HIGHWAY

“Jahan se tum mujhe laaye ho, main wahan vaapas nahi jaana chahti, jahan bhi le jaa rahe ho, wahan pahunchna nahi chahti, par yeh rasta, yeh bahut acha hai, main chahti hoon ki yeh raasta kabhi khatam na ho”.

(The place you’ve brought me from, I don’t want to go back there… wherever you are taking me… I don’t want to reach there. But this journey…. I never want this journey to end….)

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In explaining the experience of liminality, Sarah Gilead in her article ‘Liminality, Anti Liminality and the Victorian Model’ says “… the actor or his symbolic representative is detached from a prior condition of membership in the social structure, ‘undergoes a transitional ordeal’ in which his structural attributes are neutralized or made ambiguous, and then re-emerges into social structure, usually with enhanced functions, status, or class”.

 In the movie Highway, the two lead protagonists experience a moment of rupture; and find themselves in a space where boundaries seem to disappear.  Despite being from two starkly different worlds, they find themselves on a journey that changes them forever, offering them freedom, limitless possibilities, and a space where the normal rules, structures and restrictions cease to exist.

The story starts in Delhi, with young a girl, Veera, from an extremely affluent and influential family, on the eve of her wedding. Frustrated with her suffocating environment and the never-ending celebrations and rituals, she spontaneously decides to take a midnight drive with her fiancé on the highway. Giddy with her moment of freedom, she foolishly decides to leave her car and finds herself in the midst of an armed robbery at a gas station (this being Delhi, which by now we have established is not the safest of cities) and is kidnapped in the process. Soon however, the kidnappers discover that how powerful and influential Veera’s father is, and lose their nerve. It is at this point when Mahabir, one of the kidnappers decides to separate from the group and hold Veera for ransom. Though a dangerous thing to do, he feels like he has nothing to lose, and is deeply enraged with the oppressive plutocracy that Veera represents in his mind. Along with a few of the kidnappers, he sets out on a journey across India, trying to escape from the law, and the frustration of living and working as a part of the gang.

The captive, Veera is terrified and soon finds an opportunity to escape, but she has nowhere to go in this strange and unfamiliar place. Realising that she is safer with the kidnappers than on her own, she returns to captivity. This marks a turning point for her as her fear slowly starts disappearing. A strange comfort and ease sets in and before long, she starts talking incessantly, joking and laughing, making demands of her kidnappers. Unable to explain this change in her and the surreal nature of the situation she finds herself in, Veera says “aisa lag raha hai ki main hoon hi nahi yahan, jaise koi film chal rahi hai aur main dekh rahi hoon…. Abhi mujhe tense hona chahiye… main tense toh hoon…par main bol kyun rahi hoon?” ( it seems like I am not here. Like there is a movie going on and I’m watching it. I should be tense right now… I know I am tense ..but why am I talking so much ?)

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Veera’s comfort with the kidnappers grows; and one night the truck in which they are travelling is intercepted by the police. To her own amazement and her kidnappers, Veera hides from the police.  “Dimmag kharab ho gaya hai mera…asaani se nikal sakti thi main” ( have I lost my mind.? I could have easily escaped) says a stunned Veera, realising that she doesn’t want to return home and wants to continue the journey. She begins to feel safer here on the road, with the kidnappers than the place she came from. She tells Mahabir of her traumatic childhood, having been repeatedly raped by her uncle; and then forced by her mother to never speak about it for the sake of maintaining appearances. Shocked that someone of her class and status could face such violence, Mahabir, starts to relate to her, as he remembers his own traumatic past of an abusive father. As Victor Turner in his article, ‘Liminality and Communitas’ states, “in a moment in and out of time, in and out of social structure, which reveals however fleetingly a generalized social bond….”, Mahabir and Veera begin to see each other differently, as a deep understanding develops between the two. Far from the structures that would have normally dictated any interaction between these two people from such extreme social divides, Veera and Mahabir find comfort in each other and a sense of personal freedom. A relationship which would have been unthinkable for them in normal circumstances develops into an unspoken emotional connection.

 The road is the third character in the movie and probably the most significant one. The physical journey that the characters take through ever-changing landscapes becomes a metaphor for the transformation that they undergo. Veera stripped off the luxury and comfort, becomes stronger and hardened while the crude and brash Mahabir becomes gentler. With Veera, he struggles against the patriarchal structures he has grown up with, slowly giving them up when she demands to be treated as an equal in their relationship.  

One reason for writing this blog stems from the fact that this movie was deeply unsettling in many ways. We found ourselves unable to articulate why the movie spoke to us. As young women, growing up in India, travelling, being on the road; one goes through several moments of realising the structures in which we find ourselves bound along the way.  In many ways, we do not relate to the character of Veera. However, it is possible to recognise and relate to her in the instance that she decides to let go of fear and let go of the security that comes from certainty. For it is in this moment, that she experiences true freedom for the first time in her life. One also relates to the liminal space that the ‘road’ represents; the limitless expanse signifying limitless possibilities.

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We also immediately recognised the huge and disturbing class/caste divide that we have grown up with; which at times seems absolutely impenetrable. Yet, at the moments of rupture, these structures are laid bare, and make us aware of their presence. A liminal space is one which is bereft of normality; but hints at an alternative. The liberation that Veera experiences is best expressed when she says, “main kuch bhi ker sakti hoon aur tum sambhal logey. Aisa kabhi feel nahi kiya pehle” ( I feel like I can do anything, and that you will have my back. I have never felt like this before). This kind of freedom is only possible in these liminal spaces and reminds us that these moments are fleeting, beautiful and impossibly rare.

But what happens when you are pulled out of that liminal space? Can life ever be ‘normal’ again? Do you return as the same person, to the same structures even when you have realised how binding they are?

Mahabir and Veera try to desperately create a life for themselves which takes them away from their ‘realities’ but are confronted by them in the end. When the moment of liminality ends, Mahabir is  no longer Veera’s salvation, but seen as a petty, lower caste kidnapper, whose life has no value; and is punished for trying to transgress those structures. Veera is forced to come out of it, back into her world, only to find that she can no longer live there. She has experienced some sort of ‘truth’ which has made it impossible for her to accept or return to the life which was her own and her reality for so long.

In the end, Veera decides to reject her old life, and returns to the road to try and find that space again when she can experience the freedom that she knows to exist and cannot live without. But can a liminal moment ever be recreated? As Veera tries to live out this ‘truth’ that she once experienced; she finds that the ‘road’ is the only space where she can now exist.

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’, sang Janis Joplin in a song about a boy and girl out on the open road. Can we truly escape the structures that bind us? Can we live in a world where these cease to exist? The movie raised many questions; and answers very few. But the limitlessness of the open road and the possibility of that space call out to you long after the movie ends.  

References:

Gilead, S. (1986).Liminality, anti-liminality, and the Victorian novel.ELH, 183–197.

Turner, V. (1969).Liminality and communitas.The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, 94–130.

Watch the Song “Patakha Guddi”  from the Movie, :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LijcpDrSNVI

The song Pataka Guddi (A girl who flies like a Kite) is a song that plays in the movie and is sung in the Sufi style. The choice of Sufi music is interesting. Sufi music is devotional and also used in the communions of the ‘whirling dervishes’ which in itself exhibits many elements of liminality; of losing yourself, and putting yourself in a liminal space where all structures cease to exist save the relationship of the devotee and God.

The following is not a complete translation:

 “Like the sweet betel leaf,

A length of a Lahori cloth,

This kitten has begun to have fun
Like the firefly, jumping all around

Why carry the thoughts of this world

Just remember your maker

O firefly, O fiery kite,
She flies as if intoxicated,
I have left the strings to You 
You are a fearless child of God 

If he has given you pain,

He will end it as well

Dance in the streets,                                                                                                                                                                      

While chanting God’s name

No one can control you

This girl runs free,

She flows like rainwater,
When she comes in contact with the real world,
She is bound to get polluted”

Anindita Roy and Ujjainee Sharma 

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