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10 years of Highway! How Imtiaz Ali's groundbreaking take on child molestation and Alia Bhatt's captivating interpretation left a lasting impact

Breaking the silence on taboo subjects in Bollywood through raw realism, a decade of Highway's release marks a milestone in cinematic storytelling.

10 years of Highway! How Imtiaz Ali's groundbreaking take on child molestation and Alia Bhatt's captivating interpretation left a lasting impact
Alia Bhatt in a still from Highway

Last Updated: 11.48 AM, Feb 21, 2024


What's unique about Imtiaz Ali's films? It never reveals the whole story until you watch and witness it firsthand. People talk about Tamasha (2015) and how it addressed mental health issues, which awakened a lot of them in many ways. But I believe this conversation kicked off in some way with Ali's previous film, Highway (2014). Released a decade ago, the film emotionally wrenches through an exploration of tragedy, survival, and redemption against the backdrop of northern India's harsh landscape. But underlying its beautiful settings and riveting story was an unflinching examination of child sex abuse, a taboo subject for far too long.

A trailblazing film

I remember going to watch Highway as a fan of Ali's work, as well as to see how Alia Bhatt, the leading star, would fit in the world of the filmmaker after her glossy debut with Karan Johar's Student of the Year (2012). The film, of course, surprised me in many ways. Before watching Highway, I expected a story in which a girl is kidnapped and finds freedom along the way. Moreover, the film explored Stockholm Syndrome, where Alia's Veera believes that she has fallen for her kidnapper, Mahabir (Randeep Hooda).


However, Highway broke new ground by discussing a controversial issue and daring to address difficult truths head-on in an industry typically defined by escapism and gloss. Considering the risks involved with handling such delicate material in a big Bollywood film, Imtiaz Ali's decision to explore the dark underbelly of Indian society was audacious. A further layer of complexity and depth to Veera's character is revealed as her childhood trauma is slowly unravelled: she was sexually molested.

Empathy and sensitivity in filmmaking

By not sensationalising or exploiting the subject matter for shock value, Highway distinguishes itself from other films that deal with similar issues. On the contrary, Ali handles the subject of child sex assault with profound empathy and sensitivity, giving Veera's story the honour and respect it deserves. The character's eyes show us the terrible effects of childhood trauma and the wounds it leaves behind.

The scene where she describes her uncle sexually abusing her still haunts me and makes my heart beat faster, thinking about the unimaginable, heinous act. But that sets the film's story on the right path and, in a way, justifies the definition of freedom for Veera, who is actually from a rich and influential background in Delhi. 

When she is kidnapped and a cloth is tied around her mouth, she cries, as it reminds her of all the times when her mouth was zipped by others and taken away from her human freedom, which she also expected as a normal person. However, the kidnappers made her feel safe, like she never felt inside her palatial home, and watching her breathe the fresh air that she never consumed in life, you might almost laugh at her folly behaviour, but no, you feel that whatever is happening with her is absolutely right.

Sometimes, you need a new bad incident to realise that it's not the worst thing that happened to you, but you survived even if it was with years of silence.

The arc of freedom

But the arc reaches completion in the climax as Alia's character returns home after her kidnappers "rescue" her, only to feel shackled with chains once again. One of the most haunting scenes is when she breaks down and asks her parents why they only warned her about risks posed by outsiders, but the true threat was from insiders, the people she had known since childhood. After years of silencing her in order to protect the family's honour while her soul suffered unjustly, the scream ultimately liberated her.

Highway's heavy theme also got us to see a courageous portrayal by Alia as her character goes from victim to survivor, skillfully managing the intricacies of her emotions. By bringing such a demanding role to life, the actor started proving a decade ago that she is one of the most gifted actors working in the film industry.

Risks and bold choices

Moreover, Ali also took risks in many aspects by bringing in not only the topic of Stockholm syndrome, which is something not explored largely in Hindi movies. But not just that, the filmmaker got the topic of child sex abuse in the most unexpected way, and Alia translating it to the screen is still hugely commendable.

 A decade later, Highway shows how every human deserves freedom, regardless of class, not only from societal pressure but also to see the world that has been shielded in every possible way.