Highway is a problematic film. Elements in it have great beauty - starting with Anil Mehta's cinematography. The film was shot and improvised as the cast and crew drove across six states. Mehta's camera caresses the changing terrain so that we can almost taste the bleached salt pans of Rajasthan and the crisp air of Kashmir. There is A. R. Rahman's soulful music - especially Patakha Guddi - and above all, Alia Bhatt's performance. There are two scenes - one a long monologue - in which she lays bare her soul and becomes utterly broken. It's deeply moving. Her honesty and courage, both as actor and character, is exhilarating.
And yet, I left the theater, deeply dissatisfied. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali is one of Bollywood's most original and interesting storytellers. Here he courageously goes off the formulaic star-driven, song-driven path and returns to his favorite genre - the road movie. Imtiaz gives us a portrait of two damaged souls who through a journey across North India, help to heal each other. So Veera Tripathi, an affluent Delhi princess who lives in a mansion with a Rolls-Royce, ultimately finds peace in the arms of Mahabir Bhatti, a rough Gujjar criminal, played by Randeep Hooda. The idea of a victim falling in love with her kidnapper isn't new - the Stockholm Syndrome in which the hostage forms an emotional bond with the abuser has often been cinematic fodder, especially in Hollywood. But here, it is both uncomfortable and unconvincing.
Veera becomes relaxed around her kidnappers fairly quickly. Early in the film, she says to them: Yahan aake aacha lag rah hai so thank you. After her initial horror, she's behaves like a friend, chatting and laughing. Later in the film, she tells Mahabir: Kafi cute lagne lage ho tum. This to a man who, at regular intervals, threatens to sell her to a brothel. The film posits kidnapping as therapy. It tells us: So what if you've been abducted, heal yourself as you travel the undiscovered countryside. Given the horror inherent in the situation, this just feels false and fundamentally, wrong. Imtiaz skillfully creates moments that are at once, tender, funny and fragile. But my problem was that I simply didn't buy into the story.
And yet, both Veera and Mahabir stayed with me. They are compelling, intriguing characters. Randeep is extremely effective as the brutalized and brutal Mahabir. I just wish they had met under different circumstances. I'm going with two and a half stars.