Such an eminently enjoyable film, and yet so deeply disturbing. A century into feminism, and we still continue to glamorize the Stockholm syndrome.
As I watch the film, memories come tumbling me of my first discovery of “Stockholm syndrome,” distress as the recognition of “Beauty and the Beast” my favourite fairytale because it is one of the few ones with an active and intelligent heroine, was classified as one by some, and subsequent recognition of most marriages as fitting into the Stockholm syndrome.
So convenient that the girl, Alia, is a young, impressionable one who has problems to escape from. What if she had been a happy girl who felt constrained by the kidnap? What if she was a worldly-wise one, who knows that the world she has fallen into is equally vile as the one she left. So convenient, that this is the girl who has never been out of hotels in vacations, never touched plants. What if she had done all these things, and knew her kidnappers for exactly what they were? And Alia Bhatt, well cast, very well cast, touch of genius almost, to have that childish face pretend to be a full grown woman. Full grown women don’t come so naive these days.
Ok, he is a decent guy who protects her (And yes, how convenient that this middle aged man is a clean man, drinks only tea, has no girlfriends or “flings”. It would have been a good twist if he was married! AND has a heart of gold, sensitive mamma’s boy. What are the chances, in a million, of finding a petty criminal who fits that description?) But does that mean all his sins are forgiven? Can you forgive the man who yells “Kapde dhang se na pehen sake?” at you, more or less blaming you for the lecherous approach of a man?
What if Alia Bhatt had not been so cute? Would Randeep had been as kind to her then? What if Randeep had been an ugly middle aged guy with a pot belly and rotting teeth? Would Alia have just as much respect for him then? What I am trying to say is that all that kidnapper-gives-freedom thing is just a cover. This is the same old 80s male chauvinistic film in another avatar: angry man with a hard shell and soft heart, who, even if he does a few bad things, is acceptable because he is slightly better than others. It is no coincidence that the song Alia danced to in the mountains goes “I’m gonna dominate you.” Not in a thousand years, but go have your dance!
But the fact that this film is an 80s chauvinistic movie in a new avatar is not even the most disturbing part of it. The most disturbing part is that we still fall for it. That combination of macho-man, damsel in distress just does not go away. Let us not forget that the movie is not just about Alia being more free in captivity than at her home. It is also about her being the submissive female: “Mein kuch bhi kar sakti hoon aur um samhaal loge.” It is also about the woman leaving all the decisions to the man. Granted, in these days when women are expected to be all independent, it’s an act of bravery to come out and admit you are a submissive. There are all kinds of women, and there is nothing wrong with being submissive and completely depending on your man, and lucky you if you get it, but there’s a problem when a man glamorizes it. And a bigger problem when we fall for it.
But then, I am the one who always says that all kinds of love are true: puppy love, i-wanna-be-with-you love, i-want-you-to-be-happy love, and even pure lust. Then who am I to say that Stockholm syndrome induced love is not real? Can you just label a relationship “Stockholm syndrome” and dismiss it as untrue feelings?
There are many, many, other things that are problematic in highway. The implication that all men want is a mother – when Alia sings his mother’s lullaby, and again later when Randeep cries for his mother and Alia comforts him –brings the Madonna-whore complex so powerfully into play. So all men want is a mother? A comforting, faithful mother who loves you unconditionally despite everything? What about the rest of us who are not so motherly? Or who are not pure Madonnas?
And then, the creating of absolute binaries –unfeeling parents, sensitive villain, is problematic too. Every person is complex, and the simplistic black and white that Highway creates just does not ring true. Neither does it ring true that a girl who has been abused as a child suddenly finds the courage to fight the fake society, what reality did she see to give her that courage? We never know. The montages of Randeep’s mother don’t really make sense to the larger plot.
But then again, there are many many other things that Highway gets right. Being a big admirer of Imtiaz’s work, I have watched all his movies, and liked most of them. There are some recurring themes that he puts in new scenes every time, and every time does a good job: The alienation with high society, the uncertainty in relationships– I loved that line when Alia said she has no plan, she just wants to stay a little more time with Randeep. Yes, we all fall into uncertain relationships at one point or another.
Perhaps what he does best with this movie is the portrayal of PTSD after Alia gets back home –the kind of tinny feeling she gets when she is unable to adjust to anything around her after experiencing something so drastically different. Her tremors, her glassy stare. It would be good if this film served you as a warning of what can happen when you identify too much with your torturers – but this film ain’t no warning, it’s a glorification.