Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni is one of the best-known and most acclaimed directors working in Marathi cinema today. An FTII grad, Kulkarni has previously directed acclaimed and successful films such as Valu (2008), Vihir (2010), and the National-Award-winning Deool (2011).
In his latest film Highway: Ek Selfie Aarpaar, Kulkarni reunites most of his Deool cast in an ambitious multilingual film that also features Bollywood actors Huma Qureshi and Tisca Chopra as well as a couple of songs composed by Amit Trivedi. A vignette-based story of assorted, motley characters travelling on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, Highway comes across as vastly different territory for its director, who has previously made hinterland-based films.
Here, characters switch between Marathi, English, and Hindi and hail from various social classes. We have men who are as different as the stiff, US-returned Girish Kulkarni (last seen in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly), who is uncomfortable with the idea of sharing an 8-seater car with a single stranger, and the bitterly remorseful husband played by Kishore Kadam, who spends the entire journey being berated by his wife. The women in this film sport many hues as well, ranging from the TV actress on her way to a political event (Huma Qureshi) to the saucy bar dancer (Mukta Barve).
The opening half hour of the film establishes a beautiful rhythm, in which we’re introduced to no less than 35 characters. This, as you may have guessed, proves to be one of the film’s many undoings later on, as Kulkarni finds it impossible to provide adequate screen-time to do justice to all these stories. This is a pity, of course, since most of the stories are quite fascinating by themselves.
However, many story-arcs either remain incomplete or go absolutely nowhere or, worse still, had no significant takeaway to begin with. Take, for instance, a track featuring a married upper-class woman (Tisca Chopra) who is travelling to Lonavala for an extra-marital romp with a young college student. By the time the movie ends, not only has nothing significant happened to the characters, but we don’t really know anything new about them either. In hindsight, it almost comes across as though this portion existed for the purposes of shock value alone.
Tisca Chopra, in a still from 'Highway'
The common conflict point for all characters, where they’re forced (largely by the screenwriter, Girish Kulkarni) to take stock of their lives, is an impossibly-long traffic jam. This takes place in the ghats section of the expressway, bringing all their journeys to a literal standstill. Aside from the symbolism being embarrassingly in-your-face, the way the characters deal with it is uneven, with some instances being satisfactory and others stretching credulity.
How, for instance, does it take just one traffic jam for a douchey husband (Sunil Barve) — in a better marriage with his corporate job than with his irrational, emotionally fragile wife — to really confront who he is? Also, what are we supposed to make of the story of the doting father who misses his bus (which has his young son) when he’s at a rest-stop and finally catches up with it thanks to the jam? That he got lucky?
Even if the overall script doesn’t really work, there are moments when the writing sparkles and hits home. Some of the best scenes are those involving the uptight Kulkarni, speaking liberally in English to often hilarious effect, and the middle-class housewife played by Renuka Shahane (delivering the film’s best performance), who enters the film mid-way after her husband is injured in an accident and they happen to get a lift from the car carrying Kulkarni. A conversation between them in the ghats where they snack on chivda and exchange life stories is easily the movie’s best scene. Another scene with Chopra’s character and her boy-toy playing a word-association game also stands out.
Huma Qureshi, in a still from 'Highway'
However, whatever emotional impact the movie delivers is often lost to the incoherence of the screenplay, which is, quite simply, crammed with way too many characters for a feature film of viewable length. There are also several other dubious directorial decisions, such as a cringe-worthy smoke-machine montage towards the end that looks like a lamentable ‘student film’ idea.
There are several great performances from the experienced Marathi cast. Aside from Shahane, Mukta and Sunil Barve also turn in very believable performances, as does the actress who plays Barve’s wife. Kulkarni, a National Award winner playing a very different kind of role, chews a lot of scenery but is nevertheless entertaining to watch. Qureshi, playing a version of herself, is passable while the least-effective performance is undoubtedly by Chopra, who spends nearly all her screen-time sporting an annoyingly self-satisfied smirk.
This is easily Kulkarni’s most flawed film; however, it must be said that it is also his most daring effort and a commendable attempt to push boundaries. If only he’d done a few things differently, it’s entirely possible that the movie would’ve been much more satisfying. At best, Highway ends up being an interesting experiment that can only be considered notable for its sincere attempt to be different — not for what it actually delivers.