Thoughts on Highway (2014)

Posted on February 26, 2014

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One of the most poignant scenes in Imtiaz Ali’s Highway takes place toward the end of the film. Veera (Alia Bhatt) and her abductor, Bhatti (Randeep Hooda), escape to a remote, pristine corner of the Himalayas where they try to set up a house. Veera always wanted to live in a house in the hills, so when she finally finds her dream house, she proceeds to enact a little domestic scene. Veera tells Bhatti to wait outside while she cooks a meal and readies her house for Bhatti. Once everything is to her satisfaction, she invites him inside.

While Veera had been preparing her house, Bhatti had been quietly preparing himself. Watching Veera perform the ordinary domestic chores, the prospect of a normal domestic life is too much for him to bear. When Veera invites him inside, he is unable to hold back his tears and breaks down, sobbing while she comforts and soothes him. What is remarkable about this scene is the shifting nature of the roles these two are playing.

When Veera invites Bhatti, she is literally enacting the part a young girl who has invited an adult into her playhouse and wants to show off its domestic perfection. Veera is clearly playing a part and she wants Bhatti to play whatever role she needs him in: the husband, the father and the son. Veera, in her turn, becomes the wife, the mother and the daughter. Of these roles, it is that of the parents that I found intriguing because Imtiaz shows how lovers often take on the role of each other’s parents.

When Bhatti can’t bring himself to enter the house, we assume it is because he realises that this life can never be his (and it is true) but the real reason we find out is because he sees his mother in Veera. He calls her “amma” as he breaks down and cries in her arms. Veera had made him promise that when all this is over, he must visit his mother. I think, in a way, she helped him fulfil that promise.

Having said that, it is worthwhile to note that while the film allows the two characters to switch between roles and manages a minor reversal, the gender equations remain disappointingly intact. In that, the film is traditionally romantic — the man buys or builds the house and the woman cleans and cooks for him. Even though Veera had told Bhatti that she is not interested in marriage or raising kids with him, it is not hard to see that given enough time this is exactly how they will end up. Veera may not realize it but the domestic arrangement that she desires is firmly within the romantic tradition of the lovers wanting to escape society and live a simple life among nature. You need to look no further than the song Akele hai tou kya gum hai from Qayamat se Qayamat Tak or Humne ghar choda hai from Dil. That Imtiaz is guilty of endorsing and romanticising such an arrangement and gender view will hardly come as a surprise.

But back to what’s, at least for me, the heart of the film: absent parents or perhaps, more precisely, children yearning for their parents. Veera’s parents may be alive but they might as well be dead. I strongly suspect that Bhatti’s mother is dead and that he lies to Veera and to himself when he says that she is waiting for him back in his village. Or maybe, his life of crime has led to their estrangement. In any case, the film presents Bhatti’s mother as a comforting, childhood memory; not a presence but an absence in his life. Together these two fulfil this void in each other’s life. Bhatti allows Veera to live the carefree life and provides the comfort and protection that she always wanted and Veera gives Bhatti a chance at redemption and accepts and forgives him his life of crime in a way that only a mother can (she consoles him by saying “sab theek ho jayega“).

The film should have ideally ended here. The film had been heading towards this scene all along. But Imtiaz goes ahead and tries to top the emotional high of this scene with a hysterical family confrontation, a sentimental return to the hills and an entirely hokey closing shot of Veera and Bhatti as children. Still, the film has its moments: Veera’s run through the salt plains under a starry sky; her uninhibited dance (a child she may be, but she is also a sexual creature); her delight at the pure, free flowing river; Bhatti’s expressions as he watches a playful Veera — a sense of wonder at this free-spirited child mixed with concern for her safety; Bhatti smiling at Veera after she finds him at the bus depot. One wishes there was more for Randeep Hooda to do as he is excellent in the film. Alia’s performance is patchy but serviceable. But both are extremely well-cast. I don’t think a Hindi film has relied so heavily on its actors looking their part to generate both sympathy and discomfort (at the possibility of a romantic relationship between the two) in the audience.

So is Highway a return to form for Imtiaz after Rockstar? I think his strengths and shortcomings remain the same, only this time he has picked up a reasonable straightforward and trusty theme. So let’s hope to find signs of growth as a filmmaker in his next film, for now, I guess we can enjoy the ride.

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Posted in: Reviews