Buoyed by my recent success picking Hindi movies, I'd earmarked this and the promising Madras Cafe to watch on Netflix. To my joy, there was little cause to use the fast-forward button except once.
The eponymous open roads of north India are the setting for this Stockholm Syndrome-ish story. Veera, a super-rich bride-to-be in Delhi, is somewhat randomly kidnapped on the eve of her wedding. Randomly how? Because her kidnappers literally run into her while holding up someone at a late-night gas station, and make off with her. Having done that and ascertained her identity as the daughter of a Very Big Fish indeed (her dad has a Rolls Royce), it then seems that the goons have very little idea of what to do with her. There is some discussion of a ransom, some half-baked plan of selling her to a brothel; meanwhile they must keep moving because one of their own has ratted them out to the cops. Hence, they get on the highway.
Now here is where a transformation occurs in their captive. The childish, goofy Veera we saw in the opening scene returns, having spent her escape option because they are at the edge of the vast salt flats of Rajasthan and she has no chance of survival. This is one of the great visuals of the film: Veera running desperately under the immense starry sky, the nothingness of the white salt all around her stretching to infinity. Something comes un-moored in her after this experience, almost like all her fear of the filthy, hard-talking kidnappers has been shaken out and replaced with a wide-eyed wonder that for the first time she is alone. That too, in the midst of strangers. Then there's the open road. The spoiled child has never experienced such freedom; improbably, she develops a scratchy chumminess with her captors and appears to savor little moments each day. (The scene where she watches a folk-singing concert from the back of the truck was lovely.)
The main goon is a snarly Haryanvi youth named Mahabir who then becomes the object of her somewhat absurd affection. He's having none of it. But before long he's sharing memories of his mother (Veera and he are both survivors of childhood trauma) and then he's abandoned his plan of selling her.
Alas, it won't end well. We know this. Suffice it to say the script wins in this depiction of the ill-fated fondness between the two. They don't even kiss, but they are a pair. He's more realistic than her to the end, but he allows the dam to burst and I found Mahabir's tears very compelling here. His other great moment was when he finally fully smiles: the one and only time in the entire movie, and the transformation of his face felt profound and hard-won. Randeep Hooda's Mahabir really worked. I've always liked the guy, must look for more of him.
As for Alia Bhatt as Veera, she's pretty strong. There are no false notes, and her extreme youth and innocence are a great foil for her hero's hard-bitten criminality. All the gangsters were outstanding; the only weak bits were Veera's family and her cipher fiance.
And that's the thought I was left with: the whole childhood trauma angle could have been left out altogether especially at the end. This is too grave a subject to serve as only one of many elements; more so because the performances of the older actors in the outburst scene were so thin that the entire impact was lost anyway. On the other hand, I suddenly saw why we didn't get to see them at all during Veera's captivity: they are so hair-pullingly dull that they didn't deserve it.
So in the end, I still enjoyed Highway. There's something to be said for director Imtiaz Ali's sensitive handling, the haunting musical score, and the devastating beauty of rural, mountainous India. (Bonus points for including the Rajasthan folk singers and the beautiful Bakarwal tribal people of Kashmir. Each had a face for the ages.) Also, I wish R. Hooda and Alia would do another movie together, they do play off each other with humor and flash.