Why Imtiaz Ali’s Highway sets itself apart from other retro style mainstream cinema today
A heart-rending tale of love and freedom, suppression, and hope, or the lack of it. Imtiaz Ali’s Highway will probably get lost within the avalanche of loud and raunchy, and highly publicised commercial Hindi movies that have their release dates lined up throughout 2014. But for those who have seen the film and have been touched by the sensitive appeal and the brutal lyricism of it all, Highway is a film that will not be lost from their sensibilities anytime soon.
Only a week old, or should I say young, Highway has already garnered much negative criticism for portraying a captor-victim bonding that is not wholly new to Hindi cinema, and that, quite interestingly, has been accused of glorifying the so-called Stockholm Syndrome. The syndrome is defined as, “…a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein a positive bond between hostage and captor occurs that seems irrational in the light of the frightening ordeal endured by the victims” (Understanding Stockholm Syndrome, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 2007).
The term was coined after the 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden where the hostages were said to have developed an emotional attachment with the perpetrators of the crime, and had even defended them in court. And one of the prime causes for such emotional bonding is believed to be the victim’s recognition of the captor as a human being – one who offers kindness in not killing the victim outright—a recognition that leads the victim to nurture empathy towards the captor.
Imtiaz Ali’s road movie, starring Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt does indeed tell the story of a strange bonding between a small-town criminal Mahavir who ends up kidnapping, the rich kid Veera one night, after one of his nightly heists go awry. But it would be wrong to lead the reader on to believe that the film is simply that, and nothing else. It is not, for one, simply a road movie with romance at the end of the road, and for another, it is not simply a story of bonding between two people.
For those who are yet to see the film, prepare yourselves for an uphill emotional journey that is subtle, yet moving, that speaks volumes about the suppressed despair, and wounds to our dignity that we nurse deep down inside. The characters are layered and the layers reveal themselves by and by; Ali brings out the fake facade of society’s crème-de-le-creme with some brutality. Reality and fantasy are enmeshed together in this narrative that blends within every frame of the visual delight that it serves up, a sense of foreboding.
The underrated Randeep Hooda epitomises the brooding lover. He is honourable, vulnerable and threatening although there is little in the role that fully justifies his presence. The script is unhurried, but there are very few moments in the film which you wish were not there, even with the scenes that rely solely on visuals.
But it is the little fire-ball, Alia Bhatt, who takes your breath away. She is natural, lovable and delivers a power-packed performance, especially post-interval. Fresh and innocent, her youth makes her equation with the mature, weather-beaten Mahavir more potent with emotional and sexual frictions. She has, quite certainly, joined the gang of new generation actresses, headed by Sonakshi and Parineeti, whose significant works include as many as two or three films but they seem to be extremely comfortable in their capacity as actresses.
Let us take a little step back from the film itself and reflect for a moment on where the film stands within the context of the current socio-cultural scenario.
Bollywood over the past few years has seen what one can only call a fallback on the raw and sensual 1970s, a period of time that saw Bollywood’s ‘angry young man’ at the peak of his career. The loud, frivolous, stereotypically ‘Bollywood-y’ dhishum dhishum action sequences which became synonymous with the Amitabh Bachchan films, with the ‘heroic’ hero, the rather insignificant heroine, the villain whose ultimate retribution in the hands of the hero is inevitable and the music that was never really crass but did at times have a hint of crudity to them.
Sounds familiar? Indeed it must. For Hindi films like Dabangg (2010), Dabanng 2 (2012), Bodyguard (2011), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), Chennai Express (2013), Sons of Sardar (2012), Rowdy Rathore (2012), R…Rajkumar (2013), Yeh Jawani hai Deewani (2013), Gunday (2014), that have reigned at the box office over the past months, have given us little other than this. Most of the major blockbuster movies that have released since 2010, except a rare Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) or Barfi (2012), have had all of the above, plus an overdose of songs (the inimitable ‘item number’) that have gone over the edge now, unlike the 1970s music, and actually become crude, and replete with sexual connotations.
And while the Bachchan melodrama is heavily criticised even today for its apparent superficiality, film critics nowadays analyse the emergence of such cinema in the light of the economic and political situation at the time. The 1971 war with Pakistan, naxalism, the 1975 declaration of Emergency leading to the fall of the Congress party and the creation of a new government, all culminated in the emergence of a popular film hero who was cynical and disillusioned (Tejaswini Ganti, Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, 2004).
Amitabh’s character in film after film subsequently represented the suffering man on the street – a man who fights alone against an unjust system, whose anger at his own relentless exploitation at times forces him along a path of crime and violence. What then happens to the films today that remind us heavily of this genre of cinema? Do we critique the films that are being made with the 100/200 crore club in mind in the same way that the 70’s films were read by critics? Are these films, that appear ‘kitsch’, or shallow and superficial as Frederic Jameson would put it, to the naked eye, simply a response of the film industry to the growing turbulence of our times?
Is the angry Jai in the latest Salman Khan flick Jai Ho (2014) actually directly reminiscent of Bollywood’s ‘angry young man’ concept? Are chikni chameli and gandi baat the frustrated reply of India’s premier vehicle of popular culture to the acute state of normlessness that seems to be fast taking hold of our society? Is it possible, laughable though it may sound, that the retro style cinema that is being made today, has behind its creation, the same desperate story to tell?
The reader must be wondering by now the relevance of pondering over the nature of mainstream cinema in what seems to be a straightforward review. I shall dispel that mystery now as I point out that Highway is a film that sets itself apart from the mainstream in more sense than one. It is a commentary on social landscapes, that reveal themselves differently for society’s upper crust on the one hand, and a small town criminal on the other. Yet, there are points in time when these landscapes overlap and a truck driver cum abductor’s mother and the daughter of a VIP become the same.
The film does not glorify kidnapping, or to go back to the beginning of this article, the Stockholm Syndrome, as some critics seem to be stating. If it were so, then Sholay (1975) must have glorified thieves and robbers, Deewar (1975) had glorified smugglers and Don had glorified the mafia life. In fact Don (2006) had best been banned in India for letting the protagonist, a deceitful criminal, go scot-free in the end. Even better, the entire Dhoom series, especially the latest one, should have been criticised heavily for glorifying criminals of various sorts. But if these films did not glorify crime then neither did Highway, which is a subtle tale of love and desperation. In fact, in this age of gaudy retrograde cinema, Highway is a film that stands apart on its own, in its own right.
Highway is a must watch for all those who can appreciate romance. At the end of this road lies self-discovery, the effort to acknowledge the softer emotions hidden away underneath the rough exteriors of mankind, as well as those harsh realities tucked away beneath masks of falsehood. It may not be the most novel experience ever but it is worthy of your time, and hence worth the watch.