[Cast: Randeep Hooda, Alia Bhat, Durgesh Kumar; Music: A R Rahman; Direction: Imtiaz Ali]

Highway is a classic example for the dilemma a film-critic faces. Here’s where you see a great movie in the making, in the draft table, a very sincere effort from the film-maker and a relatively unique script, some terrific performances, inspired music score, yet all combine to produce uninspiring cinema. We tend to spend our time in the theatre wondering what had gone wrong rather than immersing ourselves in the experience.

To be sure, there are some splendid, surreal and, of course, Sufi moments in the film. ‘Where I came from, I don’t want to go back there; where we’re going, I don’t want us to reach there. Is it at all possible?’ wonders the heroine. She is Imtiaz Ali’s third girl to run away from her home, not because her folk were bad, or were poor, but simply because, well, she likes to run. ‘Four walls make me claustrophobic,’ she confesses to the small-time goons who have abducted her. They didn’t kidnap her for any gains; in fact the very kidnap was accidental. And the moment they figured that she is a daughter of an influential man with deep connections in the power corridors of Delhi, they are seriously terrified. And they want to let her go from the first instance. It is she who doesn’t let go of them. Soon you realise that it’s actually she who has abducted them. Other than the claustrophobia that Imtiaz Ali’s girls frequently suffer from, we don’t know what else her motivation could be. We do find out soon. And it isn’t pretty.

Then, we wonder, why should the hero be protective of her, what should be his reasons. And yet, why is he so rough and cold towards her? We find out that too a bit later, when he reluctantly softens towards her. These were crucial and classic moments which Ali stages with extreme sensitivity and less melodrama. The greatest achievement Ali manages to accomplish is to have kept the film devoid of any background music, which is usually used in our films to amplify these scenes. These scenes are executed at their own strengths trusting the actors and the mood. Despite all these great accomplishments, something is amiss somewhere that prevents us from immersing ourselves in their world. Is it the abruptness of their camaraderie, is it the absence of the perspective of her and his family or is it the lack of star presence of the lead actors?

We know Ali’s focus is not the story, scenes or the dialogue. About Jackie Chan’s films, the legendary critic Roger Ebert once remarked that ‘his plots exist only as clotheslines on which to hang the action scenes.’ To paraphrase this, Imtiaz Ali’s plots exist only as clotheslines on which to hang his restless and wandering Sufiness.’ That’s what we got in Rockstar where a wafer thin story was expanded to project the two wandering souls. It was accompanied by inspired direction and, of course, an extraordinary music score.

In Highway, the story is just a prop, a device for Ali to stage the journey. To seek the redemption in the hills, in the snow-capped mountains, in gushing rivers; if he wanted, Ali could have shown the other side, of the search for the girl, which happens with the help of every force at disposal. He could have pitted that search as a parallel narrative against their run, to bring in some urgency. Consider this possibility: the police and the commando forces have reached Rajasthan. The girl is holed up in a shanty place on the outskirts. They find out the location and are on their way. Just minutes before they reach, the goons shift her location.

This could have made the film more exciting and engaging. Of course this doesn’t happen. We know that’s not Ali’s intention. He doesn’t want us to hurry. His idea of engagement is through the hills, through the roads, through the implosive silence.

Yet, what worked so powerfully in Rockstar, where the experience was immersive, where we forgot the world and joined Ali in his meditative Qawwali, in Highway we find ourselves standing on the side-lines and merely watching the show. It feels so unfair to criticise the film-maker for baring his soul, making a film directly from his heart and executing it in the most uncompromising manner possible in Bollywood. But, like him, we too have to bare our heart. The mind says it’s a great attempt so keep quiet, but the heart says, well…