“Highway”… On the road

Posted on February 23, 2014


Spoilers ahead…

In a very funny moment in Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, Veera (Alia Bhatt) attempts an apology. She feels bad about snapping at Mahabir (Randeep Hooda), the man who’s abducted her and is now giving her a two-cent tour of the real India. She says she’s not usually like this, and that she’s tameezdaar, polite – and he barks at her. “Hum kya tameez dikhaane aaye hain?” But once we stop laughing, we realise that a fairly unusual thing has occurred. She hasn’t burst into petulant tears, the way rich brats do in the movies. Much later, we see why. We see that she comes from an impossibly upper-class (and yes, tameezdaar) family where her mother refers to her as “aap” and gently changes the subject whenever she begins to talk about something that’s not… proper. We see that it’s actually a relief, for her, to be around someone who’s normal, human, who raises his voice when angry. Veera’s claustrophobia at home is literalised as a medical condition; closed spaces make her sick. (Her NRI fiancé, on the other hand, is happy to remain in his car-cocoon even when he sees her in danger, as she steps out and falls in Mahabir’s path.) And this is why, after a point, Veera doesn’t try to escape. When they reach a settlement, she covers her face and lowers herself in her seat. When stopped by cops at a checkpoint, she hides. And later, when Mahabir literally hands her over to the police, she flees, as if she were the criminal.

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In a way, she’s like Heer in Ali’s Rockstar, a rich girl who finds herself when she begins to hang around a guy from a lower social class. (There too, we saw someone stifled by all that tameez around her, preferring, instead, to watch soft-porn movies in a dingy – and potentially dangerous – cinema hall.) Highway is like a female-centric version of that earlier film, a be-careful-what-you-wish-for drama. Like the protagonist of that film who wanted pain, Veera wants freedom and open spaces. She wants a house in the mountains, where she’ll cook and where her husband will graze sheep. And when Mahabir kidnaps her, she gets her wish. We see them progress from hemmed-in roads in the city to the open mountains, and we see Veera progress from the back of the truck (where she’s tossed in, first; it’s a most interesting truck, with its inscriptions and its indicative painting of a lion pouncing on a deer) to the front and, finally, to the top of a bus. She’s free. She’s been “cured” of her claustrophobia by this lower-class man, just as Heer, for a while, was “cured” of her mystery ailment by the presence of her lower-class man.

But unlike Rockstar, Highway isn’t a love story. At parts, it certainly looks like one. On top of that bus, when Mahabir throws his blanket around Veera and she leans against him, they do look like lovers. And they looked like lovers while inside the bus as well, when her knee grazed against his, and she fell back in her seat, relieved that he hadn’t abandoned her. And before that too, we could have made the case that this is love. When she finds him after he has run away from her, she tells him that he cannot be making decisions for “them” all by himself. And he smiles, for the first time. It looks like relief, that she’s found her way back to him. The “them” sounds like her admission that they are a couple. It looks, also, like destiny – however much he tries to break free, they’re meant to be together. Or some such thing.

But this isn’t just man-woman love, instigated by the Stockholm syndrome. Veera tells Mahabir, in no uncertain terms, that she doesn’t want to marry him or bear his children. She just wants to experience freedom, with him by her side. (In case we don’t get this, Ali has her say as much – needlessly.) As for Mahabir, he isn’t interested in Veera at all. She’s just a hostage, whom he threatens to fling into a kotha. But then, one night, while he’s having dinner, she begins to tell a horrible story, and he stops eating and looks at her. The next morning, she embraces him – very tentatively – and he puts his arm around her, very tentatively. He too has a horrible story from his past, one that involves people like her, rich people, but after hearing her story, the anger he’s been holding on to abates a little. He sees that at least this rich person is like him. The love between Veera and Mahabir is also the love between two scarred people (Hooda literally carries a scar, which slices through an eyebrow) who finally luck into someone like them.

More interestingly, the love here is also that of a mother for her son, of a father for his daughter. Veera baby-talks to Mahabir, the way a mother would respond to her son’s cuteness. She strokes his head when he sleeps, and she sings him a lullaby, making up itty-bitty staccato words to fit the tune she overheard him humming. (In contrast, the words sung by his mother, in the flashback featuring the lovely Sooha saha, are more free-flowing.) In some ways, Veera becomes the mother Mahabir has left behind, and he becomes the father she never had. When she runs away and returns after finding that she has nowhere to go in the desert, he instructs the members of his gang not to help her. “Apni marzi se bhaagi, apni marzi se bheetar jaayegi.” And the next morning, she asks for permission when she wants to step out. This disciplinarian aspect of a father is also brought out when he asks her to dress properly. But elsewhere, when she gaily climbs a tree, he watches with worry from below. And he buys her new clothes, which she parades before him. (She’s like a child in a fancy-dress competition, with every state presenting the opportunity for a different look.)

And in a stunning sequence towards the end, Veera and Mahabir take turns being the parent. They find a cottage in the mountains. She orders him to stay outside while she tidies up the place and makes lunch. He steps out, then returns and opens the door cautiously – and this scene of a woman keeping house, the sheer domesticity of it all, is too much to bear. He crumbles. Hooda is extraordinary here. (And how nice to finally see him in a big film, where his performance will be seen by many.) Mahabir steps in, steps out, steps in, steps out, torn between wanting to enter this world and knowing that it’s not really real, that it comes with an expiry date. He breaks down. She holds him. Shh… sab theek ho jayega. He cries out, Amma. She’s a mother consoling a distraught child. And then, when he carries her to bed, the act doesn’t carry a sexual charge – not even when she lies on top of him. She’s like a little girl sleeping on her daddy’s tummy.

Highway offers rich readings even if you don’t look at it as a love story. It could be a buddy movie – Veera and Mahabir are mismatched, at first; then she learns from him, he learns from her. It could be Veera’s story alone, a Bildungsroman about a young girl who, through an agent of change (Mahabir), is transformed. Or it could be seen, like Gravity, as the story of a woman whose past trauma is exorcised by a traumatic experience in the present. Bhatt is spectacular in the scene where she reveals what this trauma is – it’s as if all those suppressed screams which she talks about have congealed into this creature that’s burrowing its way out through her throat. Ali doesn’t lead up to this moment. We’re thrust into it. There’s no explanation, no why – Veera’s decision to speak up, here, is like her decision to hide at the checkpoint. When asked, then, why she didn’t make a run for it, she whispers to herself, “What’s wrong with me? What’s going on?” This confession is part of what’s going on. For the first time, she’s free to speak about the past, without being shushed, without the topic being changed by her mother.

Or you could see Highway as Mahabir’s story, with Veera as the agent of change, helping him understand that his assumptions are wrong and leading him towards peace, perhaps even salvation. The anger against the rich he’s held on to is ebbing away slowly. His protective layers are being stripped. At one point, he clasps his hands and literally pleads with her to leave him and go away, something that she should be doing, given that she is the hostage. Mahabir is the classic Ali hero. When the confused character played by Abhay Deol in Socha Na Tha is asked why he’s doing what he’s doing, he says, “Kyonki main kuch aur nahin kar sakta. Mere paas aur koi raasta nahin hai.” (The protagonist of Rockstar was similarly unable to leave Heer when her mother ordered him out. “Main nahin jaa paaoonga,” he said, simply.) Mahabir, too, has decided that this is his life, that he has no other options. If he hates the rich, he seems to hate himself more – when told by a gangster (who, in a touch that’s typically Ali, has a transgender partner) that he’ll die a dog’s death, Mahabir replies that he is a dog in any case, and that’s how he’ll die anyway. The one clichéd note in his character may be that he’s the principled bad guy, who looks away when he sees Veera’s bra strap, and protects her when a creepy gang member tries to feel her up (the supporting cast is just fantastic) – but then he couldn’t be any other way in Ali’s romanticised universe, where we’re asked to empathise with stalkers and misfits and people bereft of “common sense.” (That we willingly do so is a testament to the writer-director’s skills.) But other times, Mahabir stays true to character. When Veera, playing with Mahabir’s gun, remarks that the person being fired upon dies instantly, he replies that the person pulling the trigger also dies. In other words, Mahabir is already a dead man – he died the minute he killed his first victim. Could an anti-hero get any more romantic? Yes, he can, when his traumatic past is revealed to us, but not to Veera. Ali denies us the counter-scene where Veera is shocked by Mahabir’s revelation – she keeps asking him why he is the way he is, and he doesn’t reply. That’s how it should be. That’s how he would be.

Besides, logic – or its sibling, “realism” – has never been of interest to Ali. This is not the film for you if you’re the kind who wonders how a girl who knows so little about the non-air-conditioned India – entering a dilapidated building, she exclaims, “Kaise kaise jagah hain is country mein!” – finds her way back from the unforgiving desert. We’re not meant to worry about the cops on their trail, either. Ali doesn’t want to interrupt his romantic story with that procedural angle, which is casually (and rather brilliantly, I felt) tossed off in one concerted post-interval stretch, mirroring the similar documentary-like footage at the beginning of the film. Ali doesn’t want much plot in the way either. Highway is a film for those who loved the Ladakh portions of Dil Se, and wondered how much better things would have been if the rest of the narrative had been similarly untethered from what-next contrivances. (At midpoint, Veera says she doesn’t want to go back to where Mahabir brought her from and she doesn’t want to reach wherever he’s taking her to – she just wants to be on the road. Ali accedes to her wish for the most part. The feeling that we’re on a journey with no use for beginnings or ends is exhilarating.

But even to fans, Ali’s occasional tendency to overexplain can be exasperating. The closing portions, particularly, are utterly redundant. The film ends with the gunshot that echoes the gunshot that marked its beginning, when Veera first ran into Mahabir. (Both times, the sound is amplified by the silence.) She’s got the freedom she wanted, and thanks to her, he’s gotten a glimpse of what it would be like to meet his mother again, to visit that simpler world again. And that’s enough. Instead, we’re forced to listen to Veera musing that she was free outside and, now, back at home, she feels like she’s in jail – yap, yap, yap. We feel what Mahabir must have felt like, at first, when she just wouldn’t shut up. Even the closure she has, with respect to her past trauma, seems unnecessary, as she’s already kicked it out of her system. I am also not a fan of Ali’s tendency to close his films with kitschy greeting-card visuals. If it was the Rumi-quote image in Rockstar, we have, here, the young Veera and the young Mahabir in an Elysium covered by a rolling carpet of green, from which sprouts a solitary dandelion.

A lesser issue with the second half is that it has too many songs underlining the mental state of the protagonists. Some are indispensable – like Sooha saha (which features the gently disorienting editing we’ve come to associate with Ali, with Mahabir’s chronology slightly fudged, boy to infant to boy again). And the positioning of Patakha guddi is sensational. One scene, we see Veera’s mother fearing the worst, and the next, we cut to how much fun Veera is having, gulping down ganne ka ras and making pehelwan poses as the song soars in the background. Even the stretch with Wanna Mash Up? is fun. (The entire theatre burst out laughing when Mahabir’s gang member joined Veera in her uninhibited dance.) But did we really need Kahaan hoon playing over the confusion already etched on Veera’s face? We may not have minded this intrusion in another film, but the storytelling in Highway is exquisitely minimalist, with about five minutes of background music in total. (AR Rahman’s short, eerie bursts of sound are perfectly in sync with the slight surreality of the film.) The script and the performances provide the narrative tension through the long stretches of silence – and it’s an insult to the performers to have these editorialising lyrics playing in the background. As for Heera and Maahi ve, they seem to have been squeezed into the final reels just because Ali didn’t want to leave them out. But given what he’s achieved, you feel ungrateful for complaining. By the end, I felt I’d been on a bit of a journey myself, as if, after weeks of stale movies, the air in the cinema hall had suddenly become cleaner. It’s hard to explain but you’ll know what I mean if you remember the scene where Veera sees the river up in the mountains and is awestruck. Leaving Highway, I knew exactly what she felt.


* the real India = see here
* Hum kya tameez dikhaane aaye hain? = Do you think we’re here to be effing polite to each other?
* aap = the respectful form of “you”
* NRI fiancé = see here
* Rockstar = see here
* a love story = see here
* kotha = see here
* Apni marzi se bhaagi, apni marzi se bheetar jaayegi = She went out on her own. Let her go back in on her own. (Don’t help her.)
* fancy-dress competition = see here
* sab theek ho jayega = everything’s gonna be okay
* Amma = Mommy!
* Kyonki main kuch aur nahin kar sakta. Mere paas aur koi raasta nahin hai = Because I cannot do anything else. I have no other option.
* Main nahin jaa paaoonga = I won’t be able to leave.
* a dog = see this
* Kaise kaise jagah hain is country mein! = It’s amazing, the kind of places in this country.
* Ladakh portions of Dil Se = see here
* ganne ka ras = see here
* pehelwan poses = see here

Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi