HIGHWAY. Director: Imtiaz Ali. Players: Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhatt. Music: A R Rahman. Hindi with Eng. Sub-tit. Theatrical release (UTV).

Imtiaz Ali’s go-to theme is the road movie. As he demonstrated successfully with Love Aaj Kal, Cocktail and especially with Jab We Met, Ali can encapsulate a whole life journey into one road trip by one or two characters. Staying close to familiar terrain while elevating the grittiness and pseudo-realism several notches, Ali’s Highway is a without doubt his most metaphorically piercing insight into what is here an unwitting road trip that goes awry and emerges as a terrific movie.

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Staged on a harsh and unforgiving road map and filled with unpredictable small absurdities and twists of fate, this Ali-written story pivots from one critical moment. In hopes of chasing away pre-wedding jitters, the restless and carefree Veera Tripathy (Bhatt), with her finance in tow, plays hookey right before their pending nuptials. At an inconsequential stop at a gas station, Veera suddenly finds herself taken hostage by small time hood Mahabir Bhati (Hooda) who needs to make a getaway after a robbery. Mahabir kidnaps Veera not knowing that Veera’s father is a powerful politician with nearly unlimited policing powers and will go to any lengths to get his daughter back.

The premise of this kidnap action-adventure saga is rooted in melodramatic dacoit stories that served as fodder for rural Indian newspapers in the pre-digital era. The most popular stories celebrated wrongly-accused horseback outlaws who willingly or unwillingly kidnap a village damsel while being chased by a competent cop who always seemed to be just one step behind. The implied sensuality—a single woman in the company of a dashingly and perhaps dangerous kidnapper—allowed vicarious violation of social and sexual mores for thousands of devout readers.

The romantic appeal of the rural dacoits stories, even to this day, perpetuates the universal noble savage myth and dichotomy of a fallen, wanted man—a murdering and dangerous fugitive—who at the same time will protect his former victim who he is now slowly becoming attracted to. This point serves as the precise point where Ali’s story begins. Leading us down the path of the noble savage, the tables suddenly get turned.

Keeping in line with Ali’s other works that give women an unusually strong presence in the plotline, Highway elevates Veera’s stake in the outcome as being equal to or even greater than what Mahabir has to gain or lose. Further evidencing a woman-centered world-view, there are also flashbacks to an unfulfilled life that Mahabir’s mother suffered in the hands of an abusive husband. In yet another moment of horrifying validation, a childhood sex abuse victim confronts the tormenter in a scene that captures both low-grade catharsis and moral repugnance.

In only her second leading role after a hugely successful debut in Student of the Year, Bhatt is remarkably focused and channels a quiet inner rage which turns out to have remarkably little to do with her being kidnapped. Freed from the clutches of her overprotective family, the farther she gets away from her parents, the more empowered she becomes. The more empowered she becomes, the more her anxiety turns into dread for a very uncertain future.

Hooda has already proven his mettle as the stoic anti-hero (Shahib Biwi Aur Gangster, Jannat 2, Once Upon A Time in Mumbai) and does wonders here. Hooda’s Mahabir, even as he is becoming drawn to Veera, intentionally forces himself to become numb to everyone and everything around him just so he can forget the past. Mahabir must confront the reality that some scores cannot be settled no matter how many miles he drives.

For the first hour or so, there is absolutely no clue as to anything else happening in the background—Is there a rescue under way? Do Alia’s parents even know she is missing?

This adds maddening, nearly claustrophobic, suspense. The only drawback in giving Highway a full-throttle endorsement is the theme-driven A R Rahman score that is moodier than need be. Then Highway gets better. Outwardly a tense kidnapping adventure, at heart Highway traces a journey to map wounds that don’t heal no matter how much salve is applied. Bravo!

EQ: A-

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

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