How do you define freedom? More importantly, how do you define your freedom? The qualifier ‘your’ is especially important here, because in this one-size-fits-all world our individual definitions can get lost. The writing is quite clear on the wall: This is how we define happiness; this is how we define normalcy. All your definitions better align with ours, because we are correct for we don’t raise our voices. When the chips are down we just prefer to look the other way. There’s a certain crippling helplessness, when you are trying to say something but the words don’t materialize. Or, worse, you end up saying something but others can’t hear you. Highway shelters that helplessness.
Quite early on in the film, Veera tries to escape twice. The first time from her own house—or, more suitably her father’s house—and, the second time from her kidnapper’s den. In the first case, she knows what she’s looking for—a breather (at least that’s what appears to us then)—in the second case she doesn’t even know what she’s after. Instead she’s doing what’s supposed to be done. She’s doing what her family members or friends would have done in such a case. This constant tussle—between your right and theirs—informs most of the narrative in Highway. It’s implicitly stated throughout the film that the definitions of normal and abnormal are cast in stone— don’t question or wrestle with them. And it’s this notion that Highway tackles head-on. It doesn’t shout back, but almost lets out a tired ‘Why’? Why and how can your definitions of anything be aligned with mine? Why this fixation with a common world view?
Having said that, the first third of the film plays out quite unevenly. Because we don’t know why Veera chose to escape. And why is she beginning to get warmed up to the concept of living with strangers in a foreign land, where she’s clearly unsafe? What drove her? Was it teenage angst? Was it rebellion just for its own sake? Or, was it a desire to escape the mundaneness of her everyday life? Because if the answers were yes to those questions, then it probably would not have done the film any good, because things don’t remain the same all the time. Escaping can also become a routine; it doesn’t take much for the newer landscapes to acquire a saturated hue. If all that you are doing is running away from your own self, then nothing external can give you solace.
So it was essential for the film to provide us with a reason. Also because of the way she’s physically tortured— mouth gagged with a soiled cloth, tied hands, deprived of basic amenities. And the way you might react to the rest of the film depends a lot on how you react to the revelation itself. But what’s more important is not merely the gravity of the revelation—a grim social reality that’s discussed about a lot in films all over the world—but what Ali chooses to do with it. He doesn’t use the revelation to build his subsequent scenes— a decision that sets Highway apart from the other films centered on the same issue. In Highway, Ali uses the grim incident to drive home a larger point: About the ideological dichotomies you have to often put up with, mostly with people who are supposed to look after you because they have known you for the longest. But what do you do when their definition of love, decorum, everything is so different from yours? Wanting to talk about this is Highway’s greatest triumph. The fact that it uses a misdeed to talk about the larger picture renders the crime incidental. More than the crime, Ali is interested in exploring the hypocrisy of the affluent, of the people who inflict emotional violence without raising their voice, of the people who tell you to not shout because propriety matters to them more. In fact, in one of the scenes in the film towards its end, when Veera is quite visibly distraught, her mother advises her calmly: “Aise react karna jaise sab normal hai (React as if everything is normal).”
Also more importantly, what is this film about? For me, Highway was hardly about Veera and Mahabir. It was never their story. It was also never just Veera’s story in isolation as well. It was Veera coming to terms with the world she lives in, the world she has always lived in. It was her coming to terms with the people around. The essence of the film becomes clear when you see how Ali chooses to open and end the film. The film starts with Veera being surrounded by her family members, where collective merriment is in the air, and as the film nears its end, we again see her being surrounded by the same family members. But this time she has found her voice. The journey, and consequently the film itself, was about Veera finding her voice. Whatever happened during the course of the journey—she falling for Mahabir, gaining consciousness of the outside, the temporary fear and relief—was merely a by-product. But before finding her voice in front of her family members, it was essential that Veera first found that voice herself on her own terms. And although that moment comes unannounced, it ends quite emphatically. Right after the interval, when the blazing Patakha Guddi kicks in, we see Veera’s hand flirting with the wind as it slaps her hand. She slowly emerges out of the truck’s window and lets out a cry. We obviously can’t hear her shout because the song continues playing in the background, but this is it: We know the walls have begun to crumble. Because the outside world can only provide a temporary solace. Till you don’t resolve what’s piercing you from the inside, what’s there on the outside—the world itself or the people—can only be fleeting and amorphous.
Almost all Ali’s films can be simplistically slotted into ones besotted with ‘journeys and destinations’. And although that motif can be easily abused by making films that underscore literal, even metaphorical truisms such as ‘The journey is more important than the destination’, or a more saccharine ‘Finding yourself during the course of the journey when all you were doing was trying to find the destination or simply escaping’, it’s interesting to see how the philosophy of Ali’s films has changed as he’s greyed as a filmmaker while he continues to make films centred on ‘journeys and destinations’. Socha Na Tha, for the most of its running time skipped along merrily, but its climax was heavily contrived, intentionally escalating the stakes and convoluting things before the curtains drew. Jab We Met gravitated towards an end that was instantly agreeable and natural. Love Aaj Kal, much grander in terms of scale and distance, too strove for a similar kind of an ending. But there was a distinct change in the way Ali approached relationships post Love Aaj Kal. Rockstar—a film that sparkled in parts, but was cruelly oblivious to its own potential—pointed towards that new definition. Because Rockstar onwards, Ali’s films resist a sweeping denouement; they resist tying the loose threads together. They understand that a relationship need not be necessarily eternal for it to be fulfilling, that interrupted love in its own way can be fulfilling too.
Hence, it’s important to see how Ali sees Veera and Mahabir (Hooda) when they are together. Their relationship leaps from one extreme to the other: what’s initially marked off by extreme coarseness gives way to crushing tenderness. Both of them are fractured to such an extent—owing to past scars—that their relationship resists definition, and thankfully, Ali doesn’t try to fill in the gaps, doesn’t do the writing for us. Although, in both Rockstar and Highway, the death comes across as a saviour. A ploy Bollywood is not unfamiliar with whenever it can’t get its leads together. For instance, in Sholay, we know there’s no way Jai’s love story can end in an ideal way (it was early ’70s and Bollywood was still coy of showing a widow remarrying), so Jai was the one who had to die, as opposed to Veeru, whose story had a much more conventional arc. Similarly, here, we know there’s no easy way out for Mahabir and Veera; in fact, there is no way out for them. And that would have been just about fine. Because you don’t necessarily need to create emptiness.