May 14, 2014

Beneath a Starlit Sky: Thoughts on 'Highway' and Travelling in Rajasthan

Seeing the Light: a still from Highway

In an early scene of the recently released Hindi film, Highway (dir: Imtiaz Ali), we find its heroine, Heera (Alia Bhatt) stumbling across cracked earth beneath a star-studded sky. She is trying to escape her abductors, who ironically, have allowed her the freedom to attempt an escape. She is alone, petrified and stranded in an unfamiliar terrain.

Something powerful however happens beneath those starry skies and within the chamber of the desert's vast, unrelenting dark emptiness; Heera seems to experience an existential crisis of sorts in which it appears that she has absolutely no idea of her identity. Who is she? Why is she here? And what precisely is she escaping from? And more importantly, what is she escaping to? She eventually returns to her abductors, sobbing and barefooted having left behind her black ballet flats. The shoe analogy continues on in the movie, as we eventually see her in a different pair of shoes and - indeed, Heera appears to have shed her acquiescent personality and adopted another, embarking on a real and metaphorical journey, one that significantly could not have been possible had she still be donning her posh ballet flats. To further extend the shoe/costume analogy, as she transitions from one costume to another, she willingly sheds the garments of her former life for this new one. 

As I watched Heera run beneath the starry sky, I was reminded of a new moon night on a recent vacation in Florida. Given that so much excess light contaminates our urban night-skies, it was a veritable luxury to sit beneath such a clear celestial canopy. As we lay on the beach and examined the sky, using a phone app to identify the individual stars and planets, the sky was no longer just a mass of stars: it was a literal universe of stars with their attendant histories and identities. It struck me that while daylight inevitably conceals the stars, they are increasingly becoming invisible even during the night itself. One of my most vivid memories of that Florida vacation is the unadulterated clarity of the starlight and the pure silence of the sea at night. Thinking of the starried night sky in Highway, it made me revisit memories of my own Indian travels. Was I simply experiencing the outlines of the journey rather than being aware of and appreciating its specific details? 

As Heera contemplates the salt-encrusted earth in another one of the film's early scenes, she mentions that she did not know that she could journey to places as she is currently doing, so accustomed as she is to defining travel through a series of luxury hotels, restaurants, cars and tours. As viewers, we may not necessarily identify with the nature of the journey she embarks upon, both its interior and physical aspects and of course, the chilling circumstances leading to it – what her journey did compel me to do was to meditate on whether I have ever experienced the real India? 

As the film navigates the artery of roads in my home-state, Rajasthan, I remembered the countless road-trips I have taken in Rajasthan myself: yet, they were singularly focusing on one destination to another. I never stopped en route at villages: the huts, the people, and the animals simply flashed past me, as if I was scrolling through the busy homepage of a social media newsfeed. How much of the state and its character was I experiencing? What, indeed, was I experiencing of my country through my travels? 

Waiting for Rain: a still from Highway

The insularity of the comforting, almost soporific existence that Heera leads in Delhi implodes with the event of her abduction; she experiences life pared down to the simplicities such as the gorgeously shot scene in which she stands atop a damp desert dune moments before the clouds will rip apart and rain while her bemused abductors stand at the foot of the dune, obviously understanding her need to stop and reflect. As viewers watching the film, we are privy to being both, witnesses and participants, in Heera's growth; we travel with her through the land that she assumed was home and yet what she knows very little about. 

As a member of the diaspora, revisiting the homeland is always enmeshed in many issues: what are we returning to? This is a home, not the home; this is the home of our heritage but not necessarily the many other components that make us up. So, when we are visiting and travelling through the homeland, the issue primarily becomes as to what notion of home are we expecting to encounter: the ones that our parents and relatives have narrated to us through their stories and anecdotes? The images we see in books, magazines, and the internet? The ones that we significantly encounter in the great visual medium of movies?

I took this image in the courtyard outside one of my favorite Jain temples in Rajasthan just before dusk. Even though there is nothing decidedly pretty/post-card-y about this image, it best encapsulates the spirit of Rajasthan for me

Often, when in Rajasthan, I am unsure whether I wished to experience the Rajasthan that I had abstracted from my imagination, which in turn was inspired by all that I read and saw – or engage with the one that actually surrounded me, pretty at times but decidedly unglamorous and steeped in harsh realities on most occasions. 

Heera's route to discovering her country and herself in the process occurs when the trajectories of her life completely and dramatically veer away from the solidly established path she was walking upon. She literally steps upon the less beaten path, getting a glimpse into the many painful stories and realities that fill the lives of her fellow travelers. 

During my India visits, I often travelled on the AC coach in train-journeys; one distinctive feature of the coach was that the windows were yellow-hued, offering a sepia-tinted view of the vistas that flashed past: it was literally an exercise in nostalgia. 

When I next visit my homeland, I must make a conscious attempt to liberate myself of nostalgia and what my imagination demands and desires from me; I must see my country, my homeland, for what it is and relate to it as it is. It is time to shatter the tinted glass – and see what lies beyond it. 

Sometimes, it is not always necessary that you get a burst of inspiration and enlightenment in broad day-light; on some occasions, a sky full of stars can illuminate you a great deal more. 


This piece originally appeared in India Currents 

Photo credits:

Highway stills: various internet sources

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