The title of the film is suggestive that it is a road-movie; it is its tagline that is more intriguing: Ek Selfie Aarpaar. Selfie, an urban product, gives the contrasting context and puts a perspective into what the title is leading to. A picture of self taken, with the front cameras of mobile phones, by self, is what we call a, well, selfie. But that tagline— not the film—is asking if and when will that camera turn into a mirror? When would you self-reflect on the image rather than just clicking an ephemeral image of yourself?
The film takes these questions and sticks it to its main title—Highway. The highway in question is the Mumbai - Pune Expressway, an escape route from a noisier metropolitan to its laidback neighbour. And this transcendental nature of this eponymous highway is also transformed into the narrative form of the film. It opens with a guy walking out of a construction site of yet another high-rise building in the city; he walks into another recent modern development of the city—a monorail, and finally stands on a road alone from where he would be picked up into a car for Lonavala—a hill-station midway Mumbai-Pune. And likewise, we follow some 20 more characters that would be on the same route in a car, in a bus or in a truck. The first half is just full of rapid cuts, through each one of them, giving us the sense of chaos that the city has ensued in their heads. The treatment that looks ad-hoc is, of course, premeditated.
How do you pause a film, which is on a fast-moving journey itself, for the interval break in our theaters? (The recent road-movie Piku used the tool Sriram Raghavan once advised in a script-writing lesson: "When you're stuck, put a gun on the script." Juhi Chaturvedi, writer of Piku, had put a knife and gave us the time to relax our bladders.) Girish Kulkarni (the writer and also the lead actor) meditates over this—literally – as he enters a dark tunnel, and then simply decides to take a break near a dhaba and put the entire film on relax. And as the journey inches forward post break, we are now into a traffic standstill for hours which constitute the second half screen time of the film. We now see fairly lengthier shots of the moments than what we were witnessing just before the interval, as we are stuck with the characters into their, umm, relaxed space. The frustration that the traffic would evoke in the heads of the commuters is subsided to see a calmer version of themselves—much like how the destination city is a version of the city from where they are heading—as in the meantime they got the time for what the purpose of almost every road-movie, and perhaps every journey, is... to self-reflect!
We don't see the characters transforming. Heck, we don't even know them, not even the names of half of them. We know them as much as we know our co-passengers on a journey... just in that moment, not the beginning of their story and neither its end. We are just thrown into their journey plan and since then they are left to be observed or judged, if you may. A couple from relatively lower economic strata is on a ride with a football fanatic hippie on the front seat. The husband is a loser and is caught cheating on his wife. In their argument, the wife slaps him and starts crying herself out of grief; and the hipster on the front seat, all this while, was busy with his loud music on headphones. On a distracted glance, he suspects that the wife is crying because her husband might have beaten her. (It is a tough scene to pull out, and it is done brilliantly. You laugh out when you see the guy texting his suspicion to his friend, but want to empathize over the couple's situation at the same time.) It is only such passive judgement which we can make about all the characters when we are involved with them at a level where viewers are co-passengers too.
This level of engagement is a conscious decision of the director here (Umesh Kulkarni). He is in complete control over all the journeys—around 10—though the level of involvement with few of them is unbalanced. We hardly know anything about Tisca Chopra's character. We have no option but to judge her as a cougar. Same with Mukta Barve's character as a prostitute. Kulkarni just touches upon them for the story-finder in you to wake up. When in a word-exchange game with the guy accompanying her, we see Chopra lost at—and in—the word 'Friend'. Maybe, as a desolated wife, she's deprived of one. Maybe. There's an entire story to be discovered but that's for you to write. And in a phone-conversation, we hear Barve's character's desire to be married with kids. Her in-the-car story is again an interesting bit about how her co-passenger—who could be judged as a bhadralok— sheds his discomfort with a prostitute. We know absolutely nothing about the deaf and dumb kid in the bus with an old man, probably his grandfather. We know a little more about Huma Qureshi as a famous TV actor who is being rode to Pune for a function by a political volunteer who is everything stereotype. We know something more about Girish Kulkarni as a NRI scientist who is here to sign a consent form for his father ailing with brain hemorrhage in hospital, but for most of the screen time with nothing much to tell, he comes across as an archetype. We know the most about Sunil Barve as a busy office guy who has little time for his pregnant wife at home, but that is a regular urban story. It is like ten feature films are running at the same time and you are switching channels at different instances.
Unlike other road-movies where you have characters and their stories, here we have the story of a... highway, and the kind of people that boards it. And without delving into the interpersonal human dramas, Kulkarni tells a story about human nature. Kulkarni pushes the confines of the genre, with his experimental storytelling, by making a road-movie which for half the running time is stuck in traffic. And that time is for taking that "selfie".