Destination films are often a balm to our souls, allowing us to escape from the confines of our homes, something we all craved especially in the year of the pandemic. We dreamt of bachelor trips in Spain, trekking with school friends in Manali, and of spiritual awakenings in Bali.
But some journeys are more liberating than others. Some free you from the shackles of pain you've put on yourself, from the mufflers you put on your own heart and throat so that your every day could be a little bit more bearable. One such journey is the one Veera Tripathi (played by a mesmerising Alia Bhatt) undertakes in Imtiaz Ali's Highway (2014).
Highway follows a young daughter of a Delhi industrialist, kidnapped from a petrol station, who discovers what it feels to be free on the roads of India. The film co-stars a magnetic Randeep Hooda as the kidnapper and petty thief Mahabir, who kidnaps Veera with his compatriots, not realising her father has powerful ties to the government.
As they travel across the country evading the police, Veera discovers newfound independence, one away from her haunted past of being sexually abused by her family. She reveals this to Mahabir, whose conflicted feelings about the girl he kidnapped grow to become affection. He even tries to help her escape by dropping her off at a police station, but she vehemently refuses, as she has found happiness in the vagabond life that she and Mahabir shared.
As they both share troubling stories from their childhood, we see two kindred souls becoming balms for each other's spirit, a momentary love story that soothes us in the process. This, like most road movies, is a bildungsroman, but the journey Veera takes is not just the one where she is physically kidnapped, but also towards her choice to be free and unapologetically herself. She discovers the futility of running away from her problems deep within the salt flats of Gujarat and reflects on the expanse of the world around her at the foothills of the Himalayas. Gone is the quiet, compliant girl in the first twenty or thirty minutes of the film; we begin to see the spark of curiosity and the childlike joy that she spreads to everyone around her.
Highway was a painful first watch for me, especially the visceral reaction at the end of the film when Veera finally confronts her tormentors and allows herself to feel pain at Mahabir's death. It was a provocative mirror for me, one that pushed me to confront my own struggles with mental health. But it was equally the freedom and empowerment Veera felt in occupying her own space, alongside the struggle to let go of what hurt her, that allowed me to act upon my own tribulations.
Since 2014, I can safely say that I've not only played 'Patakha Guddi' on repeat as a fight song, but last year permanently inked the Irshad Kamil lyrical masterpiece on my left arm, to serve as an everyday reminder of how proud I am of my journey to myself. So, I implore you, dear reader: go on, find yourself.