Dubai: Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt sported a ritzy, preppy look in her debut film Student Of The Year, but it’s safe to assume that the budget set aside for her lavish clothes in that elite collegiate drama could be the total budget of her second project, Highway.
“It’s a complete contrast and it’s absolutely opposite of the girl that I played in Student Of The Year. From the ambience to clothes to my personality, there’s a big change and I like that,” Bhatt said.
“For the record, I am not anything like Shanaya in real life,” she added, alluding to her award-winning role as the spoilt princess who studies in a plush private school.
In Highway, there are no designer handbags or couture dresses to distract us. The trailers of Highway, directed by Imtiaz Ali of Love Aaj Kal and Jab We Met fame, show a feisty girl, Veera (Bhatt) who is abducted by Mahabir (Randeep Hooda), a brooding and unkempt gang leader. But the abduction plans go awry and the captors embark on a journey in the hilly, hostile terrain of India in a rundown truck along with their prized catch.
It’s not particularly glamorous and the characters rarely crack a smile — a departure from Ali’s brand of cinema, known for urbane, sophisticated lead actors caught up in complicated relationships, where even as the protagonists are undergoing break-ups (remember Deepika Padukone in Love Aaj Kal or Shahid Kapoor in Jab We Met), they are not unhinged.
Unconventional love story
“Sometimes life takes you on a journey — it may not be a journey of your choice and it may sometimes be against your wishes, but it may end up liberating you. Highway is one such story. It doesn’t follow the pattern of the usual love stories in Bollywood,” Ali said.
Ask him about the Stockholm Syndrome undertone in his latest project and he goes: “Highway is not a sadistic love story. The idea is not to say that you should fall in love with your oppressor or those who inflict pain. It’s about how you cure yourself from pain.”
While words such as “catharsis” and “emotional discovery” rarely result in blockbusters in Bollywood, Ali is one of the few directors who will probably get away with it. His record for delivering entertainers with wide appeal is spot on. Bhatt, the daughter of prolific producer-director Mahesh Bhatt and actress Soni Razdan, claims she just let instincts guide her.
“I didn’t think twice about taking the role on. I didn’t think about my character or its graph or what the audience will take away from it. I just gave my heart to it and it was total surrender. Imtiaz didn’t have to sell me the script,” Bhatt said.
The Highway crew was on the road for over 80 days and filmed in six Indian states, including Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Kashmir. It was filmed in a typical road trip movie style.
“We all had to be on the same page and we had to be a set of people who didn’t mind foregoing creature comforts. There were days when we didn’t have phone signals and we all had to just huddle together, sit in one small room because our collective body warmth helped. In life, you rarely get situations like these. It was a cathartic journey for everybody. We rediscovered ourselves,” Ali said.
While all of this sounds like one big, romantic adventure, there were moments when he was wracked with insecurity. He had his Highway script ready even before his first film, Socha Na Tha in 2005, but he had to serve his time proving his credentials as a bankable director.
“While walking up a particular location, I wouldn’t know what I would shoot there. I just let myself be inspired by the elements. All this sounds good after it’s done but at that time, it was painful and traumatic. Keeping the script fluid can be a tortuous process,” Ali said.
He describes Highway as “an old dream that refused to die”, and gathering a bunch of “loonies” who shared his madness was the starting point. “I needed actors and technicians who looked at all of this as a fun adventure in the guise of work. The hardships of braving the cold, not having proper hotels to stay in or warm food everyday should make them feel as if it’s all a thrilling adventure. In other words, I needed loonies who enjoyed the process and understood what I was trying to do.”
While Bhatt and Hooda make an unlikely couple (a casting choice that will make sense after we watch the movie, Ali promises), the director has managed a casting coup in terms of music score. He got on board the most sought-after music composer, Oscar winner A.R. Rahman, for Highway, which otherwise exudes an indie air.
“I am not being fatalistic. But it’s just good fortune that he agreed because I know that the movie wouldn’t have been the same without him. His music is the soul of the film.”
Don’t miss it
Highway is out in the UAE now.