What the hell is up with Bollywood, yaar? It’s starting to behave like a pregnant woman with severe mood swings. One week it gives us a film like Gunday, a film so bad that it actually felt proud of itself for being so worthless. The very next week, it gives us Highway, an ambitious, dark, completely off-beat love story. The former brought all Bollywood supporters to their knees with shame, while the latter marks a proud moment for Bollywood, never mind if the film is good or bad.
The film follows Veera Tripathi, a girl kidnapped a day before her wedding by Mahabir Bhaati and his goons, and is held for ransom from her rich and influential father. The film is once again a road-trip film, a favorite genre of director Imtiaz Ali, whose every film so far has had a road trip angle to it. Yet it is in no way similar to any of his previous films. Some people make an off-beat film just for the sake of being different. But here, Imtiaz Ali actually wants to explore a darker theme than just show off, in the process making his most accomplished and probably his best film to date.
The film floats the idea of freedom in captivity, experienced by a girl who had lived a sheltered (unhappy?) life to date, always wanting to run away from home and the claustrophobia it represented. It explores a situation in which a kidnapped person falls in love with her own kidnapper. To show such a bold and previously unexplored-in-hindi-cinema topic, the director had two options in front of him: either show the process of falling in love gradually and take the risk of making a flabby film, or quickly establish it on the strength of his actors and risk straining people’s belief. He chose the latter option, which is quite ironical (more on that later). What works against him are the facts that first of all, he treats some scenes with an unsure hand, making the circumstances far from convincing at times. Second of all, not many Indian people are familiar with such a situation of a person falling in love with her kidnapper, which makes them more prone to not accepting what is happening on screen. Not many people know that there is actually a psychological diagnosis for such cases, called the Stockholm Syndrome (for more information, please Google it).
But what works for him, though, are the strong performances of all the actors involved, from the two leads to the smaller players in the film. Also, this is a rare, if not one-of-its-kind case, where the interval actually works in favor of the film. I was slightly unconvinced when the lights came on during the interval. But as I thought back to the different incidents that took place during the first half, I got more and more convinced about the positions of both the lead characters.
Alia Bhatt is like a possessed woman in this film. The depth of her performance takes you completely by surprise. While she was definitely better than her male counterparts in Student of the Year, I definitely never thought she could give such a versatile performance in her entire career, let alone her second film itself. Accepting this role could have jeopardized her reputation as an actress, had she not managed to pull it off correctly. But she took the risk of going sans-makeup, pro-acting and she should reap its rewards for a long time to come. The transition from prim-and-proper in the beginning to disheveled-and-loving-it is done brilliantly by her, and she deserves brownie points for the 5-minute long monologue she delivers during the climax of the film. Plus, she looks cute as a button, which always helps.
Randeep Hooda probably gives the performance of his career. I’ve always known him to be a superb actor, but what he manages to achieve in the role of a Haryanvi kidnapper with past demons is worth applauding. He plays his character perfect to the T, from being a hard-ass who snaps at everyone in the beginning, to a gradually melting person falling in love with someone he shouldn’t even be talking to. Before he had met Alia’s character, he was defined by his hatred for the rich, but he finds himself changing, whether he likes it or not. This inner conflict is brought out by Hooda in a riveting performance.
What is ironical about Imtiaz Ali taking the shorter route in establishing the love angle is that he cuts corners at such an integral junction, yet stretches the film to the point of exhaustion towards the end. 15 minutes shorter, and this film could’ve been a game changer. Instead, he tries to milk the drama to get people misty-eyed, when he could’ve arrived at the same junction by sharper editing and more impact. It was the same issue with his previous film Rockstar, where he didn’t know where to draw the line and end the film. But admittedly, he did a better job as a director on that film, although Highway ends up being a much better film.
In the end, it’s the film’s own ambitiousness that leads to it’s downfall, but better being overambitious than having none at all. The film is nothing if not inconsistent. But it boasts of a decent soundtrack, dark humor, a novel concept and probably the strongest all-round performances by a leading pair in a recent Bollywood movie. It deserves to be seen, if only for the debate it is likely to cause amongst the viewers.
©Piyush Chopra for PosterGully.com