Liminal Spaces: How Imtiaz Ali Used The Desolation Of A Highway To Explore Trauma

HighwayWallpaper Cave

Kenopsia (noun)

Etymology: From Greek, 'kenosis' (emptiness) + opsia (seeing)

The eerie atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned.

If you've ever visited an unfurnished empty house, checked in into a hotel or walked to your car in an empty parking lot really late at night or just gone out in public spaces during the lockdown, you're aware of Kenopsia; a strange, forlorn atmosphere which is sometimes charged like the 'something is about to happen' moment in a horror film. This unsettling feeling is also induced by 'Liminal Spaces'. Derived from the Latin word līmen which means threshold or doorway in a more literal sense, Liminal spaces are transitional physical, emotional or temporal spaces between what was and what will be — a place of waiting, and not knowing.

Liminal Spaces, Backrooms
Liminal Spaces, BackroomsMusee Magazine, Wikipedia

While the eerieness of these spaces has always existed and been used in films like The Shining and The Stalker, liminal spaces gained popularity as an internet aesthetic in 2019 after a post on 4chan depicting a liminal space called the Backrooms went viral and became something of an urban legend, inspiring many fan-made video games, collaborative fiction and YouTube videos exploring places that induced a sense of familiarity, anemoia or nostalgia in people.

Highway 2014 poster
Highway 2014 posterKoimoi

A distinct characteristic of liminal spaces, whether they're physical or emotional, is a disconnection from reality. Liminal spaces are fluid and surreal; they feel like they exist outside of time and space. This Liminality was the backbone of the 2014 film Highway. Directed by Imtiaz Ali and starring Alia Bhatt and Randeep Hooda, the film was a direct expression of emotional and physical liminal spaces, a bubble of paradise unhinged from reality where soon-to-be bride Veera, who wanted to escape the exhausting wedding traditions and elope, ironically gets kidnapped by criminal gang member Mahabir at a gas station on the Delhi highway and ends up finding a sense of peace.

HighwayBollywood Hungama

According to the plot, the film should have been a crime drama, but the deeply personal and poignant exploration of liminal spaces that the protagonists go through, set an entirely different emotional tone that, in terms of visceral storytelling, no other commercial Bollywood film has been able to come close to. Highway is a tale of two people falling in love as they journey through a liminal space where the past and the future are irrelevant.

HighwayBollywood Hungama

Last year, an article published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the uneasiness we feel in Liminal spaces is essentially the 'uncanny valley' effect which is the idea of something being very predictable but simultaneously deeply unfamiliar, resulting in a feeling of revulsion like a smile that seems normal on humans but uncanny on a dead-eyed doll. Highway flips this effect back and forth through an abduction that's objectively perceived as a terrifying experience but has slowly become a haven for Veera and a long road trip which sounds fun but carries an underlying fear of them being found by the cops lingering throughout.

Highway IMDb

Highway is both about escapism and confrontation. Veera finds freedom in being abducted because she was taken away from her home; a place that's supposed to be safe but was not for her as we learn further in the film. In fact, it was traumatic and damaging, so much so that even a dangerous life event of being kidnapped felt better than living in a house with her abuser pretending that she wasn't molested as a 9-year-old kid by her own uncle. The trauma of sexual assault, in most cases, has the effects of a liminal space on the victim; like the ground they stood on has disappeared and it's all instability and 'not knowing' from now on. They continue their lives where everything they've known is the same but their reality has shifted forever.

Highway Hollywood reporter

In the film, both Mahabir and Veera were victims of sexual abuse as kids and this tragic shared history becomes a part of their connection and healing. The film represents both physical liminal spaces — the journey to Himachal Pradesh, and emotional liminal spaces — the unsafe, transition state that Veera and Mahabir have been living in mentally. Human beings move because we seek security, which is why zombie and apocalypse movies are so gripping because they are liminal spaces with no home ground safe enough to stay. Veera and Mahabir have been in that state emotionally almost all their lives but when they meet each other and connect, because of the shared trauma, they feel safe. This connection creates a safety powerful enough to comfort a criminal running from the cops and an abductee not knowing where she's being taken.

HighwayNY Times

The multidimensional diorama of a liminal space that was Highway, flipped the scripts on freedom and captivity. Veera's prison wasn't Mahabir's truck where she hid with her hands tied, it was her lavish Delhi house where her mother not only failed to protect her but silenced her into sharing a space with someone that caused her great pain. Liminal spaces are unsettling because they are the opposite of a home which is safe, secure and grounding. What makes Highway so special and subversive is that for Veera, the liminal space itself became the home that she shared with Mahabir.