During the course of an obstacle-filled bus ride from the mountains of eastern Nepal to Kathmandu, the stories of a motley group of passengers intertwine in “Highway.” Low-budget, over-ambitious multi-strander from debuting helmer Deepak Rauniyar is more interesting for its glimpse of a politically tense, mixed-race society where tradition and modernity mingle uneasily than for the surfeit of uneven dramas and melodramas it attempts to tie together. The support of Danny Glover’s New York-based production shingle Louverture enabled this curio to raise finishing funds through online incubator Kickstarter and could spur further fest interest.
When a general strike in a small village immobilizes traffic and delays the travelers, a resourceful army lieutenant (Dayahang Rai) suggests that the bus masquerade as a wedding vehicle, since nuptial parties always gain free passage. However, the passengers face various other impediments — physical, spiritual and emotional.
The lieutenant has just swallowed a fertility potion and needs to bed his Kathmandu-based housemaid wife, Radhika (Asha Maragti), before 36 hours elapse. But in an O. Henry-like turn of events, Radhika discovers she’s pregnant from her affair with a criminally inclined colleague.
Back on the bus, the role of the groom falls to Pratiek (Eelum Dixit), a handsome gay man on his way to meet boyfriend Vishal (Sandeep Chhetri), whose transgender pal is murdered in a nightclub by a policeman. Acting as the bride, Pooja (Shristi Ghimire) seizes the opportunity to reconsider her own romantic choices.
Meanwhile, the bus driver’s girlfriend, exotic dancer and onetime prostitute Kavita (Reecha Sharma), impatiently awaits his arrival while trying to contend with a sick daughter and pressing debts. And in the least credible or interesting strand, an accomplished surgeon (Rabindra Mishra) cries over his estranged wife and becomes obsessed with a boutique mannequin while waiting for his mother-in-law to arrive.
In spite of the wildly uneven tone created as Rauniyar and co-scribe Abinash Bikram Shah tie the stories together in increasingly melodramatic ways, the on-location lensing of the bus journey, capturing rarely seen landscapes, architecture and real people, exerts a fascination of its own.
Deploying a mixed cast of amateurs and pros, Rauniyar allowed the thesps to improvise their own dialogue during extended rehearsals, which only adds to the tonal problems. On the tech side, inexpert editing makes it difficult to gauge the timeframe of events not taking place on the bus, and even which flashback is tied to which character. At the Berlinale world preem caught, poorly modulated soundtrack blared to painful effect.