Wealthy Veera is kidnapped by brutish Mahavir. Is she on a highway leading to hell - or away?
Straight up, Highway is not a sunny, funny road-trip. It is Imtiaz Ali's starkest, darkest work yet. Rich Veera (Bhatt) steps away from her Monsoon Wedding-style shaadi preparations (a handheld camera capturing gold, ghaghras and a girl going, "Bhaiyya, flavvers lappet do!") for a break with her reluctant fiance. Driving into a foggy Delhi night, Veera steps out to breathe free - and gets kidnapped by violent criminal Mahavir Bhaati (Hooda) and his gang. Gagged, tied-up, slapped and starved, Veera's thrown onto a terrifying truck that drives off on a never-ending highway, leaving established society far behind. What does Veera experience on this trip?
Highway belongs unabashedly to Alia Bhatt. Her Veera is stunning - sincere and simple, prettily earnest, shakily emotional. Bhatt's range and prowess are evident in her timid confidence, the slow swagger Veera gains as she takes control of the situation, captivating her captor, confronting assault. Hooda's Mahavir is frightening, tightly controlled, the actor conveying dark dislike with crackling tension, switching to bewilderment with comic ease. Alongside, Aaroo (Durgesh Kumar), Mahavir's companion, who breaks into a delightful trance-wala dance with Veera as she sways to 'English music' on the road, is memorable.
But what stamps this film indelibly is its sheer boldness. Imtiaz Ali must be congratulated for his daring novelty, for a powerful heroine-centric story, for his heroine who looks like a Vermeer painting dressed in a dusty ghaghra. At times, Highway feels like an unending Bharat darshan, a long look at suffering souls through several deserts and eucalyptus trees. But some meandering is its only flaw. Watch it for its cathartic creativity, for colours akin to Iranian palettes, for sound design where melting qawwalis, chirruping crickets and a screeching train make layers of noise - for that shot where Veera rests her head on a pillow of water.
Highway is not an easy ride. But it offers fresh breezes and new sights.