×

Film Review: ‘Highway’

Life is literally a highway for kidnapper and victim in this engaging and atypical improvised Bollywood road movie.

With:

Alia Bhatt, Randeep Hooda, Durgesh Kumar, Pradeep Nagar, Saharsh Kumar Shukla. (Hindi dialogue)

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Highway'

Reviewed at Magno screening room, New York, Feb. 13, 2014. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — Panorama Special.) Running time: 133 MIN.

Production:

(India) A UTV Motion Pictures release of a Window Seat Films/Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment production. Produced by Sajid Nadiadwala, Imtiaz Ali.

Crew:

Directed, written by Imtiaz Ali. Camera (color, HD), Anil Mehta; editor, Aarti Bajaj; music, A.R. Rahman; lyrics, Irshad Kamil; production designer, Sumit Basu; costume designer, Aki Narula; sound designer, Resul Pookutty.

With:

Alia Bhatt, Randeep Hooda, Durgesh Kumar, Pradeep Nagar, Saharsh Kumar Shukla. (Hindi dialogue)

More Film

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content