22.2.14

The road less travelled...'Highway'



I had a profoundly cathartic experience while watching 'Highway'. It was when Veera and Mahabir are in the mountains, and they reach a house and she says, "Yeh tau mera ghar hai, mujhe hamesha se hi aisa ghar chahiye tha (This is my home, one I had been looking for)". It is a dusty, bare house, very different from her plush lifestyle in Delhi where "tameez" is taught and learned by buying silences.

Without getting into details and diverting attention from the film, let me just say that the home, a cavernous retreat, that she swept clean and put food in front of became mine. Next day, sudden gunshots hit Mahabir, and as his eyes meet the sky that seems flanked by trees, there is another purging. An acceptance of things being short-lived.

'Highway' has been called a road movie, but the journey pierces internally. Old maps are brought out, some lines erased, new ones formed.

Veera Tripathi, on the eve of her wedding, asks her fiancé, "Why can't we just run away and go to the mountains?" This is how she is. She wants to breathe free, take risks. For her the fancy wheels are just a means to getting away. She wants to go far, just go on and on...and when they take a U-turn, they are confronted by a group of criminals on the run who had no intention of such a 'meeting'. It is a chance encounter. Her kidnapping begins on an unreal note, and stays that way.

The gang leader, in fact, is angry with Mahabir Bhatti for taking her hostage. This is a criminal niche where they have not ventured. "Tu kutte ki maut marega (You will die like a dog)," he tells Mahabir. The latter's reply is stunning in its simplicity: "Jo kutte ki jindagi ji raha hai usko kutte ki maut hi milegi (one who leads a dog's life will obviously get a dog's death)."

While it is not emphasised, there is a strain of a political class struggle. At one point, not sure about what to do with her, he tells his mate that they should sell her to a brothel. He is not dismissive about it. He gives a reason. As a Gujjar, he vents his anger over how easily the rich abuse the women of the poor, even demanding their wives for pleasure. He wonders at the hypocrisy of gangsters too being concerned about the clout of the rich father of Veera. Yet, he does not abuse his power. He does not sell her. This needs to be seen in the context of her innocence being bought by one she was supposed to trust. Is that why she becomes comfortable in his presence?

Her story does not merge with Mahabir's, but runs parallel. They are not made for each other; they are like raw material that cannot be moulded. Therefore, she laughs in the midst of tears, she asks herself incredulously, "Why am I talking so much?" And she hides when the cops check the truck. She had a chance to find freedom from the criminals. Why did she not? Even Mahabir wants to know.



This is most certainly not about the Stockholm Syndrome. If that were the case, then Mahabir is the one suffering from it. He becomes vulnerable. But this is not about any such syndrome. It is not about being awe-struck or falling in love with your captor. Veera wanted to run away right at the beginning. Her escapism is a thirst to experience, to break free, and also due to insecurities. This is the captivity.

That time when she comes out with "when I was nine" and how her uncle sexually exploited her is not an episode. The retelling is not planned, which is why it is so effective. There are no gory details — the fear, helplessness, anger are all in her face and voice. And his stillness. She is the water, he the rock. The terrain has many of these water-rock scenes as they traverse through six states. Water rising, a spray, a jet, droplets in her palm, moving in circles around the rocks.

Mahabir has two moments of denouement. One when he hums the song his mother sang to him as a child and the other when he peeps into that dusty mountain house and sees Veera transforming it. "Promise me you will go and see your mother after all this is over" she tells him in the first incident. She holds him weeping close to her bosom, like mother to child. In the new home, she snuggles up to him, almost over his chest, like daughter to father.

They are together, but not joined. There is no adhesive. As he tells her on an earlier occasion after she rushes back when he leaves her near the police station, "What will you do with me - marry me, produce babies?" Later, waiting for a bus, she says, "I am not planning to marry or make babies. I just want to go a little further for some more time, knowing that you will take care."

We trust the elements as we climb hills, go into the sea, battle inclement weather. We trust almost everything we grow up with. Here the growth is on the way, a constant movement. In Veera's words, "I don't want to return where I came from. I don't want to reach anywhere. I just want that this road should never end."

Mahabir's death does not end her journey. She not only faces, but confronts the demons. She spits out words in their customised faces. And leaves for the mountains. To work. To live. To be. When she remembers Mahabir, it is of both of them as kids. They had never met then. What she is recalling is the innocence of their relationship, its purity. Like the clear air.

This is not about being a captive. When we feel good or seek out something, somebody. it is essentially the true love we feel about wanting to reclaim ourselves.

© Farzana Versey

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Snapshots

• Alia Bhatt as Veera behaves as nature does. Fire, earth, water by turns.
• Randeep Hooda as Mahabir smiles only once, weeps twice, yet he carries so many emotions in the hardened face.
• Imtiaz Ali has broken all genre rules. His direction is most unobtrusive.
• Anil Mehta's cinematography goes from craggy dark cranies, flithy lanes, godowns, to long stretches of undulating ghats, valleys, deserts, mountains. And he shows silence.
• A.R.Rahman. Quiet music is rare. Still music rarer.

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11 comments:

avinash godbole said...

nice perspective on Highway!
I also loved it.

Free and Footloose said...

FV,

HIGHWAY is pretty unusual for a mainstream bollywood film, but is still full of major shortcomings.

1. The basic premise is problematic, given its social and cultural context. It also seems quite unreal, interrupting the viewing experience at crucial times. The motivations of the lead characters, frankly speaking, are unconvincing and so is their "soul" journey.

2. The film begins on a well-accomplished, hard-hitting, superbly scary note but turns into something else along the way.

3. The linear, barebones narrative structure may be fine as an experiment, but makes it tough for an average viewer to sustain interest. It is also a lost opportunity for fleshing out the multiple conflicts (personal, structural, social) that must be at play while the twosome were touring the countryside.

3. The ending is rather abrupt. For the sake of visual appeal, a breathtakingly beautiful valley in J&K is chosen as the battlezone. (I am assuming there are no ideological undertones there, in spite of the director being a devout Muslim. Married to a Hindu, to boot.)

4. The splendid photography and the intriguingly written lead characters (ably played by the two actors) save the day. These two things kept me in my seat even when I nearly gave up on the rest of it.

FV said...

F&F:

As I began to read your critique, I was suitably impressed. And then you go boom in point 3 (the repeat numbered one). As usual.

1. Perhaps the characters do not know their motivations, and therefore the haziness. The cultural context is not as crucial as the 'soul'.

2. Most journeys turn into something else along the way, as do certain comments!

3. Are you an average viewer?

3 (3). So, according to you the "devout Muslim" director (how do you know about everybody's devotion?) who is married to a Hindu (psst, there is trouble there...wanna see some message in there?) takes the crew to J&K and gives what ideological message? A guy who is on the run is shot by cops, primarily on the instructions of the rich father of Veera. If anything, it tells us that money talks more than regular legal process.

Am surprised you have not alluded to the fact that I might have 'glorified' a criminal, esp since he meets his end in J&K, of which I probably knew beforehand, and therefore did a whitewash job of the hour and a half prior to that! Happy to help :)

4. Now the two actors who kept you to your seat - going by your sensibility displayed here - Alia happens to be 1/4th Muslim & 1/4th Greek or something. Randeep is a Jat from Haryana.

Pray, tell us how you factored in all this information and their possible devotion.

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Avinash:

Yes, am planning on a repeat...and thanks.

Free and Footloose said...

FV,

1. If you read a little more carefully, you would notice what I have said. It goes: "..I am assuming there are no ideological undertones..". You ought to give me some benefit of doubt!

2. Sorry for the numbering sceme mix-up. One of those times when the same point crops up once again. Usual business between you and me, no? :)

3. I don't subscribe to absolutist views about positive and negetive when it comes to art. I am not Dina Nath Batra. Each story (any work of art, actually) comes with its own notions of positive and negetive and should be viewed on its own terms.

4. Since you want me to spell out what I suspect, here it is: A man and a woman, all by themselves in a mud hut atop a terrifyingly beautiful and silent mountain medow in J&K. The silence is ruptured by gunfire. Soldiers emerge from below in a line, weapons blazing. The man falls to a volley of bullets. Woman screams hysterically, throws herself upon her man and curses the policemen. The cops are guided by lure of money. That the man is an outlaw is just a legal triviality (as established cunningly in the hospital scene).

I saw the intnded meaning rather easily. Good if you didn't.

5. Can you please explain to me what '1/4th Muslim' means? Is some new Ijtihad Conference that I am unaware of, in progress in Meccah? I don't smoke or do drugs. And the alluring Islamic concept of 'four women to a man' richly appeals to me! So I am perhaps 1/2875th Muslim, right...? Garv Se Kaho Hum Halaal (bhi) Hai!

6. I am an average viewer and an average reader too. Isn't that the clientelle you (and most filmmakers) wish to address?

FV said...

F&F:

You were the one who brought in the devout Muslim bit that, even if true, has absolutely no bearing even on your views regarding the soldiers.

There are different reasons to see "intended meaning".

The 1/4th ref was to Alia's paternal grandma being Muslim. Am sure the calculations are wrong. I also mentioned her maternal 1/4th which was more exotic than Muslim. But it comes in the way of your Itjihad.

I see tha average viewer/reader as easy to please. You are?

Free and Footloose said...

FV,

1. Thanks for recapitualating the lineage of the lady for us readers. Her paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather were Muslim. Her mother is a Muslim. Some "accuse" her father of being a closet Muslim as well! Doesn't look very exotic now, does it?

2. Notwithstanding, the fact remains that the Quran-ordained Muslim/Qafir binary does not allow a formulation such as a fractional Muslim. It will take a lot of Ijtihad for that to happen, if at all. I am holding on to my 1/2875th belief, though the four women are likely to remain a mirage in this life! :)

3. An average reader is easy to please and easy to infuriate too. Some give and take involved there. :) Thankfully, a blog cannot be pulped.

4. Yes. There are reasons why the intended meaning is transperent to one but opaque to another. (See, we agree!). The relationship between devoutness and political beliefs also is best appreciated subjectively.

**swordfishh** said...

I think you people are reading too much into the shooting scene being in J&K. Imtiaz probably chose J&K because he was done with Himachal and Rajsthan, and J&K comes next- geographically. The other thing is that it makes more sense to show army presence in J&K as opposed to Himachal or Rajasthan (and it doesn't take a Muslim to make that logical connection). Non Kashmiri Muslims in India don't feel much differently about Kashmir as the Hindus, Christians or Sikhs do (whatever that may be - positive, negative, neutral, indifferent).

On Alia and the Bhatt family's Muslim-nes: I doubt any of them practice Islam or identify themselves with any particular religion. They just have/had relatives who were/are Muslim. Mahesh Bhatt "converted" to Islam only to take a benefit of being married to more than one woman at once. Hindu men can be sent to jail if they have more than one wife at a time.

FV said...

F&F:

I did not recapitutalate, but corrected your communal fantasies that were dragged in here. Interesting that you don't have much to say about the Gujjar factor, which was an important part of the 'background'.

Just to clarify once again, this is what Wiki says about Ms. Razdan:

"Soni was born in Birmingham, UK, to Gertrude Hoelzer, a German, and N. Razdan, a Kashmiri Pandit. She is an atheist."

Your views on the Quran and Ijtihad mean precious little in this context. Even subjectively speaking.

FV said...

Swordfishh:

Would have been better if you addressed the person who has made a big deal about J&K. I made no mention of it because this was not an 'agenda'.

The same applies to the faith or lack of it of the director, actors and their families. One ends up explaining it when there is falsification.

I truly liked 'Highway' for the reasons I wrote about.

**swordfishh** said...

I thought the addressee was pretty clear! I was just trying to be courteous enough not excluding the blog owner in a parallel conversation.

FV said...

Blog owner is not accustomed to courtesy! Not often, that is. Thanks...