Although far from being a perfect film, Highway left me with fairly deep emotions, and some enduring moments outside the rational. All of these had to do with the ugliness, allure, and sense of human possibilities that inequality — economic, linguistic and libidinal — creates for us in our everyday lives in the subcontinent. It struck me while watching Highway how this beyond-the-rational quality comes, to a great extent, from vernacular cinema’s long relationship with music and song. Music is not just ‘background’ music in our films, and therefore in our lives, but keeps erupting as a living presence in the midst of our sense of the real, while making room for the unreal, the visceral and the absurd within the real. So, even as our rational and respectable selves see the singing and dancing for what it is, our dancing-in-the-dark selves have learnt to respond to these intensifications of experience with a naturalness that is, perhaps, unique to the cinema of our part of the world. This is given a twist by our suspension of disbelief every time we watch an iconic actor lipping an iconic playback singer, letting two voices and two persons become one, while remaining distinct in our fancy.
Western traditions of opera and musicals do not, somehow, have this naturalness, contemporaneity and reach built into their high and low minglings of music and realism. So, when Lars von Trier and Björk make Dancer in the Dark, Baz Luhrmann makes his supermodern versions of the classics, and Almodóvar confects song-enriched moments of outrageous sexiness in a film like Bad Education, they not only draw from their own traditions of music and cinema, but also look towards what they lazily call Bollywood. They take from it not only its musical idioms, but also the overall textures of representation that are the fruit of these idioms, which Western film-historians, just as lazily, lump together as Bollywood kitsch. The best histories of these idioms lie in unusual places — Manto’s film journalism, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, or Dayanita Singh’s bodies of work on Saroj Khan (Masterji) and Mona Ahmed.
So, when Alia Bhatt sings herself down the lost-mother route into Randeep Hooda’s sensual memory (helped along by A.R. Rahman’s deliciously smooth local-global weaves), or when she dances to ‘English music’ in a bleakly rugged parking lot for buses and lorries, watched by her bemused abductors, this otherwise trendy and topical ‘road movie’ slips effortlessly into another living history that pre-dates the multiplex audiences whose Punjabi-baroque complacencies the film wants to turn upside down. A filmmaker who understands this subliminal art of melodic persuasion quite brilliantly was originally a man of music. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool comes close to being a great film. When I close my eyes and try to recall the essence of the film — its truth to, and daring of, Shakespeare — I always go back to the sickening silkenness of the song to which Irrfan and Tabu sex and unsex (with a bit of help from a gun and a misplaced earring). On the other hand, I remember being terribly impressed by the wisdom and sophistication of Ship of Theseus while watching the film. But I woke up the next morning, and nothing at all came back to haunt me. Not a single image or tune.