Starring: Girish Kulkarni, Renuka Shahane, Huma Qureshi, Tisca Chopra, Mukta Barve, Kishore Kadam
Directed by Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni
From the humble interiors of Maharashtra in Valu, Vihir and Deool, director Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni moves on to a definitive symbol of modernity and advancement—the Mumbai-Pune Expressway—in his latest film, Highway. However, in crossing over from the rural to the urban, Umesh’s cinematic flair remains unscathed; in fact, it grows more ambitious. His nimble play with images and sound is evident in the opening sequence itself. The camera rushes along in a chawl with one of the characters, moves out to the streets and then frames him against the backdrop of the tattered chawl with a spanking highrise looming fiendishly behind. Mumbai’s disparities summed up succinctly and without quite stating anything.
From here on we flit between a variety of characters and vehicles travelling on the expressway. It’s about individuals, their lives and relationships and also the associations formed, however tenuous, while being boxed within the cars, cabs, buses and trucks. The camera darts from one to the other in a frenzy. These are lives on the edge, ostensibly in a perennial rush, but look deep within and they are actually in a logjam. The traffic holdup, which brings their journey to a halt, becomes a metaphor for their own individual gridlocks. And it also offers a way out of it, to introspect and reflect and, perhaps, to unshackle themselves.
Umesh’s canvas is wide. There are 30-35 characters jostling for screen time, each more quirky than the other. All of them seen through the rearview mirror of the cabbies, who themselves are under the scanner. It works, for even the minutest of roles has been played by incredibly gifted actors. The standout twosome is Girish Kulkarni and Renuka Shahane. He is the NRI on his way home to see an ailing father and she and her husband, who has been hurt in an accident, hitch a ride with him. Girish is delightful in bringing out the eccentricity and vulnerability of his character, a guy who yearned for his father but could never get to spend much time with him. Renuka offers him the much-needed “comfort of a stranger”. That trademark smile of hers gets underlined with an added layer of warmth and empathy.
Umesh captures the everyday humour, the chaos and din, makes canny observations about human behaviour and lays bare an entire social panorama. The tone does feel uneven at times, the finale may confound many and not all characters get enough of a screen run. The loose ends are not entirely tied up and the equanimity of the end holds the promise of chaos yet again. But this jaggedness and supposed incoherence of structure somehow seems to meld well with the theme of the film. Which is life itself. Life that’s not about geometric perfection but an unrestrained whirl, a random force.