Dark. Dirty. Bloody.
This is how NH10 is best described. It's a film that takes Afia Nathaniel’s road trip thriller, Dukhtar and makes it into a tale of hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
After Bollywood’s last fling with the well-worn revenge genre in Badlapur, Navdeep Singh’s NH10 is a timely reminder that even prosaic and repetitious themes can be fresh and intriguing.
Based on somewhat actual events, NH10 is the story of Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam), a young inter-caste couple based in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi. A wealthy and well-connected duo, their life takes a turn for the worse as Meera is attacked one evening on her way back home. Though she narrowly escapes, the consequences of that unsettling encounter tinge the lens with which she embarks on this journey, and by extension, us — the audience — as well.
To get her mind off the incident, Arjun plans a vacation to a nearby resort. As they make their way through the treacherous highway, NH10, they witness a young couple being picked up by a bunch of hoodlums. The incident brings to light the misogyny and double standards of contemporary life in India’s rural hinterland.
That this film draws inspiration from actual events that occurred, and continue to occur, in Haryana makes it all the more believable.
Welcome to the jungle
NH10 opens with a sense of calm and restraint, luring the audience into a false sense of security. Shortly thereafter, violence ensues, leaving the film, its characters, and the story as blood stained as the bodies that keep piling up.
Without losing any of the chilling after-effects of Meera’s escape, director Navdeep Singh quickly plunges the couple, and us, into the foothills of the Aravalis where an honour killing is in full swing. Satbir (Darshan Kumaar), the son of the village sarpanch, is out to dish out some vigilante justice to his sister, the same girl who implores Meera to save them from the lopsided, warped and inhumane scales of Jatt justice.
In this wholly violent situation, especially towards the women involved, Arjun quickly falls to the predators leaving Meera to solicit help. If witnessing two young lovers being murdered by family members no less, seeing her husband beaten and mortally injured, and fighting to survive wasn’t enough, brace yourself, there’s more! With almost an hour left to the movie, the violence is only just starting.
|The film highlights patriarchal attitudes in rural areas — Screen grab.|
It is a testament to feudal mindsets and tribal loyalties that in a post-independence South Asia (mainly India and Pakistan) the only people who come to Meera’s aid are Bihari migrant workers, who are just as removed from “India Shining’s” power structures as Meera is in Haryana’s backwaters.
The sarpanch (Deepti Naval) is neither moved by her daughter’s death nor Meera’s cries for help, all in the name of honour. With the odds firmly stacked against her, Meera rises to the occasion. Herein we have our Maula Jatti who brandishes not a gun, not a hunter but that very gritty iron rod.
And revenge is a dish best served cold
For a story that is standard 1980s Bollywood fare, NH10 draws upon a few strengths: no songs, good original background score, excellent editing, skillful camerawork, and undoubtedly, stellar performances.
The cinematography in the latter half of the film is absolutely flawless. The dirty, loo-induced, yellow and heat soaked feel of Northern India’s arid environment jumps at the viewer making the situation all the more real. Any Dilliwala will quickly recognise the highways, the dhabas and the gundas that lurk within.
|A movie laced with violence, NH10 is not for the faint-hearted. —Photo courtesy: celebmedia.org|
Jabeen Merchant’s editing takes this film from watchable to riveting. Her expert cuts back and forth that leave us hanging behind a closed door, send a chill down our spine at a forgotten phone, and keep us glued to our seats as the prey heads face first towards the predator.
Equally compelling are the performances. Anushka Sharma easily paints a picture of a yuppie, a role Sonam Kapoor was unable to pull of in Bewakoofiyan. When forced into a corner, Anushka’s Meera has enough grit and wits to survive, a fact that is commendable. Neil Bhoopalam is good support but this is entirely Anushka’s film. For the brief moment we see Deepti Naval on screen, the eeriness quotient rises cent-percent. Darshan Kumaar as Satbir is astounding for he manages to go back and forth between black and white rather well.
|Anushka's potrayal breaks the shackles of convention. —Photo courtesy: IBN Live|
Finally, Navdeep Singh is not a director know for his subtlety. He almost single-handedly revised the way remakes should be portrayed in Bollywood with Manorma Six Feet Under, replete with meta-tendenices (a clip of Jack Nicholson in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown) and elegiac action style. His trademark moves are just as visible in NH10.
Much has been written about the one-sided portrayal, the sense of entitlement felt by the privileged set, and so on and forth, but this film is not about the divide between the rich and the poor, as valid as that argument might be.
Instead, it is about the brutality with which women are treated be it in posh, urban and sophisticated Delhi or the rural, dayhati outposts of Northern India (and really this could be a story in Multan or KPK or UP). That it shows a woman not afraid to fight back, to take matters in her own hand if help won’t come, and just simply to survive, should not only be appreciated but commended.
To every Meera out there: YOU GO GIRL!
Randip Bakshi is a graduate student, avid film buff, and occasional blogger. He can be found musing on popular culture @filmijourneys.
For more live updates, follow Dawn.com's official news Instagram account @dawn.today