Saturday, February 22, 2014

Highway: This is not the Robber Bridegroom

Highway is not the movie I thought it was going to be, it was a far better one. Both the promotions and Imtiaz Ali’s filmography had me convinced that the film was either going to be an Indian tourism board-approved version of a) something like Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom--in which a girl is kidnapped and love happens--or b) a man who doesn’t know what love is kidnaps a girl, falls in love, and proceeds to angst about it for 2 and a half hours. Not totally immune to the allure of the Robber Bridegroom, despite my hatred of the rom-com genre,* I decided to go see it on the off chance that it would be the former. And if it sucked, at least I could watch Alia Bhatt romp through some travelogue scenery.

But Highway was not the movie I thought it was going to be.

Last week I was walking home from the grocery store late one evening and I happened to look up at the sky. I was deep into a residential neighborhood and the street lights were dim enough that I could see the stars. The cold night air filled my lungs and as I breathed out, all my fatigue went with it. Orion was looking down at me, watching me as I walked past all the giant houses with the television glow flickering in their windows. Nothing clears my head like walking. Being free to roam where my feet take me, just looking around and seeing everything--clever graffiti, colorful flags fluttering in the breeze, the shape of bare tree branches against the sky--before I’m gone.

[Warning: Vague spoilers ahead but nothing major is given away.]

Veera (Alia Bhatt) doesn’t have freedom of movement when we meet her at the beginning of the film. The wealthy industrialist’s daughter is sneaking out of her house to meet her equally wealthy fiancée Vinay (Arjun Malhotra). She’s been smothered by wedding preparations all day and needs to breathe. Vinay, who doesn’t understand any of this, reluctantly agrees to take her for a drive down the highway. He’s nervous, out of his comfort zone, and anticipating unnamed danger around every blind turn. They stop for gas and Veera gets out of the car to stretch, despite Vinay’s worried nagging. And when she’s kidnapped by a gang of petty thieves robbing that gas station, Vinay just says, “I told you so.”

The journey that Veera and her kidnappers take is at the heart of Highway. Mahabir Bhati (Randeep Hooda), craggily handsome and quiet, is the ringleader. And Mahabir, despite barely hidden hatred, treats his young charge like cargo, a package to be transported undamaged. He never threatens sexual violence, though the specter of the horrific Delhi gang rape case hangs heavy over this first part of the film.

Once it becomes clear to Veera that she’s not going to be physically harmed, she slowly begins to return to herself. She’s like a child--exploring her world, testing her boundaries--safe in the knowledge that if she falls, somebody will be there to catch her. Veera is so full of love and wonder at the world that it’s only a matter of time before it begins to wear down Mahabir’s defenses.

Much to my delight, Veera and Mahabir’s relationship is never a romantic or sexual one. Instead, Veera finds something of a true father figure in Mahabir, like little Shirley Temple in one of her riches-to-rags stories. Veera feels protected by Mahabir, so safe that she trusts him with her darkest secret and takes comfort from him. And Mahabir lets her, against his better judgement. Once she’s wormed her way into his heart, there is no turning back and his mouldering heart begins to beat again and he begins to wish for things he can never have again.

Although I did pick up echoes of films like Dil and, especially, Khalnayak in the story, much was left for the viewer to pick up in subtext and in the performances from Alia and Randeep and the rest of the cast. And it’s been said before but I’ll say it again: Alia Bhatt is brilliant. I’m not sure if we can quite forgive Imtiaz for foisting Nargis on us just yet but Alia’s performance goes a long way as an apology. In Student of the Year, she gave her ‘rich bitch’ character an underlying vulnerability that hinted at better things to come. In Highway, that vulnerability is cracked open. Alia breaks Veera down so until she’s nothing raw nerves and then builds her up again, strong and free. And Randeep, who has never been a particular favorite of mine, does a fine job as the stoic man opposite her. He gives just enough to the camera early on that when he finally breaks down, it feels earned. I also quite enjoyed Mahabir’s gang of thieves: Goru (Saharsh Kumar Shukla) is dangerously sly, Tonk (Pradeep Nagar) goes with the flow, and Aadoo (Durgesh Kumar) is the kind one. Plus, I swear I saw that kid who played Savvy’s friend Robin in Shor in the City as a policeman with one line. (I loved him in Shor so I hope it was him.)

Interspersed between the drama with Alia and Randeep was the familiar landscape, as if viewed through a car window. Well worn roads in Shimla and the Punjab and many other places I know from watching masala movies. I caught echoes of those films, as well. Just passing through. As somebody who enjoys staring out the window at the landscape rushing by, I found these scenes incredibly hypnotic on the big screen, like an Indian version of Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train.

The score was unobtrusive and kept to the background; unfortunately there were no song picturizations. In contrast, the camera work was very dynamic and very much in the foreground, very obviously signaling different things to the audience. This is a visual film and one clearly made for a big screen. Whether it’s Randeep Hooda’s face deliberately out of focus or a wide panoramic view of a mountaintop, every shot meant something. And whether it was deliberate or not, I appreciated that the subtitles only appeared where strictly necessary, so that I could focus more on the images.

I’ve ragged on Imtiaz Ali before and I’m sure I’ll do it again if he makes another rom-com but never let it be said that Filmi Girl doesn’t give credit where credit is due: Highway is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking and has a phenomenal performance from a very talented young actress. If you’ve ever sat through a social function uncomfortable in your own skin, feeling resentment boiling in your stomach at the myopic people around you, begging any passing staff for a cigarette to escape outside with, seriously considering just booking it down an empty suburban street, high heels and responsibilities be damned, Highway is the film for you… like it was for me. So, go get your heart torn out by Alia Bhatt.

*i.e. The thought of watching Bewakoofiyaan, the trailer of which screened before Highway, makes me want to claw my own eyes out.

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