Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why Highway is probably the most personal film I will ever see

Spoiler alert: if you haven't watched the film, you probably shouldn't read further. Duty done.

Let me start off by saying that I haven't been Imtiaz Ali's biggest fan. I really like his filmmaking style because it is innately gentle, and somehow....decent. But I really disliked Love Aaj Kal, and  Rockstar's casting choice felt dishonest to me. Initially I dismissed Highway because I'd heard that Alia Bhatt was the female lead, and the ridiculousness of her debut film led me to believe that another Rockstaresque debacle was on its way. It was only the songs that pulled me to the film inexplicably; I've been obsessing over them for the last 2 weeks. Some instinct told me to watch it alone.

On Saturday morning I caught a morning show of the film, trying to temper my excitement with a cynical detachment. The film drew me in from the first frame. Somewhere, something wonderful happened: the line between the characters onscreen and myself became completely blurred. I was no longer watching a story, I was being it. It was one of the most profound, moving experiences of my life.

First, a tight slap to all the film critics who talked about the moral dilemma of liking a film about Stockholm Syndrome. A film critic is supposed to be someone learned and discerning, someone who can look beyond the surface of a film and find its internal rhythm. Stockholm Syndrome is a lazy, superficial and misinformed reading of this film; a reduction of a beautiful story to a cliche using its most obvious elements. This film is not about a woman falling in love with her abductor. The abduction is peripheral, a narrative device to explain how two very, very unlikely people came together. Even if it were about the Stockholm Syndrome, why on earth would liking the film mean that you were glorifying kidnapping? That's like saying that fans of Baazigar go around pushing women off skyscrapers. Ridiculous.

What I saw onscreen was a story about two people forging a tender, tremulous connection; one that need not necessarily have been romantic love. It was about the feeling of being trapped by the life you know, about the need to break away from the structure you are afraid to live without. It was about acknowledging that some hurts never go away or get easier over time, because they are not meant to. It was travelling over an emotional landscape that was brutal and dry at one moment and raw and vulnerable the next. I saw two people becoming more than the summary of their characters, becoming what the other needed in order to let go of the most private, the most brutal  pain. That may be love, but not the romantic love that made the critics uncomfortable. It was a love born out of wonder that someone, somewhere knows, even without knowing your story. Someone understands, and will still be there tomorrow.

I doubt if people who have never had anything really bad happen to them will understand what happened to me in that movie theatre. For the first time in a long time, I wept. The intimate knowledge of how it feels to lock down pain in the most secret part of you, the amazement of someone really seeing you for the first time, the ache of a lullaby that reminds that some aches always remain, the guilt you bear, illogically, for your own trauma, and the redemptive power of being truly loved: it was like watching the most tender parts of myself come to life. My most intimate emotional locks were washed away, I was left vulnerable after a lifetime, and I was thankful.

We all meet people who hurt us; a lucky few meet our healers. I know this personally because I married mine. An even luckier minority comes across a transformative artistic experience. I count myself blessed.

 P.S.: I am almost always let down by the pettiness of people. There were a few who just couldn't stomach the idea that a billionaire's daughter could hug a truck driver: it made them laugh. They couldn't understand the emotional intimacy resulting from sharing one's deepest, most traumatic secret. Would it stop you?