Road film. Literally so.
After Rockstar, Imtiaz was planning another biggie with Ranbir Kapoor when suddenly this old script of his reared its beautiful head. “I was not preparing for this at all but as I started exploring the possibility, I got drawn more and more. And then the challenge of making an entire movie on the road really got me going.” After two rounds of recce, Imtiaz hit the Highway — a first-of-a-kind Bollywood road movie shot on, well, the highways of six states (Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir). “I also thought of setting the film in the Bengal-Bihar-Odisha belt but finally settled for north India,” said the man from Jamshedpur.
Start. Stop. Shoot. Restart.
Highway is primarily the story of two characters from very different backgrounds — played by Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt — who take the road trip across six states in a truck. Imtiaz and team have devised this incredibly original way of shooting the film almost entirely on real locations. Early morning they would leave their hotel in a huge luxury bus, consisting of the main cast and crew, and take the state highway. Then they would stop at certain sites along the way, get off the bus, put the actors in the truck and shoot from all possible angles. DoP (director of photography) Anil Mehta would place the camera inside the truck, rig it on to the truck (from where Imtiaz is seen hanging like a superhero in his blue ‘Highway’ tee in picture on Page 13) and sit with the camera on another truck to capture the particular segment as thoroughly as possible. Some sites along the highway have been pre-planned while some are just random locations that have caught Imtiaz’s eye. “This format has been the most exciting bit about Highway,” says Mehta, the master cinematographer.
Method to the madness.
All is not random on the road for Highway. Like on the stretch between Jaipur and Bikaner where we boarded the bus with Imtiaz and company, their scheduled stops had a valid narrative reason. “The terrain is eventually changing from sand to hills within Rajasthan.” So the team stopped at a place called Kuchaman valley where the sand dunes provided the perfect terrain transition.
There’s also a lot of logic and continuity in what Randeep and Alia are wearing in the film. Since there are very few costume changes, they can’t possibly go wrong with the detailing. Like Randeep’s character is seen in a sweater. There’s, of course, a debate with Anil Mehta as to why he is wearing woollens in the scorching sunshine but Imtiaz has his own theory. Also, Randeep’s facial hair is trimmed to the same size almost every day. As for Alia, a lot of care is taken in getting the correct-sized scar on the forehead and the right sweat patches.
The unlikely pair. The incompatible love story.
The first reaction to Highway is not Imtiaz Ali on the road or A.R. Rahman to rock it again but the lead pair of Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt. Strange choice is the unanimous reaction. Of course Imtiaz wanted it to be that way. “Aren’t they as incompatible as it gets? Not just the audience, I wanted the two of them to feel the same. So that their getting close to each other is as difficult for them as it is for all of us.”
With Highway, Imtiaz is trying to explore the notion that you truly find yourself when you are away from comfort zone This exploration happens with Alia’s character. “I wasn’t looking for someone as young as Alia (she just turned 20 on March 15) but after meeting her, I knew she was the one!” Alia, on her part, has been at her bindaas best right through the shoot. She has been moving with the crew, often staying at the same hotels with them and eating at the roadside dhabas with them. She has even been unfazed when someone on the highway fishes out a mobile camera and goes click-click. “Arey Student of the Year waali ladki naa?” Yes. And no.
Hooda Hooda. The bang. The bang.
More than his recent resurrection (Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster) Imtiaz was most impressed with the Randeep Hooda of Monsoon Wedding, his first film. “There is an honesty in his performances and the kind of arrogance which suits the character in Highway very well,” says the writer-director. “In my films actors make a big difference in how the movies turn out and Randeep’s commitment to the role has been terrific.”
The director and his leading man have been bonding famously during this long first schedule of Highway. Almost every day after the shoot the two would probe deep into Randeep’s character in the film, his ideal approach to it and just cinema in general. Over cups of steaming Darjeeling tea that Imtiaz carries with him wherever he goes.
Pictures: Pratim D. Gupta