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Imtiaz Ali’s Highway is about escape. It is a dreamlike film, complete with achingly beautiful Himalayan landscapes and vast, unpopulated, dusty expanses. At the centre is a pair of utterly unlikely soulmates—a spunky, rosy-cheeked girl of wealth from South Delhi and her captor, a Haryanvi rogue extortionist. What is this utopia? What are they running from? Torment that they have nursed from childhood. Finally, life has opened up, and the promise of happy-ever-after in the upper Himalayas is in sight. It is a sort of meta-love that cynicism and intellect alienate. This is spectacular fluff.

But what really rankles about Highway is the central message—and the message is loud and clear—that for a young girl, the escape from abuse in her ivory tower is through another kind of captivity which she begins to love because at least the captor is honest. It’s a disturbing message.

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Hooda’s miscreant act, devoid of any shades, is effortless

Stockholm Syndrome is a time-tested theme in cinema, and film-makers of all kinds have explored it—Danny Boyle, in his black comedy of heaven-sent love A Life Less Ordinary (1997) subverted the typical man-woman dynamics. Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight (1998), Sydney Pollack in Three Days of the Condor (1975), Paul Michael Glaser in the terrible The Running Man (1987) with Arnold Schwarzenegger—it is a genre in itself. Getaway (1972), by the American master Sam Peckinpah, projects the unease and greyness inherent in the theme unlike many others.

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‘Highway’ is completely free of grey. There is no sense of threat or danger

The film progresses in fits and starts. Veera’s revelation that she was at the mercy of an abuser in her childhood comes almost out of nowhere. She gets over her pique at being misused, at Mahavir’s entitled treatment of her, abruptly, morphing from mortal fear to puppy-eyed willingness. Even she is constantly surprised at her own transformation. Bhatt has done something engrossingly tangible about Veera. She is a woman whose transformation defies logic. In the limited arc of the character—with just two notes, outrage and charming naivete—Bhatt establishes her promise as an actor.

Hooda’s miscreant act, also devoid of any shades, is effortless. As actor, his image is firmly entrenched—aggressive masculinity befits him here too.

Bhatt in a still from the film
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Bhatt in a still from the film

All the visual gratification is short-lived because as a road movie Highway is puzzling. We don’t see humans or cattles or wheels. Nobody is trying to find Veera. The roads are just about breadth and beauty. Is this India or are we really in a dream?

Highway released in theatres on Friday.

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