Early in Highway, a car passes through a road in a decrepit village in the outskirts of Delhi. On both sides of the road are some kitschy hmurals. On one side, there are paintings of Shivaji, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Maharana Pratap, and of a palanquin in which a queen is being carried by her minions. In contrast, on the other side, there is a painting of a woman, who is dressed in loose clothes with almost no jewelry and is trying to open her arms as if trying to break free. At first, I was completely flummoxed by the presence of this painting. It was only later when I thought about it, I understood what the painting could have meant. It could very well summarize the premise of Highway. All three of the historical figures — Shivaji, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Maharana Pratap — fought for their independence and freedom. Shivaji fought the Mughals, Rani Lakshmi Bai battled with the English, and Maharana Pratap struggled against Akbar. Veera, the central character of Highway, was fighting her inner demons for her freedom. Just like the queen, she is the daughter of a powerful man and just as the queen is being sent off, Veera is also about to get married. However, Veera does not want to be like the queen, instead she wants to be the lady in the painting on the other side — a carefree soul unbound by the traditions that make her feel claustrophobic, literally as well as figuratively. Highway is then the road that Veera needs to cross from one painting to other painting and she has to fight her battle of freedom to go there.
In an interview with a magazine, Imtiaz said that he had once made a 40-minute show for Zee TV's Rishtey. Rishtey was a weekly TV show that featured a different story every week. The episode that Imtiaz made was also called Highway, but he felt that there was much more to the story and forty minutes was too short for what he wanted to say, therefore, he made Highway. The story stayed with him for all these years and it is only now that he got a chance to make the film because he was himself the producer. He says, "I was only directing TV then, with the hope of directing films one day. So I wrote a script and tried to pitch it to producers and no one really bought into it at that point. And then I started working on my first film (Socha Na Tha, from 2005) and then tried to pitch it again and it didn’t happen again. So I did my second film (his 2007 breakthrough Jab We Met) and then pitched it again, and again it did not happen! But I always felt I wanted to make it — even if only for myself — and then now after Rockstar, my fourth film, and another year passed, this time I came back and produced it myself." Thanks to YouTube, the episode is available below.
Imtiaz Ali's Highway is an exhilarating film. It is also a deeply spiritual film. Highway is about Veera's journey to find herself; it is about her voyage to self-realization; it is about her passage to overcome her past pain. Through Veera, Imtiaz takes us on a spiritual journey to find our own self, to let go of our inhibitions, and to become comfortable with our uncomfortable silences. Highway, then, becomes our journey. A few minutes after the film begins, Veera, who is tired by the absolute pretentiousness of the people around her, covers herself up and proceeds to open the doors of her house. She unlocks the gates of her house to run away from this farce that suffocates her, and with that opening, she also unlocks the doors of her journey. The opening of the lock by her was symbolic of the unlocking of the path to her enlightenment. From that moment, Highway carries us as well along this journey.
In one of Highway's brilliant moments, Veera tries to escape from her kidnappers. Mahabir drags her out of the salt factory and asks her to go wherever she wants to go. She runs along the railway track and reaches an absolute barren land in Sambhar Lake. She is weeping and is struggling to find as to where she should go. She falls down and tries to find her way again, but she cannot. All around her is nothingness, engulfed by the darkness of the night. She is lost and all she can do is run around in circles. This stunning sequence was referring to her inner state of helplessness. Just like the barren land amidst the pitch darkness, she is purposeless in her own life and her own soul is surrounded by the curtains of darkness and ignorance. She is as confused and she is struggling to find a way to escape from this darkness from her own inside, as she is trying to do in this very moment in the desert. She looks at the stars as if trying to find that one ray of light to guide her. At that very moment, the song Tu Kuja Man Kuja begins that validates this. It is a cry for help to God to help her find him.
Main kahan kahan,
Main kahan kahan,
Ghanghor hain andhiyare,
Sab roothe hai ujiyare,
Tan toote, man haare,
Kismat ke doobe taare,
Koi kiran dikhla re,
Hain soone path saare,
Main ekaaki de daya ki bheekh raja,
Kya tujhe aabhaas bhi mera.
Where, where am I,
The darkness is dense,
All lights are angry with me,
My body is breaking, and my heart loses,
The stars of my luck are drowned,
Show me some ray of hope,
All the paths are lonely,
I am alone, give me the alms of mercy, O Lord,
Do you even have an idea of me?
Tu Kuja Man Kuja is such a soulful composition that it is hard not to be moved by it. I started wiping tears from eyes. Tu Kuja Man Kuja is actually a Persian phrase that means where are you and where I am. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has sung the Persian version in which he says that where are you, where I am, by which he says to the Prophet that you are at such a height and glory and I am nothing compared to your grandeur. It is the sheer brilliance of A.R. Rehman and Irshaad Kamil who have created a terrific composition with Sanskrit words that was also inspired by Amir Khusro's Kripa Karo Maharaj. Except the phrase, Tu Kuja Man Kuja, the entire song is in sanskritized Hindi. The song has a few lines about the path and the journeys — Hain bhay bhyankar, path mein kankar Maharaja. In fact, this was the motif in each song of Highway; there is a line about lost directions of the soul and trying to find the higher path to enlightenment. Perhaps, that explains why Imtiaz named it high-way.
After this, Veera runs back into the arms of Mahabir as if it was God's signal to her that he will guide her to the right path. It is also interesting that Mahabir's truck has the word pilot written on the driver's seat. At first, I thought it could be the Haryanvi touch that we see, but the more I think about it, the more it convinces me that perhaps it was referring to something else. A pilot flies in the high skies, isn't it then absolutely befitting to call Mahabir as the pilot who will take Veera on this flight to connect her to the higher realms of self-awareness and emancipation.
Then, it seems that some higher cosmic energy has overtaken her that she herself cannot explain some of her actions. Like when she keeps on soliloquizing as to what is happening to her. She says, "Aisa lag raha hai main hun hi nahi yahan, jaise koi film chal rahi hai." Or later she could have easily outed herself to the policemen in Punjab when they inspect the truck, instead she hid herself. She says, "Nikal sakti thi main, what's wrong with me." Because she is being guided by some higher entity that she is not able to behave normally.
Veera, then, begins her journey. She sees a whole new world on the road. She sees camels on the road. She sees cattle crossing the road. She sees children going to their school. She sees houses on the roads. She opens her eyes to this new reality. She opens her heart as well. Some critics have argued that the sequence where Veera talks about her abuse appears abruptly. I felt it was the right time as it was only fitting that that she open her heart as well. It also gives some insight as to why she felt trapped in her own home; why she had said earlier to Vinay, "ghutan ho rahi, sheher ke hawa me chain se saas bhi nahi le sakte, dimaag ke saare knots khul rahe hain".
Veera's journey continues from Rajasthan to Punjab. It is here when she first starts experiencing and understanding the true meaning of freedom. She is now the Patakha Gudi. Patakha Gudi is a roaring and addictive composition with numerous spiritual references. It is splendidly choreographed where we feel Veera's first brushes with this new world. Again, the song has some words related to paths and journeys. Also, at many points in the song, she is lying on the ground and trying to look at the sky above as if trying to make some conversation with God and still trying to find answers to some of her questions.
Rasta naap rahi marjaani,
Patthi baarish da hai paani
Later, they move to Reckong Peo in Himachal and then they trek to Aru Valley in Kashmir. In a scene, she sits on the rock and looks at the water gushing by her side. She is laughing and crying at the same time, because she found her heaven at last. She does not understand why is she reacting like that. Contrast this with the scene in Sambhar Lake where she was surrounded by an arid piece of land in pitch darkness in a desert. Here, she is surrounded by the exact opposite of that, greenery and water and the sun is shining splendidly in the mountains — the place where she felt at home. The contrast in the landscape was symbolic of the spiritual sojourn that she had undertaken. Again, it is no coincidence that this happens in Kashmir — the place that has been called as heaven on earth — Agar firdous baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto hami ast. Her ecstasy is so infectious that I too wanted to go and sit by her at that moment. Then, why would she want to go back to her home in Delhi? Isn't this her dream home — a place in the mountains — that she always wanted?
That is why she comes back from Delhi — a place where her mother says to her to behave properly even when she has not completely healed, a place where her father used to say to her to be careful of the predators outside without realizing that his own relative was her daughter's predator, a place where she has to constantly bear the artifice and the hypocrisy of the society. That is why she said, "main ja chuki hun". In the end, we see that she is reading a book called 'Women Who Run With The Wolves' by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. In a literal sense, this could mean Veera running with Mahabir, who was perhaps the wolf, but if we read the plot summary, we realize that there could not be a more apt book for her to read. It says, "A gem of a book that so accurately speaks to, celebrates, and normalizes women who have gone the distance and completed the work to find happiness and healing of their souls. Clarissa's intuitive creation has freed women of the former stigmas associated with becoming a fully human woman. It captures all of the dark states of a woman's psychic soul work on, through the initiation process and finally her self-actualization. It depicts all of the cycles of a women's life that she must go through in order for her to become a fully awakened, enlightened, intuitive, and instinctual self." Veera is our wild woman who goes through the exact same steps of self-actualization. All I could do was wonder at the brilliance of the scene.
What was also so beautiful was that in the end, the song Maahi Ve tells us that she was no longer away from God. In the song, Tu Kuja Man Kuja, where she was asking as to where is she and where is God, and that she is lost. But in Maahi Ve, she sings, "tu saath hai, din raat hai, saaya saaya, maahi ve, maahi ve, meri har baat mein saath tu hai". She has finally found him and she realizes that he has been with her all this while and then she again looks at sky for a moment, smiles and silently thanks him. The distance between her and God is now nothing. It is as if we can hear her speaking these words to him. Isn't it just amazing?
Also, it is worth hypothesizing about her choice of profession. She opens a small business of juice products, run by women. In an earlier scene in the salt factory, she had said that everything is salty there, even sugar tastes salty. Here, she opens a juice factory which was kind of reasonable given the place. It was, perhaps, also referring to the sweet nectar or amrit, that she has finally tasted and that also brought her spiritual consciousness from the salty plains to the sweet juices.
Highway is Imtiaz's least compromised film. There are no song and dance interruptions, and he uses a minimalist style throughout the film. Even the dialogues are based more on exploring the silence of the characters than the conversation between them. It is a film that runs on the inner dialogue of the conversations and we are free to interpret their thinking. Imtiaz also fills Highway with the some spiritual significance of the different places. When Veera is being taken to Ajmer, a Haryanvi folk song called Bechein Phool Bazaara Mein plays. Then he takes us to Ajmer Sharif, one of the most holy sites in India. At one point, a music CD seller gives Mahabir's accomplice a qawali of Khwaja Garib Nawaz. Khwaja Garib Nawaz was none other than Moinuddin Chisti. The Hindi lyrics of the song Tu Kuja Man Kuja in the film was inspired by Amir Khusro's Kripa Karo Maharaj who had written this song for Khwaja Garib Nawaz only. Then, we see a song Takht Chadayo Heer by the Manganiyar singers. In Punjab, we listen to Patakha Guddi that has Punjabi lyrics. In Himachal, he takes us to Reckong Peo, where we see and hear the sound of the chants and the gongs from the monastery. Then, we finally travel with the Bakwarvala tribes to Kashmir and listen to another folk song Supaiya by Jaan Begum. Imtiaz gives us the unique flavor of each and every place in the film. In addition, he shows numerous religious figures all along. Whether Mahabir and his gang's praising slogans for Baba Kishandas and Lakkad Maharaj, or pictures of deities along the way, or shots of temples and mosques — Imtiaz wants us to dig deeper and enjoy this journey.
Highway is about Veera's journey but it is also in some ways about Mahabir's journey. The presence of the root 'veer' in both Veera and Mahabir was referring to their shared path. They share a charming relationship. I am not sure if I can call it love, in fact, the relationship between the two of them was platonic like that of a mother and a son. If Mahabir helps Veera in opening her to a new world, Veera helps him to see a new reality. Mahabir thought that only poor women are abused by rich men, but when he hears Veera's story, he saw that something like this could happen in the rich world too. Mahabir's mother was in all likelihood exploited by rich men; Veera was also abused by her own uncle. Both of them then developed a bond based on the commonality of the abuse they experienced. That also explains why he saw his own mother in Veera. When Veera sings Sooha Saha, he gets reminded of his mom. Veera is actually a mother to him. She comforts him, she sings a lullaby to him, she holds him, she scolds him, and she pampers him, like a mother does. She is the only person who made him smile for the one and the only time in the entire film. The lyrics of Sooha Saha are splendid. Sooha Saha means a red rabbit. In Aashiqui 2, Aarohi was also a mother to Rahul but that relationship had sexual charges. The absence of sex, even when Veera sleeps over Mahabir in the house in Kashmir, showed as if they had some sort of parental love. In fact, if we go into the finer nuances, Mahabir protects Veera, like a father does, from his accomplice who tries to abuse Veera. Then, their asexual relationship makes sense. What is interesting is Mahabir could also be referring to Lord Mahavira — someone who also attained enlightenment. The presence of the celibate Lord Hanuma and Baba Sukkha Nath, and the poster of 'Bin Fere Hum Tere' in Mahabir's truck was referring to some sort of material detachment. They are only partners in this journey and they have no plans to get married or to have children together. As Veera says, "bas thora aur, bas thori door tumhare saath, maine aise feel nahi kiya hai na kabhi, jaisa tumhare saath karti hun".
In a scene, Mahabir tries to go inside the house in Kashmir and then comes back. He, again, tries to go inside but he cannot. He is weeping like anything all the while remembering his mother and how he was her adored son. Veera comforts her by saying that everything will be fine. I think that was my favorite scene in the movie and I was sobbing continuously. There is something profoundly beautiful in that scene that touches you immensely. A hardened criminal crying copiously because he is missing his mother and he has lost his path.
When Mahabir was shot dead, we see in a dream sequence that he is sitting and looking at the flowing river below. Then, he starts walking on the mountain, which I felt was symbolic of his enlightenment. It was his spirit that was walking towards heaven. If Veera attained self-realization, Mahabir too attained his inner peace. He knew he was a dead man when he said that a bullet kills two people — the one gets shot and the one who shoots. He has already committed three murders, so he is a dead man and only in his death, that he can finally be at peace. That is why he died in the end and his spirit starts walking.
As I mentioned earlier, the motif of every song was the presence of some aspect related to journey and paths. In another beautiful song Kahan Hoon Main, Veera again experiences her own journey. The landscape of the surroundings is complementing the her inner landscape. She says,
Kahaan hoon main
Kahaan hoon main ab,
Aahein, darr, khushi, raaste,
Kachchi baatein, sachche vaaste,
Kahin pe in sab mein,
Kahaan hun, main?
There is another song in the film, fascinatingly named as Implosive Silence. Rehman has called it as one of the most difficult songs that he had to compose. It is again talking about the conversations with the silence that Veera experiences on the top of the bus trip. Again, it is no coincidence that both of them travel on the top of the bus, referring to the higher path or the high way that they are talking to inner peace.
The last song in the album Heera is actually a compilation of three dohas of Kabir. The song is a perfect tribute to Mahabir's goodness. It is a statement on our society that just because someone is rich and well mannered, we consider him to be a nice person. But only in trying situations, we realize a person's worth. A murderer had the courtesy to protect a girl, whereas the girl's own uncle, supposedly a cultured man, did the most heinous of acts.
Heera para bajaar mein
Raha chhaar laptaaye
Keetehi moorakh pachhe mohe
Koi parakhi liya uthaaye
While most care about how something looks,
the intelligent ones can recognize a real gem even when it doesn't look good.
Imtiaz uses his typical style from other films here as well. Just like Love Aaj Kal begins by the song Yeh Dooriyaan where we see the journey of the characters, Highway, also begins by exactly the similar sequence where we see the picturesque journey that Imtiaz will take us. Like in Jab We Met, the most dramatic and important sequences came in the train shot, once in the beginning when Aditya was about to jump from the train and the second one when Geet was talking to Anshuman, and all we can hear is the sound of the train; in Highway too, something similar happens, there is a gun shot in the first half and the second half, and all we can hear is the sound of the gun. Also, the use of symmetry as in Jab We Met is also present here. In the first half, it is Veera who wants to run away and in the second half, it is Mahabir who wants to run away. More on Jab We Met here. If we make a graph of Imtiaz's films, his male characters are becoming more brooding — from Viren in Socha Na Tha to Aditya in Jab We Met to Jordan in Rockstar to Mahabir in Highway. Every film of Imtiaz Ali is related to journeys. All of Imtiaz's films make the point that somehow journeys are more important than the destination. Whether it is Socha Na Tha, Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal, or Rockstar — all his films involve some element of a journey either travelling to different places or as is shown in Rockstar — the spiritual journey of Jordan. And then comes Highway — a fitting sequel :)
Alia Bhatt gives a spectacular performance as Veera. But I loved Randeep Hooda. He was brilliantly understated as Shahid was in Jab We Met. He brings a rawness to Mahabir and he is clearly one of our most underrated actors. The music and lyrics by AR Rehman and Irshaad Kamil, respectively, are another character of their own. One cannot be unaffected by it. Anil Mehta's cinematography is gorgeous. Some shots are a treat to the eyes and I so wish I had watched this on the big screen. Imtiaz Ali's direction is brilliant.
However, there were some sequences which I tried really hard but could not understand them. Like the two shoes after the song Tu Kuja Man Kuja. In Patakha Guddi, we see Veera with one shoe and then later, Mahabur is tying his shoe laces. Couldn't figure out the connection. Also, the transgender consort of the gangster, what was that about? And the things hanging on the tree — I could identify only the key of the house where Veer and Mahabir had stayed.
Khatra — The man
Lion and Deer — Mahabir and Veera; also Awaz Dedo :)
Ma Durga — Veera is a mother to him
Ashley Lobo as Body Language Consultant — Very Interesting
Also, Baradwaj Rangan has written the best review of Highway. He makes such excellent points that I am amazed. He says, "the love between Veera and Mahabir is also the love between two scarred people (Hooda literally carries a scar, which slices through an eyebrow) who finally luck into someone like them." When I read his review, it made me feel that my review is totally crappy. I wish I had a little bit of depth like him. I love reading comments on his blog. This reader made such a terrific insight. Read it here. Wonderful.
Highway is an exhilarating and intoxicating film. It nudges us into a zone of our self-consciousness. Even for a sea person like me, it made me fall in love with the mountains. It gives you a certain 'high', it calls you to take your own journey, to explore yourself, to find your own freedom, to overcome your inner demons, and to find inner peace. It slowly grew on me and made me care for its characters. There are rare films that stay with you for a long time and Highway is one of them. Once you get on this Highway, nothing else matters, except yourself. When the water scene was coming, I was reminded of these beautiful lines from The Last Song of Dusk.
You should never see you life in terms of one singular existence, but try and imagine as if it were like water. See that rain? Well, our life is like the water that tumbles out of the sky and into the stream. And then some day, the stream arches in to the river. Running with a mad fever, this river heads for the ocean. Where it rests and plays. But before you know it, that same bead of water will rise up from the ocean's chest and soar into the great old sky to become the cloud it came from...and so on, life starts over and over again. Thunder unfrees the drop, lightning announces its return and the earth sighs at its inception..oh, the old sky we all are here, and always the ocean will be.
Highway brings a certain tranquility — the thing that we want so desperately — if only, temporarily for a few hours. I strongly recommend that you take it as well.
Dialogue of the Day:
Jugni rukh pippal da hoi,
Jis nu pooje ta har koi,
Jisdi fasal kisi na boyi,
Ghar bhi rakh sake na koi.