A couple of damaged strangers seeking redemption via a road journey is the premise of Imtiaz Ali’s latest ‘Highway’. The director’s attempt to move away from his trademark candyfloss-ness has mixed results: this is perhaps the most picturesque road movie I have seen coming out of Bollywood, but the story struggles with its twin threads and uneven tone. ‘Highway’ is a patchy ride, with the occasional high spot.
Imtiaz Ali’s romancing the road is of a piece with his favourite plot device. This director is happiest and most-happy making when his characters are on the move, the breeze rustling their hair. In his latest, he tells the story of ‘jab’ Veera and Mahavir met, but there is a gap between what he wants his characters to be and the actors who play them. It becomes jab they met, not jab we met.
Veera Tripathi (Alia Bhatt) is a rich, cossetted bride-to-be. And Mahabir Bhatti (Randeep Hooda) is a criminalised, uncouth truck driver. This unlikely couple is thrown together, first reluctantly then companionably, for days at a stretch, as they rattle down the highway. They progress from fear to dislike to like to a kind of love, but it’s more a meander, and believability is a casualty.
Alia Bhatt has walked past her babydoll cosmetic debut in ‘Student Of The Year’ for a demanding role. Her Veera is effortlessly fresh-faced, absurdly young, scrubbed and vulnerable. But the sense of terror and dread that would make the character credible is never fully present.
She displays potential—especially in a harrowing scene in which she tells her companion of a secret that devastated her childhood — but she can’t really convince us that the thread of snot coursing through her tears is not artful. And in other places, she evokes incredulity: a high society Delhi girl in clothes that do not wear any ‘kaajal’ that differs in smudge-size as she rolls about in sand and mud? A body language coach (mentioned in the credits) is not enough: an actor who insists on being taken seriously needs to be able to fit the role completely, and Alia Bhatt falters in many places.
Randeep Hooda’s rough, abusive trucker looks the part, but also falls short. He mumbles and swallows his words, and his Jat dialect seems forced. This is an actor I enjoy watching, and here too he has moments when he is squaring up with this exotic creature, the likes of which he has never encountered before, which feel real. And then the script, which swallows up a couple of catchy A R Rahman ditties, dumps
on him an angst in weary flashbacks. His checking out is telegraphed much before it happens: you know it’s coming from a mile off.
I wanted more because it comes from a director who knows, or at least has known how to transfuse exuberance in love, and joy in sheer movement. ‘Highway’ is pretty but stagey.