‘Highway’ and the Making of a Star

How the 2014 Imtiaz Ali film set the stage for Alia Bhatt’s dominance.

Alia Bhatt in 'Highway' (2014)

Meher Manda


February 21, 2024

A young woman is plucked from the sheltered ecosystem of privileged life and held captive on a working-class tour of India’s hinterland. She is deprived of vanity, wearing and re-wearing the same clothes as a hostage, swapping it for clothes devoid of brand value, shorn of makeup. Navigating the country’s roads, its highways, its fields, she experiences a taste of freedom, which her claustrophobic childhood home, teeming with people and trauma, otherwise denies her. On this great Indian tour, she gets to be free of pretense or affectation. 

This central conceit of Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014) may as well offer a cinematic euphemism for actor Alia Bhatt’s career. Ali plucked Bhatt from the glitzy sets of Karan Johar’s Student of the Year (2012) to act her heart out in his sprawling travelog. Bhatt turns in a spectacularly tender, revelatory sophomore performance as Veera Tripathi, a rich girl-turned-hostage. The role completely contradicts Bhatt's debut as rich girl Shanaya Singhania in a film about private high school shenanigans. Bhatt trades Shanaya’s anglicized twang; her short skirts, swimwear, and branded bags; and perfectly coiffed hair to play Ali’s Veera. The performance cemented her as a burgeoning talent to watch out for. 

On the 10th anniversary of the film, it’s fair to say that Highway helped realize Bhatt’s on-screen ambitions. Far from playing the third fiddle in her debut to male leads Varun Dhawan and Siddharth Malhotra, Highway allowed Bhatt to be in the foreground, alongside Randeep Hooda’s heartbreaking turn as captor Mahabir. Here, Bhatt’s delights, awe, pain, trauma, love, and mercy are central to the movie’s emotional highs and lows. Her character’s coming of age is the essential dilemma of the film. Highway not only fashioned a career for Bhatt that launched a wave of possibilities for women in Indian cinema, but also showcased how one constructs modern-day stardom.

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