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 toattempt an escape. She is alone, petrified and stranded in an unfamiliar terrain.
Something powerful happens beneath those starry skies and within the chamber of the desert’s vast, unrelenting emptiness; Heera seems to experience an existential crisis of sorts in which, it appears, she has absolutely no idea of her identity. Who is she? Why is she there? And what precisely is she escaping from? And more importantly, what is she escaping to? She eventually returns to her abductors, sobbing and barefeet, having left behind her black ballet flats. The shoe analogy plays on to full advantage later on in the movie, as we see her in a different pair of shoes and—indeed—Heera appears to have shed her own acquiescent personality and adopted another, embarking on a real and metaphorical journey, one that could not have been possible in 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 a new one.
As I watched Heera run beneath the starry sky, I was reminded of the clear, new moon night on a recent vacation in Florida. Given that so much pollution contaminates our urban night-skies, it was a veritable luxury to sit beneath a 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 shining objects: 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. One of my most vivid memories of that Florida vacation was to experience the unadulterated clarity of the starlight and the pure silence of the sea at night.
Thinking of starried night sky scene in Highway, I found myself revisiting memories of my own Indian travels. Was I simply experiencing the outlines rather than being aware of and appreciating the specific details?
As Heera contemplates the salt-encrusted landscape, she mentions that she had not known she could travel like this, 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 problematic, 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, the India without the waitered hotels and five-star dining?
The film navigates the artery of roads in my home-state, Rajasthan, I thought of the countless road-trips I have taken in Rajasthan myself: yet, they were singularly focused on going from one destination to another. I never stopped en route at villages: the huts, the people, 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?
The insularity of the comforting, almost soporific existence that Heera leads in Delhi implodes with her abduction; she experiences life pared down to its simplest, such as the gorgeously shot scene in which she stands atop a damp desert dune moments before the clouds 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 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? When in Rajasthan, I was unsure whether I wished to experience the Rajasthan that I had abstracted from my imagination, which in turn was inspired by all that I had read and seen—or actually 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 traveled in an 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. And so, when I next visit my homeland, I too must make a conscious attempt to liberate myself of my expectations and what my imagination demands from me; I must see my country, my homeland, for what it is and relate to it as it is.
Sometimes, it is not always necessary that you get a burst of inspiration and enlightenment in broad daylight; on some occasions, a sky full of stars can illuminate you a great deal more.
Priyanka Sacheti is an independent cultural writer based in Pittsburgh. Educated at Universities of Warwick and Oxford, United Kingdom, Priyanka has written extensively about art, culture and gender. She has authored 3 poetry volumes and her short stories have appeared in international anthologies.When she’s not working on her short story collection or pursuing photography, she blogs at http://iamjustavisualperson.blogspot.com/