A Road to Freedom
When technicalities drop to the side, and one can see the purity of the story told by the film’s characters through cinematic visuals, the delight of cinema amplifies.
Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Highway’ is one such masterpiece which hugs you in the most comforting way, while delivering a story that may make many uncomfortable due to the dynamic shown between an abductor and a hostage. However, as the movie proceeds, it becomes clear that it tells a story about freedom, consent, and a childhood cum jail of dissatisfaction from the viewpoint of both the lead characters Veera, played by Alia Bhatt, and Mahavir Bhaati played by Randeep Hooda. The movie has everything that makes a cinematic experience worthwhile, from the places where the movie is shot to the songs that amplify the sound of the heart.
Highway, the title, gives a dual meaning. The first being the literal, through which both the characters travel from Delhi to Kashmir. The other, a metaphor, for the abduction being the highway of Veera’s existence taking her away from her past, pernicious life to one filled with freedom and controlled by her.
The scene where Veera realizes that being under the control of her abductors proves to be a better abode for her than her home is used to set the precedent for the film. Gagged, tied-up, slapped and starved, Veera is thrown onto a terrifying truck by Mahavir Bhaati that drives off on a never-ending highway, leaving established society far behind.
At a certain point of the film, Veera questions herself, “Why am I not tensed?” leaving her and the audience confused of her feelings of the present scenario she is stuck in. Later, plunking herself down on the truck’s front seat, she begins to enjoy the trip, showing that she has started to feel comfortable with the abductors. As the vehicle of the travelers transcends into the road of freedom, both emotional and environmental, so does their connection. From opening about her traumatizing sexual abuse to making Bhaati sleep on her lap singing his mother’s lullaby, the two broken souls prove how heartwarming friendship can be. Ali, the director, very subtly establishes the relationship between the two as empathy, affinity and affection.
“The place where you took me from, I don’t want to go there. The place where we are headed, I do not want to reach. But this road, I don’t want it to end.” Every dialogue said by the two characters reflects their personality and their flaws. Veera continuously talking to herself reminds us that she has her own world in her barred life where she is her own support. Mahavir saying “Two men die. One who is shot and the other who shoots” evokes feelings in the audience’s heart for him. It nudges the fact that he regrets his past actions and realizes their consequences.
The cinematography of the movie plays another important role in depicting the story. As the tracing journey of self-discovery through six North Indian states is shot, we also understand the vulnerability of the two. The director has tried to mirror their mind’s state through the environment surrounding them. At the beginning of their journey, the two of them are surrounded by the chaos of life as well as the sky-touching buildings. There is no trust between the two. The latitude of their travel is used to show the two forming a bond. As they move towards higher altitudes, mountains and freedom surround the highway of their life. The clearer environment shows how the two have surrendered their guards and have started to trust each other.
Adding to the beauty of the movie is the fact that there is a magical connection between what plays on the screen and what the music says. The movie comprises nine tracks, each revealing a personal feel. The original score produced by Rahman Sir urges your heart and mind to react. The highlights “Pataka Guddi” and “Maahi Ve” soothes the soul. The songs have a convincing blend of many genres, pumping undercurrent energy. From Arabic Flavors and Trance Genres to a breezy track with passionate vocals. The lyrics have been written in a way that takes you inside the hearts of the two leads. A poem written in the most serene way, calling out to the listener can best describe the lyrics by Irshaad Kamil. What remains unsaid between the two is portrayed with lyrics in the movie. There is grandiose in the vocals and the music matches the opulence. The songs reflect the inner journey of a young girl slowly blossoming into womanhood. About the song “Explosive Silence”,ARR says that silence too is filled with music of its own and can convey various things too if you care to listen.
To take a serious note, the movie talks about various topics that remain taboo in the country to this day. The most important part of Veera’s character arc is her suffering through sexual abuse by her relative and her mother’s reaction to it. The script talks about the psychological impact as well. If we look at the script from an alternative perspective, it stands loosely on Stockholm syndrome, a condition in which hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors during captivity.
Imtiaz subtly taunts the society in a specific scene where Veera’s character dances on the middle of the highway in front of her abductors on a “provocative” song. As viewers, with minds set upon certain “societal guidelines'' our first instinct after watching the scene tells us that she might get raped. Ali effectively turns our impropriety radars back on us. Facing this reality, Ali’s intent is to create an alternate where rules do not exist. The norm when you see a girl dancing, even "suggestively", is to join in and dance, as ridiculously as possible, even if it is the middle of nowhere.
The ending is bittersweet and leaves the viewers feeling empty. We long that the journey never ends, just like Veera. Conclusively, the entire setting of the mountains, a never-ending road and two souls finding the path of freedom looks like them inside a transparent ball, which when shaken, lights up and we find them inside a snow globe.