Highway: Berlin Review

Soul-lifting visuals and a score by A. R. Rahman help, but can’t save, a pat drama.

Director Imtiaz Ali takes a break from the Bollywood rom-com genre for a road movie about an unhappy rich girl who falls for her kidnapper.

Bollywood director Imtiaz Ali drifts away from his high-payback comfort zone of romantic comedy played by big stars to experiment with a romantic drama/road movie in Highway. The love story between a desperado and a beautiful rich girl he accidentally kidnaps isn’t remotely believable, especially as enacted by box office draws Randeep Hooda (Jism 2) and 20-year-old Alia Bhatt (Student of the Year), and watching a silly girl ooze Stockholm syndrome after the horrific gang rapes that have made headlines in India leaves a queasy aftertaste. Still Ali has a deft hand in creating a fantasy world based on the classical Sita-Ravana model, and gives Bhatt free rein to project herself with unabashed teenage appeal, so even if the box office is unlikely to measure up to Jab We Met and his big hit Love Aaj Kal, it should nonetheless be respectable.

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A passable festival film only in the sense of the exotic locations and the current taste for India, it looked a little odd bowing in the Berlin Panorama before theatrical release in India and the U.S. on Feb. 21.

Veera Tripathy (Bhatt), the spoiled scion of an influential Delhi family, is on the verge of getting married. Immature and self-willed, she forces her poor fiance to take her on a secret drive in the middle of the night to "get some air." A few minutes later they stumble onto a robbery at a gas station and Veera is taken hostage. One can only sympathize with the helpless groom-to-be as he calls out to her angrily, "I warned you!"

The gang seems more dismayed than she does when they discover they have a dangerous VIP with connections in high places on their hands, yet their stubborn leader Mahabir Bhatti (Hooda) refuses to let her go. Trying to stay one step ahead of the law, he takes her on a cross-country trek down India’s many and varied highways, past breathtaking views of Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, the deserts of Rajasthan and the Himalayas.

Tied up and gagged in the back of a colorful truck, Veera at first seems in grave danger, but she soon turns the situation around to a Ransom of Red Chief scenario in which her unpredictable, self-centered behavior drives everyone to distraction, or at least leaves the gang open-mouthed. It’s hard for the audience not to feel the same way, especially when she starts hugging trees and chatting to herself out loud in bad improv. The gruff Mahabir pretends to turn a cold shoulder to her bratty charm, while he’s secretly falling for the girl. For her part, Veera declares she’s never felt freer or happier than riding with him and wishes her kidnapping would never end.

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Wearing bad hair, rough clothes and a plaid blanket over his shoulders, Hooda is quite the criminal element, but disappointingly low on his usual charm. His perpetually imploring look wears thin quickly. Bhatt, on the other hand, is increasingly fresh and carefree as she enjoys her newfound life outside the gilded cage.   

Top composer A. R. Rahman, who won due Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire’s music and songs, has less to inspire him than in his previous collaboration with Ali, the music-laden Rockstar.  But the soundtrack is still a joy to listen to and makes a fine complement to Anil Mehta’s dreamy images of India's soulful landscapes.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Opens: Feb. 21, 2014
A UTV Motion Pictures release of a Window Seat Films, Nadiadwala Grandsons Entertainment production
Cast: Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhatt
Director: Imtiaz Ali
Screenwriter: Imtiaz Ali
Producers: Imtiaz Ali, Sajid Nadiadwala

Executive producer: Rajesh Sharma
Director of photography: Anil Mehta
Production designer: Sumit Basu
Costumes: Aki Narula

Editor: Aarti Bajaj
Music: A. R. Rahman
Sales Agent: UTV Software Communications
No rating, 133 minutes