Highway (2014): Journeying…

{also a very brief review on Queen (2014), for a comparison}


 Jugni rukh peepal da hoi

Jis nu pooje ta har koi

Jisdi phasal kise na boyi

Ghar bhi rakh na sake koi 

[The firefly (here, fiery woman) has an air of the peepal,

which is worshiped by everyone

which is planted by no one

Nor can one nurture it at home] 

Nor can one nurture it at home: this particular sentence, for me, arrests the essence of the movie. Highway reminds me of Agnes Varda’s most acclaimed and often misinterpreted movie: Sans toit ni loi (literal trans. ‘without a roof or rule’; internationally known as ‘Vagabond’). Most cinephiles, who are acquainted with both the movies would question- how? How indeed? Well, as a woman, what I see in both the films is a lost woman searching for the twin; yet neither expects the search to complete nor wishes for a final destination. In the former, the woman is aided by destiny in the guise of a kidnaper and in the latter the woman is aided by destiny in the guise of her belief in complete freedom. Judgements and conclusions are not important; the journey is. The highway is important, because when all is gone, the highway stays.

It is perhaps, first in the history of mainstream Bollywood movies, that a film has been able to portray a woman without entailing the story with a strong feminist ethos. Imtiaz Ali’s story-telling is, indeed, commendable, as is his direction! Highway is the story of every conscious woman, for a woman who is awake cannot be nurtured (read cultured) at home; for a woman who feels the nature inside her bonding with the nature outside her is on the verge of ‘becoming’. This woman is free. Veera (played by Alia Bhatt) is the representation of this woman. Veera’s obsession with nature, wanting to feel it (her radiant smile as she climbs and hugs the tree; her ecstatic expression when she feels the air, the grass, the water, the sand; her hysterical laughter ringing along the rushing stream); her wanting to sink into its mystery, with her eyes often withdrawn from the this-world and looking into the vastness, into the horizon, into the other-world, shows a woman’s subjective self-other relationship with nature, without bringing into play the ‘man’ element, which is usually depicted as the ‘other’ and yet beautifully, very beautifully Ali demonstrates how a man and a woman complement each other; how culture and nature come together, how one is inseparable from the other.

Highway, for me, does not end in Stockholm syndrome or in layman terms, in a romance. I have had my share of reading romances with the so called Stockholm-syndrome, wherein the Saxon princess falls madly, deeply and irrevocably in love with her Norman kidnapper and fights her way to him. Ah! No! Highway is not a saccharine saga. It is a romance nonetheless, but one which has more than a man, a woman and a story. Highway is also the point of confederacy of cultures; of liquid boundaries. Even when the kidnappers carry Veera in the car along the deserted roads, all we can hear is the folk music of the places, where one would usually expect some abysmal suspense filled tune and all we can see are the mesmerizing views of trees, hills, herds of goats, gateways, vehicles, towns, dams, snow. Highway makes us look beyond politics; beyond egos. It makes us aware of beauty; of poetry.

Randeep Hooda justifies the character of Mahabir admirably. Mahabir isn’t actually the tyrant, or rather, he is the human in every tyrant and with Veera the human peeps out. This is where they complement each other: the other extracts the other.  As a woman, I wouldn’t mind confessing that had I been in Veera’s place, I would have felt the same for Mahabir as did Veera; that Mahabir is wise and lovable shows in how he reacts to his gang leader, when he says- ‘Kutto toh kutto ki maut hi maregi ho, jaisi zindagi maut bhi waisi hi hogi’ (trans. – a dog will die the death of a dog, the way life has been, so shall be death) in a no-nonsense manner. Mahabir did not live in any illusion. His strength of character was what Veera drawn to and what gave Veera the key to her own liberation. The existence of Mahabir gave Veera the hope of the existence of her world.

Surprisingly, under Imitiaz Ali’s direction a non-significant, often taken for granted object surfaces with immense symbolic density: Veera’s sandals. No doubt he meant to use them as a prop and he meant to make a coming-of-age film but what is surprising is his usage of them to presage a transformation in her. They are used allegorically as moments of departures in Veera’s life from bondage to freedom to blasé, before the actual attitudinal transformation is noticeable in her. The feeling-in-the-bones that it provides definitely add more romance to this romance. Esp. for the shot of the dawn, where the sandals appear abandoned in the vastness of the desert and the peacock calls at a distance, hats off to Ali!

The film has no unnecessary hysterics, as is expected in films dealing with abduction. The emotions are not exaggerated and the dialogues, unlike most Bollywood movies, are kept limited to where they are necessary. The only fault, in my eyes, is the incorporation of the shots of the child artists, esp. the child Veera and the last shot before the ending, which I suppose acted only as interruptions to an otherwise beautifully flowing narrative. The songs complemented the narration to a T! Simply beautiful songs! A.R Rahman hardly leaves any chance to be disappointed in his composition and on top of that they were sung by singers like the Nooran Sisters and Sunidhi Chauhan!

On the other hand, Vikas Bahl’s movie Queen (another coming-of-age movie of 2014) which explicitly deals with the concept of ‘freedom of woman’ merely appears as an extension of the feminist rhetoric and nothing else.  The movie might have been a hit in the box office, but I still wonder if the kind of transformation that Rani adopts is possible or even necessary for feeling ‘free’. The definition of freedom is positively at stake, for all we find in the movie are judgements and conclusions and not the journey.

That Highway flopped in box office is good news. The hits in India are often the ones with no sensibility towards reality or aesthetic. Highway is in fact one of the ‘bestest ever’ movies I have had a chance to watch.


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