Synopsis: Nine different characters find themselves on an ill-fated bus journey from eastern Nepal to the capital, Kathmandu.
Much has been made of Deepak Rauniyar’s Highway’s inclusion in the 2012 Berlinale Panorama section. It is the first Nepalese film to be selected and this fact has spawned two extremes of critical response. On one side, fawning praise that suggests the film is visionary and ground breaking (it isn’t); on the other, a general ambivalence, if not outright dismissal, by detractors assuming it was selected more for its country of origin than its filmmaking prowess (it didn’t).
A more moderate appraisal is also the more accurate one. Rauyinar’s feature debut is an engaging, technically-proficient story of a disparate collection of strangers taking a bus trip from Darjeeling to Kathmandu. Each has their own story to tell and the director fractures time and memory in recounting the details of their physical and emotional selves. Looming large over the journey is the constant threat of the ‘bandh’, a crippling form of strike action inherent to Nepal’s post-conflict period that sees the blockading of arterial roads by radical reformists until their agendas are met.
For the passengers, these stoppages (which, in reality, can strand travellers for days on end) are particularly frustrating. On leave, career soldier Manoj (Dayahang Rai) has a small window of opportunity to conceive with his wife, Radhika (Asha Maya Magrati), unaware her secret philandering will have its own dire consequences; gay lonely-guy Pratiek (Eelum Dixit) has an internet date organised in Kathmandu; and, blossoming twenty-something Pooja (Shristi Ghimire) is struggling with the realities of having a fiancé she doesn’t want to marry and a lover she has left behind. Most resonant is the story of the bus driver (Rajan Khatiwada) and his single-mum/stripper girlfriend, Kavita (Reecha Sharma, in the film’s standout performance), who in desperation, turns to prostitution.
Rauyinar chooses not to overstate the broader social issues his characters represent. His film is best seen as a conversation-starter on the themes of industrial reform in a poor, start-up democracy; social inequality (in particular, homophobia and the traditional gender roles); and, the cultural redefinition of a nation steeped in a history of resolution via bloody conflict. Instead, Highway takes the more humanistic approach; although the essence of the drama dictates that the travellers must bond to overcome the obstacles they face, the pat symbolism of that situation, ie ‘unite as one to move forward’, is downplayed. Some may find the subsequent plot machinations overly melodramatic but the non-preachy tone proves thoroughly rewarding.
The inter-weaving, multi-character arcs and naturalistic, overlapping dialogue (according to the credits, the non- and semi-pro actors improvised all but a few scenes) instantly invokes the works of celebrated auteurs Robert Altman and John Sayles. Danny Glover, who worked with the latter on 2007’s Honeydripper, has co-produced the film under his Louverture Films banner, continuing his philanthropic support of filmmakers far from his Los Angeles base; he has also shepherded culturally-significant visions like Soundtrack for a Revolution and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives to festival exposure.
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