Highway – A Wild Woman Review
"Highway" starts out on a note that for many is pretty disturbing and violent. A young woman, Veera, with a strong yearning for fresh air and freedom comes face to face with the many dangers that inhabit Indian highways when she is kidnapped by a gang of common thieves. The storytellers do not cushion the blow of her captivity, depicting insidious and overt violence which made most people in the audience cringe. In fact, watching the first ten minutes of the movie drives home all the cautionary tales that parents and other, particularly female, older people around us tend to tell us: There are dangers on the streets. Traveling alone is folly. Why tempt fate? Why create situations where one can fall into trouble? And in fact, this is true. Most journeys that mean anything involve getting into trouble and learning to deal with it.
As the movie progresses though, it unfolds into a story about freedom, self-expression, intense, life-altering love and the glory of living openly and messily. As I was watching the movie for the third time, I found that some notions that had been floating around since the first time I watched it - ideas about archetypes and healing - started to click into place. They had only foggily suggested themselves to me when I'd watched it the first time, especially at the end of the movie, where Veera shown holding a book. To those who know this book to be Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run with the Wolves, this is no coincidence. This is a book about any woman's journey through her subconscious to break away from the chains - whether physical or emotional - that bind her wilder self. The wild woman is self-aware, independent, scarily vulnerable and incredibly courageous. Through Highway, we see an unmothered child transform into such a woman. Veera Tripathi goes through such a journey, sometimes disturbing, always intense and entirely life-altering. In this article, I want to explore the archetypal journey towards awakening and healing of the wild woman in Imtiaz Ali's incredible movie.
Highway starts with a beautiful montage of roads all over north India, familiar to many travelers. The suggestion is strong: This is a movie about a Journey. As it unfolds, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary journey. This is the journey of a young woman who has been sheltered and trapped by misguided love and abuse in a world where speaking the truth is entirely unacceptable. At the beginning, she has no anger, no hatred and though she displays passion, her great longing is to get away - even run away - from her home. As she says, a little later, even though the truth of her journey has started to reveal itself:
"I don't want to go where you're taking me. And I don't want to go back. It's just like... I want... a little more - of this. A little longer (on the road) with you."
There is no great clarity about what she wants. When she is kidnapped and forcibly removed from her home, she is sad and hugely upset - but mostly worried for herself. Eventually, she tries to make a break for it, but comes trudging back, having lost her shoes.
Losing her shoes is significant. In the book, Estes tells a story about the Red Shoes, where a young girl lets go of her handmade red shoes for a pair of sparkly, bright shoes. The handmade shoes were made through her own sweat and blood, with her own hands. The red shoes were just handed to her by a woman in a beautiful carriage, who whisked her away to a castle where she was vastly miserable, though very well dressed. Veera of course has always worn her hush puppies, and so never had the experience of making her own shoes. In her own naive way, she longs for her own space, her own work - for building a life for herself with her own hands. But clearly this life cannot exist in the same universe as her family's, and other than childish attempts to run away from the city and building castles in the air with her fiance, she does not do much to accomplish this. So when she runs away from her kidnappers (and they allow her to run, which is a whole other thing), she is taking her first step towards owning what happens to her. There is no family or fiance to call to - even though they have never listened. There is the open earth, which embraces her, almost swallows her, for which she is unprepared. But this is a hugely significant moment in the movie. She takes charge, even though she has no idea what she is doing. She takes a few halting, hesitating steps that require huge courage, and then runs, wildly, madly. In the process she loses the fancy comfortable shoes from her former life. The journey which began before, not of her own choosing and so violently, suddenly becomes her own. She commits to it, and this is deeply significant.
Any healer or therapist will tell you that no healing or movement towards wellness can really happen unless you commit to the journey you need to take. If you opt for alternative or holistic ways of healing, including homeopathy, acupuncture, yoga and psychotherapy, things usually get worse before they get better. This is because, like an iceberg, when issues of the surface start to melt away, new issues emerge from within the ocean. You have to stand in the sun, sweat it out, really wait and clear away issues as they surface to come to the core of the matter. Veera commits to this journey, many times over. She commits when she comes running back from the desert where she'd run away, when the police come to check the truck she's being carried away in and she chooses not to reveal herself, and when later in the movie, Mahavir leaves her and she dashes for him and tracks him down.
It is significant that Mahavir and Veera's names are so similar. It suggests something to us that is not really visible or tangible, but which certainly emerges over a period of time. Mahavir seems to be everything Veera is not: he is hateful, raging, wild and angry, self-driven, self-aware and at the same time full of deep self-loathing. They have in common, however, that they are both full of deep unexpressed sorrow. Veera of course is polite, very cultured and watches what she says, and Mahavir is... well, none of the above. On the other hand, while Mahavir knows exactly what he wants and how to get it, Veera is sometimes so disconnected with herself that she has to climb to the top of a hillock to make contact -- and even then she conitnues to be unsure how she's feeling. Mahavir is hateful, angry with the world - Veera is compassionate and full of hope, wanting to know everyone's stories, including his, when he reveals himself to be a murderer.
In the archetypal sense, and because this is Veera's journey, Mahavir offers her a side of herself she is not in contact with: the enormously angry monster who wants to scream, deep within her soul. This is the real archetypal relationship of the movie -- not the complex relationship between Veera and her family's abuse, but between Veera and Mahavir -- the not-yet-grown-wild-woman and the monster within. Between, in some senses, love and anger.
At the beginning of the movie, Mahavir is uninterested in her as a person, hateful and irritated and even abusive. He sees her as a transaction, albeit one who has made his life a complete hell. Although he intends to use her for financial gain, he is also extremely angry with her -- perhaps because she threatens his existence entirely and perhaps because she represents a lifestyle that has abused him for all his life. So when she is running away and he catches her, he drags her out and throws her out, and tells her to get lost. Notably, when she returns he does not shoot her. In so many ways, this is similar to anger that has not been expressed -- which has been suppressed by a lifetime, indeed a lifestyle, of silence. When unexpressed, anger can be unwieldy, montrous, explosive. The more one hides the things one does not like, does not speak up for oneself or suppresses words that may cause disturbance to the status quo, the more anger grows within oneself. There is some deep hurt, some excruciating pain which has not been resolved and so there is Anger. Anger does not reason or think or offer logic; Anger survives and fights for its life. When one may be engaging in flight, there is still a part of oneself that wants to fight back. That is what Mahavir is, in many ways, in the movie.
At a certain point, after having chosen to remain on the truck, Veera confesses her pain to Mahavir. It is not a romantic telling or setting, but a crude, harsh baring of the truth, that when she was a child, her uncle would visit them and then later rape her in the washroom, and that when she told her mother, the latter told her not to tell anyone, to act like everything is normal. Mahavir does not respond openly, but they share an embrace in another moment that is critical. Anger is speechless here. He does not know what to say -- he is moved, because he is suddenly seeing something outside of the tunnel vision offered to him by the momentum of his rage. This is the first time Mahavir (or Anger) comes in actual contact with Veera. They hold each other briefly, and this is important too, that she holds him as well.
In a very weird and twisted way, they are becoming friends. And when you make friends with anger, it is protective -- just as Mahavir watches over her carefully so that she does not get into trouble, Anger will watch over the body it inhabits and the moment it sees something troubling, it will step in. At this leg of the journey, she does not even need shoes -- she takes off her sandals and falls over in her excitement to be free, and comes to no harm at all.
There is here, expressed quite clearly, a NEED to get angry -- not to hurt or to damage or destroy (though Anger can be blind to those things), but for self-protection, for being fortified. People who don't get angry are usually either running away for all their lives or withdrawn to the point of not living. Anger on the other hand is full of life, full of a burning desire to survive. It is not, however, equipped to understand how to live, and that's where Veera steps in.
Day by day, she teaches Mahavir things. When he gets angry with her for having disappeared to pee, she informs him that just like him, she has needs. When he tells her he will break every bone in her body if she makes stupid requests like sitting in the front of the truck, she shows him clearly that threatening her is not really working anymore. When she hugs him and he does not really know what to do, she takes his hands and pulls them around her. Anger is directive, protective, ready to jump in. It is also harmful when not softened by compassion and love, and that is precisely what Mahavir's journey is. Through most of it, he remains untrusting, like any child who has been unloved for too long, or any part of one's Self one is not willing to reach. But time and again, Veera returns to him and shows him she's in, she's here and she's not leaving, even if she doesn't know what's coming next.
It also takes a certain healing for him to be able to accept this love -- the healing of his own inner mother and his deep sadness. Veera is critical in this too, as she noses into the matter, pries the thing out of his hand. It is kind of annoying, but also a painfully vulnerable space, where one has to confront one's sorrows. Veera sings, and in some ways, this is a singing that reaches his soul. In the book, Estes speaks of singing as a sort of return. She tells us a story about the wolf woman, who gathers bones, and then sings flesh and blood and life back into them. In a lot of ways, this is exactly what happens with Mahavir when Veera sings a song from his childhood. Something starts to surface. Anger starts to melt.
And as the surface level fears and fury leaves, the deeper self-loathing emerges, stemming from his being a murderer: he has killed three people. He tries with this announcement to get rid of Veera for the last time, and yet she follows him, tracking him down to the bus stand from where he was about to run far away from her, leave her to be happier, healthier, without him. But when she emerges, he finally trusts her, finally gives in. Anger cracks a bit more and light floods in as he smiles. It is then that he commits to the journey as well and walks with her through the wilderness. They find a home together, where she insists on creating a space for them both. He breaks down in a moment that is both amusing (mostly because of his total surprise and unwillingness to cry, and his "wtf" expression killed me as much as his tears did, though in two very different ways) and deeply heartbreaking. He screams in his pain for his mother, for all the horrible things he has done and been through.
Love is befuddling to Anger: love destroys anger by healing it, integrating it. Indeed, unlike his belief that she would be better off without him, there is no happiness without him for her, because to be whole, she needs to be integrated or for him without her, because she holds him together and offers him love and total acceptance. When you offer acceptance, which is the core of forgiveness, to yourself for your flaws, for your rage, for your self-loathing, then you bring that part of yourself home. This is what Veera does when she brings him home.
In the next scene of the movie, he dies. This is also heartbreaking and causes a lot of sadness and rage - the scene where she's running next to his dead body telling him everything will be okay is like watching a child scream and scramble to hold onto the last remnants of fairytale-like hope. One is filled with even more anger and loathing when her family turns up, sedates her, takes her home and tells her to "act like everything is normal".
But then something magical happens, as Veera takes the steps she needs to, to complete her journey. These are not tentative, scared steps. When she finally confronts her uncle about his actions in front of the whole family, she lays it all out clearly. Eventually, she screams - loudly, twice - before announcing that she is never coming back to this cage. The steps she takes here, coming down the stairs with difficulty and doing all that she does, are the steps of a wild woman grown, calmly clear about her intentions, angry in a way that is completely clear and expressive, and standing on her own feet. The journey is complete now; Veera has found her voice. She carries Mahavir in her, in a sense, carries her rage and handles it, accepts it, treats it with a lot of love and kindness. When she leaves home for the last time, she stops by the side of the road and screams for him, and it is bittersweet. But the truth is that for the child to grow, she has to let go of the hands that keep her steady, the footholds, the crutches... In the archetypal sense, he dies when she no longer has need for him, and in his death, she finds her Self.
A lot of this movie did not register for a long people - I noticed in my (many) viewings of the tale that there were people in the audience who laughed when Veera confronted her family and screamed, or when Mahavir cried. There was either utter confusion or ignorance or a certain nervousness in their laughter, and this is often what happens to friends and family members of a woman who is starting to awaken. They have no idea what is happening or what's about to hit them. Women often live in social spaces designed to contain the spirit so as not to rock to boat. It doesn't only come from being in a traditional family; suppression of emotions, memories and problems is common to women across different social and economic strata, across families of all kinds. Every life has the potential of a beautiful, heartbreaking, scary and amazing journey, but journeys are by nature contrary to sedentary lives and domestic spaces. To embark on a journey, you have to LEAVE a home or FIND a home, and tthis is not meant to be an easy, polite, socially-acceptable process. Boats are rocked and people get confused, angry or just have no connection with what's going on, and often do everything they can to stop you from doing what your soul is calling you to do. But to refuse the call of the soul is to be oppressed, to never express anger, to carry an unloved child or angry monster within you for all your life, and to be corroded away from within. This is perhaps bearable, but it is a slow death, a life unexpressed and unlived. Amongst many other things, Highway proves that life is a messy, difficult business that requires you to make your own shoes and take on your journey.