criminals is lead by Mahabir Bhatti (Randeep Hooda) who is well versed in violence and intimidation. Bhatti realizes the financial weight of the girl whom he has captured and hatches a plan to exchange Veera for ransom from her wealthy and powerful father, Manek Tripathi. Veera attempts to run away at one point, only to realize she needs her captors because she has no idea where she is (she remarks that she’s never seen this side of India before as her family always stays in hotels) and has no choice but to continue the journey with Bhatti and his fellows.
Soon, Veera becomes comfortable with her captors, revealing the struggles of her restricting and sheltered upbringing. While Bhatti is stoic in his anger at the upper classes degradation of paupers like himself, he softens ever so slightly when he hears of the disturbing abuse Veera suffered (in silence) from her uncle. It would appear on the surface that Veera is showing classic signs of Stockholm syndrome, yet Ali seems to be painting a more complex picture of this girl. She feels trapped by obligation in her status-obsessed family life, but with Bhatti and co., she is free in a sense, experiencing what life on the road is like, truly appreciating what life has to offer. Veera assimilates with the criminal cohort on a beautiful trip through India’s mountainous northern region. The journey is anchored by an upbeat score by Oscar winner A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) that captures the naivete of Veera’s first taste of real independence: a techno-laced track plays as Veera dances to “manic pixie dream girl”.
Alia Bhatt, a rising young Bollywood starlet, gives a great performance, perfectly capturing the joyous journey and the sadness of knowing it will not last; she is charmingly unhinged and affectionate. Equally impressive, Randeep Hooda, expresses much of his angst, not through his words but through his intensely sad eyes that draw you into his struggle. Highway was a thrilling journey that will make you want to pack your bags and hit the road, but probably sans a traumatic criminal encounter (or not).