Abduction paradoxically results in liberation for both the sheltered daughter of a rich industrialist and her hardened-criminal kidnapper in Imtiaz Ali’s “Highway.” Atypically, neither strain dominates in this Bollywood road movie, which intertwines dark social issues and blithe romance, thanks in part to relative newcomer Alia Bhatt’s endearingly cockeyed perf and “Slumdog Millionaire” Oscar winner A. R. Rahman’s powerful score. Tracing a journey of self-discovery through six North Indian states without a formal script, Ali’s actors, like his characters, effectively improvise in a meandering present tense, stripped of any viable destination. Opening Feb. 21 following its Berlin Film Festival premiere, “Highway” should score with Indian auds globally, with arthouse crossover a distant possibility.
Desperate to escape the extravagant preparations for her wedding, Veera (Bhatt) convinces her reluctant boyfriend to take her on a short ride. Caught up in a gas-station robbery/shootout, she is grabbed as a hostage and kept for ransom by gang leader Mahabir (Randeep Hooda). Bound, gagged and thrown in the back of a truck, Veera cries and moans, terrified and demoralized by her rough handling. When the gang stops at an empty warehouse, she escapes, racing into the night.
Veera’s flight marks a turning point in the film, as helmer Ali alternates between whirlwind closeups of the character running frantically toward the camera and extreme long shots of her tiny figure amid the infinite salt flats under a vast, star-filled sky. Defeated by the limitless emptiness, Veera runs from whence she came, falling into the arms of Mahabir.
The next morning finds the heroine suddenly turned fearless, with no one more surprised by the transformation than Veera herself. Indeed, her character is saved from extreme improbability and excessive cutesiness by her quizzical, inward-looking astonishment at her own behavior, a befuddlement which she freely shares with her abductors, to whom she blurts aloud any stray thought that crosses her mind. Plunking herself down in the truck’s front seat, she begins to enjoy the trip, her previous family travels having merely transported her from one luxury hotel to another.
Veera’s enthusiasm and artless affection very gradually wear down the gruff Mahabir, despite his hatred of her class. Never entirely abandoning his surly negativity, he allows only an occasional inadvertent smile to reveal his growing attraction. Passion remains totally absent in this romantic equation, which nevertheless surpasses Bollywood’s traditional avoidance of overt sexuality.
As it happens, both Veera and Mahabir are haunted by deep childhood sexual traumas. These horrific backstories gain weight and resonance through the characters’ tension-filled accounts, while brief flashbacks reinforce their present-day impact. These demons have left Veera and Mahabir alienated from their pasts — the road, which merely furnishes postcard backdrops for elaborate musical numbers in many Hindi films, is their natural habitat.
Aside from a half-hummed song and a spirited solo roadside dance by Bhatt, Rahman’s evocative songs function mainly as inner voices conveying the characters’ unspoken emotions, while their impromptu dialogue (minimal on his part, run-on on hers) attests to their growing familiarity and ease. “Highway” benefits greatly from Ali’s improvisational approach to every aspect of the production.
Fully justifying the helmer’s faith in an untried actress, Bhatt interiorizes a self-realization that is only incidentally romantic, bringing an underlying sadness and wistful intelligence to one of the oldest cliches in the Bollywood playbook: the transformation of a sheltered rich girl through the vital immediacy of her lower-class lover. Anil Mehta’s HD lensing cannily exploits specific landscapes of the varied provinces the film traverses, from Rajasthan’s salt flats to Kashmir’s snow-capped mountains, interpreting them as psychologically resonant topography rather than picturesque travelogue. Meanwhile, Rahman’s music, freed from the staginess of intricately choreographed, multi-costumed setpieces, flows sinuously throughout.