Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

#TheUKAsianReview: Imtiaz Ali's 'Highway' is a silent triumph

Human beings can be funny sometimes, especially when they find themselves in certain situations and their reactions are in stark contrast to what conventional wisdom dictates.

That's a premise that Imtiaz Ali has latched on to with his latest feature 'Highway', a road-trip movie that not only gives a triumphant two-fingered salute to many films of the genre but to Bollywood convention as well.

The film begins with Veera (Alia Bhatt), the pampered, cloistered daughter of a wealthy New Delhi industrialist.

Veera and her family are preparing for her impending nuptials, the final and very expensive preparations well underway.

Something of a free spirit, Veera is suffocating underneath all the expenses and decides that she needs some "fresh air" so she enlists the help of a friend one night to go for an unsupervised drive, away from the prying eyes of her usual band of assault rifle-wielding bodyguards.

At a fuel stop on the edge of Delhi, the friends are caught up in a shootout and Veera is taken hostage by a band of modern-day highwaymen led by Mahabir Bhatti (Randeep Hooda).  As they make their getaway, Veera reveals who she is and Bhatti is left with the stark realization that they are about to be hunted down by the entire Western Command of the Indian Army, and then some.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game that sees Mahabir and his coterie traverse the length and breadth of western and northern India evading capture. 

Along the way, a funny thing happens. 

Sprung from the privileged confines of her life in Delhi, Veera begins to enjoy the freedom of the road, despite the unwanted advances of one of Mahabir's henchmen and the less-than-salubrious conditions of her captivity. 

Her joy in-turn disarms the fearsome Mahabir and an unusual companionship develops as the duo make their way through some of the planet's most staggeringly beautiful locations.

'Highway' is the culmination of a sixteen year journey for Imtiaz Ali who has reportedly nursed and developed the story for years.  The film is such a revelation that his entire body of work in Bollywood thus far seems to have merely been the means to having the artistic and financial freedom to make the one film that he has dreamt of since first falling in love with cinema. 

He's been so utterly immersed in it that he shot the entire film without recourse to a full script.

And it shows. 

'Highway' is a beautifully crafted labour of love, full of long, silent, meditative moments and thoughts and messages that bombard you without you even realizing they were there in the first place. 

That lack of a script means that everything feels strangely intuitive and incredibly authentic, an exploration of the meaning of freedom with not a stereotype, contrived moment or preachy sentence in sight.

Ali also extracts outstanding performances from all his actors. 

Randeep Hooda is fantastic.  Much like Irrfan Khan in 'The Lunchbox', Hooda's Mahabir has few lines but manages to convey a life-time's worth of emotions as he transforms from intimidating dacoit to terrified, frustrated fugitive. 

It's incomprehensible that such an accomplished actor has remained on the fringes of Bollywood for the best part of a decade and a half.

The real star of the show however, is Alia Bhatt. 

The actress, so annoyingly squeaky clean in her insipid debut 'Student of the Year', is a revelation here.  Devoid of so much as a rub of lip balm, her hair in disarray, Bhatt is utterly convincing as the privileged girl with more than few kinks in her personality and captures Veera's transformation pitch perfectly: bewildering, bewitching, heartbreaking and hilarious in turns.

The supporting cast (disappointingly given little or no acknowledgment in the promotions process) is uniformly good, in particular Saharsh Kumar Shukla as the sleazy Goru and Durgesh Kumar as Mahabir's loyal lieutenant Aadoo who gets one of the best scenes of the film when he joins Veera in an impromptu Pop/Bhangra jig on the side of a mountainous road somewhere in northern India.

Speaking of roads, the scenery is simply staggering.  Cinematographer Anil Mehta expertly captures the stark and  beautiful natural backdrop to Mahabir and Veera's personal saga.  From the haunting  lunarscapes of Rajasthan to the untouched wilds of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, 'Highway' could double as a (rather long) promotional video for India Tourism. 

The visual beauty is lifted by A R Rahman's excellent soundtrack.  Music in Bollywood is often used as a diversion from a tedious narrative.  In 'Highway' however, the music enhances and elevates the visual experience, lifting each expression, each moment, each panning shot and each location.

'Highway' is certainly not without flaws. 

The latter end of the film drags just a bit too long and there's an ever-so-slightly annoying plot diversion that Ali could have done without.  And it will certainly pose a challenge for those more used to having things shoved down their throats by Salman Khan roaring dementedly. 

But these are very minor complaints. 

It may not stick to formulae and it will, in all probability, not make it to the "coveted" 100-Crore club.  But 'Highway' is still a triumph.

There's so much to like and love about Imtiaz Ali's single-minded quest to find what it means to be free.  It is troubling, funny, moving and deeply saddening and expertly captures the human condition.

- 'Highway' is in UK cinemas Friday 21 February



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