In Imtiaz Ali’s 2009 drama Rockstar, earnest musician Janardhan Jakhar’s indignant on-stage persona, Jordan, interrupts a song to make his point. He describes how the outdoor locale of his concert was once a dense jungle, vast and inviolate. Then, the jungle was torn apart to make way for a sparkling new city—pristine houses and paved roads, an imposed order. But, Jordan says, on the day the jungle was cut down, a flock of birds flew away, never to return. “I’m looking for those birds … Have you seen them?”
Ali’s new film, Highway, released Feb. 21, is about finding those birds, so to speak. It’s about the virtue of wildness and the hypocrisy of civilized society, about breaking free and rewriting the rules.
Ali is one of New Bollywood’s flag-bearers, a filmmaker who wants to get past traditional Bollywood’s cookie-cutter impulse and explore new cinematic territory. He’s paid his dues: Ali’s first three movies were bubblegum love stories in the stereotypical Bollywood mode. Jab We Met (2007) was among the aughts’ best-received romances. But where his early efforts established Ali in the Hindi-cinema mainstream, his recent work has sought to expand that mainstream.
In Highway, his sights are set high. Veera (Alia Bhatt) is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy industrialist. At the beginning of the film, she is set to marry, and her gated mansion is abuzz with the frenzy of wedding preparations. One night, she escapes to go on a drive with her fiancé—to get some fresh air, to decompress. The girl is gabby and, we can already tell, a free spirit somewhat out of place in her world.
The couple comes to a gas station, where Veera impulsively hops out of the car, not ready to return home just yet as her fiancé insists. Then, all of a sudden, a band of dacoits bursts out of the convenience store, masked faces and guns blazing. In the heat of the moment, they take Veera hostage. Later that night, she’s thrown into the back of a dilapidated lorry until the bandits can figure out what to do with her. It’s only when they learn who her father is that they decide to hold her for ransom.
Bhati (Randeep Hooda)—growling, indomitable, wearing a life of crime on his cut-up face—takes charge of the girl. Like his cohorts, Bhati belongs to a stratum worlds apart from Veera’s; he speaks with a rustic tongue, he’s poorly educated. There’s an air of outrage about Bhati, a perpetual awareness that he’s been dealt a lousy hand in life. He has great antipathy toward the upper classes, which he rightly or wrongly blames for his misfortune, and ransoming Veera is his way of getting back.
Veera, of course, is initially traumatized, hysterical as she’s shuttled from abandoned warehouse to abandoned warehouse. But, after a few days, she starts talking. The goons—all but Bhati—warm to her, and, slowly, she warms to the goons—especially Bhati. As she travels with her captors, Veera discovers unprecedented joy and freedom in their company. Soon, she realizes that she doesn’t want to go back home.
Ali’s story—of Stockholm syndrome and class, of horrific pasts and unexpected love—is satisfactory, but it acquires another dimension because of his sure-handed direction. The first half of the film is a feat. By harnessing silence, keeping a deliberate pace, and training his eye on the mundane, filmmaker Ali orchestrates a powerfully melancholy mood. The audience’s emotional experience of that mood becomes more important than mere plot. This is a rare aesthetic choice in mainstream Bollywood, and it’s not surprising that it comes from Ali.
Where other New Bollywood filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap might be sharp and envelope-pushing when it comes to story and subject matter, Ali is among commercial Hindi cinema’s canniest in understanding the medium, in managing technique to conjure meaning. (Rockstar, for example, deploys innovative editing to construct a temporally fluid plot, producing a portrait of its tortured musician that is impressionistic and indefinite. To tell that story straight would defuse the rock-star protagonist’s mystique.)
But, as the second half of Highway proves, solid writing is the stubborn fundament. There are dabs of melodrama and sentiment in the first chapter, but in the second, they bleed across most of the frames. Ali falls back on familiar (if better-disguised) Bollywood tropes and sequences to get us to his climax, and the second half becomes more about episode than experience. Ali’s curse is that he’s working in commercial Bollywood, whose bent is always to explicate and spoon-feed, to put something on the screen that’s easy to respond to. Ali, too, puts most of his iceberg above the surface (the overloud climax is an example), either because he isn’t ready to break out of that paradigm yet or because he’s not a mature-enough writer.
Bhatt, in her second film, is phenomenal. She plays a role that’s uncharacteristically demanding for a Bollywood actress, and she carries it off with aplomb. The photography is excellent, as it lets the vistas of natural and historic north India do the work. The omnipresent, often hypnotizing shots along thoroughfares and winding highways help establish the pace and the mood of the film in the first half, though, in the second, they verge on spectacle, the sort of “Look at this beautiful scenery!” of conventional Hindi cinema.
You can interpret Ali’s recent thematic preoccupation—of breaking free, of rewriting the rules—as a harbinger of his forward trajectory as a filmmaker. Like his rock star, Jordan, and his free spirit, Veera, Ali is dissatisfied with the way things have been. He doesn’t want to be the director-hack of a moribund Bollywood, but an auteur of a new kind of cinema. Watching Highway—and apprehending its achievements and its shortcomings—it’s clear that Ali’s not there yet. But he might be on his way.
In addition to FunAsia Richardson, Highway is playing at Hollywood Theaters, 8505 Walton Blvd., Irving, TX 75063.