Highway: Reading a screenplay for the first time
Updated: Aug 9
I had always admired the amount of work that went behind making a film but I don’t think I quite understood the kind of knowledge and skill that it requires.
My opinion of what goes on in a film till now was only limited to what happened on the screen which I expressed in the form of film reviews and character sketches.
But I had never read an actual screenplay before.
The screenplay I chose to read was of ‘Highway’ written by Imtiaz Ali.
It is the story of Veera, daughter of a prominent business tycoon, who is abducted by Mahabir. However, for reasons later revealed, discovers freedom after being kidnapped. Their journey forms the crux of the film.
Apart from the fact that it was one of my most favourite films, I thought the travel it involves would be interesting to read about on paper.
However, as an amateur writer who doesn’t study films, the thought of writing about my experience of reading a screenplay for the first time was daunting.
I scouted through my uncle’s cupboard to search books on film making from his time at London Film School before even starting to read the screenplay. I went through numerous books and read about long shots, fade in, dissolve, wide screen and a number of other technical terms.
Although I felt prepared to take on the screenplay, I was still nervous if I would be able to understand the technicalities that I had read about in the books.
I was expecting to read about camera shots, angles, cuts etc.
Lucky for me, the ‘Highway’ screenplay didn’t involve many difficult terms and just mentioned the part of the day, interior/exterior and location at the start of every scene.
It felt like an extended version of a script with scenario description, dialogues and an insight into the characters.
That definitely made things easier for me to understand.
Being a road film, the screenplay describes the changes in terrain throughout.
It opens on a similar note.
The highway is described to be seen from the front seat of a Tempo traveller. The sounds of engines, streets slowly fade away into a girl singing a song. She is not trained, but is singing to herself; it seems like a lullaby.
The terrains change from mountains to snow to deserts to bridges.
I feel the opening itself is a glimpse into the soul of ‘Highway’.
Right from the start Mahabir is presented as a hardened criminal. But other than that, not much information is provided about Mahabir. So, his character seems very intriguing.
When the rest of his close aides find out who Veera’s father is, they don’t think this plan is going to work out well for Mahabir. However, he seems to be unusually determined to see this through.
“Jab laundiyo ki taang pe goli padegi na to Tripathy ka baap bhi aavega paise leke na to kothe pe bitha dunga. Bik jaegi kisi andheri gali me pata bhi na chalega. Bahot bada hai Hindustan. (When a bullet hits the girl’s leg her father will definitely give the money or else, I will sell her off. She will get lost and nobody will know. India is very large.)” He says.
Why would somebody willingly take such a huge risk? Why does he hold such angst against her? Does he have anything against Veera or her family?
Many questions are posed right after the introduction of his character.
The screenplay sometimes directly explains the answers.
Like in the flashback scenes of Mahabir.
One of his henchmen after noticing the developing bond between Mahabir and Veera asks if he is sure about his plans.
Mahabir strongly answers, “Vaaki ijjat hai. Aur kae ki ijjat na hai? Gareebon ki lugai ki kaha ijjat? (Other women don’t have respect, do they? Why would you respect a poor man’s wife?)”
He angrily goes on about how poor women are exploited by rich landlords and ill-treated by their husbands.
Later, flashback scenes reveal how his own mother was one of them when he hears Veera singing his mother’s lullaby. The same song heard during the opening scene.
Another thing I realised while reading the screenplay was how it has used subtle hints to unravel Mahabir’s character.
One of them being detailing of locations.
Like in the salt factory scene. The defunct condition, distance from the main city, no windows explain he knows what he is doing.
But the description of the floor where Veera is confined at is actually an insight into Mahabir’s character. The floor has been turned into a makeshift room arrangement. There is mattress for her. She is given food. And there is nobody keeping an eye on her at night so that implies that nobody was allowed to stay with her there.
His anger is not towards Veera or even her family. His anger is towards how rich people always get their way while the poor suffer. Taking such a risk was his way of fighting against this system.
I hadn’t realised this until I read the screenplay.
Like the salt factory scene, I mentioned above, I think I got a deeper sense of some other scenes after reading the screenplay. I started understanding the underlying emotions of a character’s actions and its impact on the development of the plot and character relations which I didn’t earlier.
In fact, I watched ‘Highway’ again only for that sake. And at certain points I truly was surprised at how I had missed those tiny but very important moments before.
Like how Veera’s walk suddenly changes, becomes womanly after she confronts Mahabir for the first time. Probably implying at the courage, she has gained and is no longer weaker than him.
Or when Veera is telling Mahabir about the abuse she faced as a child at the hands of her own relative.
Flashbacks show a young Veera searching something in the grass.
Veera angrily continues to tell how her mother silenced her when she told her about the abuse. It stopped after that but Veera was still forced to mingle, greet and act well with the same relative as if nothing had happened.
Mahabir is shown to put on a straight face and look away.
What I understood from this scene was that perhaps the class divide that stood between the both of them broke down. Mahabir’s viewpoint of looking at her as just a rich girl changed.
While Veera’s hug to him later showcases how she has found a certain comfort within him and can be herself.
But that doesn’t mean that there didn’t exist a class divide between them. As is shown later when Veera dances to an English song. Mahabir is described to sense how different they are. The incident prompts him to leave Veera and ask her to go home.
However, she doesn’t.
The screenplay doesn’t have scenes which directly explain why Mahabir and Veera develop the bond that they do.
But I think by the placements of the flashbacks of characters, that is Veera’s before Mahabir’s imply to build a certain relatability between them. He realises how their traumas had been similarly covered up and how both of them had been forced to accept them as normal.
Both of them were broken when they met. Both of them hated the worlds they came from. But with each other they found an understanding. They completed each other emotionally.
The lack of protection for Veera and Mahabir’s grievance over not being able to give it.
As Veera perfectly sums up later, “Maine kabhi aise feel nahi kiya hain na, ke main jo chahe kar sakti hoon, jaise chahe kar sakti hoon, tum samhaal loge. (I have never felt this way. Like I can do anything, live the way I want, and you will be there for me.)”
Another thing I realised while reading the screenplay was like most monologues, even Veera’s has been placed towards the end. I used to think it was just for a cinematic effect.
But apart from that it is a culmination of the entire film. The passion and anger within Veera are not just because of Mahabir’s death. It is because of the different perspective that she had gotten on life.
Veera is shown to be very respectful in the initial wedding footages. She had accepted her life as it was however much she had disliked it. But the freedom, independence, self-expression, protection and courage that she had tasted while on the road didn’t let her fit into this world or forcefully accept the hypocrisy in it anymore.
After reading the screenplay, the monologue seemed even more powerful than it did before.
The end scene describes Veera to be standing outside her new house.
She pictures young Veera and Mahabir playing together.
In the screenplay, the boy gives something to the girl from the grass, perhaps something she was seen searching for earlier. Then they run off together.
But I preferred the movie version where the boy offers her a rock to sit on and settles down on the ground beside her as they look at the view together.
The movie version, I believe, more than defining their class divide portrays Mahabir’s instinct of always tending to Veera.
All of these little moments have made ‘Highway’ what it is.
I believe that by gaining a different perspective on some scenes after reading the screenplay gave me a better understanding of the film as a whole.
Although it is always fun to read different kinds of writing, screenplays are drastically different to what I am used to. I took it as a learning experience and a chance to understand a bit more about how a film makes it to the screen.
Would you like to write a blog on the first screenplay you ever read? Do drop a comment or write to us.
Highway Doodle by Aditya Kandpal- https://www.instagram.com/mr_k.a.n.d.y/
Alia in Highway, a sketch by Ashna Mateen- https://www.instagram.com/p/B_KtVOXlBOV/
Alia Bhatt graphic illustration by Divya Jain- https://www.instagram.com/p/BkQUvwahdnb/
Highway collage by Deeksha Saindane- https://www.instagram.com/p/CCfXgjYDzdC/
Movie Description- Wikipedia
Reference Books- Reading the Screen by John Izod and Film Making from Script to Screen by Andrew Buchanan.