The opening credits of NH10 forces you to take in the surroundings. It’s the world of huge malls, posh looking tech parks, flyovers and metro stations. This is important for Navdeep Singh because he wants to make a point about the existence of several Indias. But it is a relief (though this could have been better fleshed out) that he doesn’t wish to take sides and feel sympathetic towards one and not the other. Being too subtle here is probably Singh’s only problem. These images are glimpsed only through the window (more protective facade) of a car as we hear Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) engage in small talk and discussing their plans for the evening. They lead that kind of a protective life. Only the golden word here is not protective but privileged. Arjun is quick to reveal that the DIG is a friend. Meera is talking to a lady in the party about Bangalore who remarks, “What’s in Bangalore? They close down at 11.30. Look at Delhi!” This is the biggest problem in their lives. Pubs closing at 11.30 pm and product launches making them miss fun parties. Both of them offer money as solution in unfamiliar situations. Singh, thankfully, does not want to be sympathetic towards this India. And lest you think this is the tu-jaanta-nahin-mera-baap-kaun-hai demographic, he has Meera and Arjun exchange sweet nothings (and in all honesty it is more than nothing) in Tamil.
We knew from Manorama Six Feet Under that Navdeep Singh is a solid genre filmmaker and with NH10 he takes a brutal and satisfying turn. NH10 works as a great slasher film and more importantly it works as a pure horror film. The weather changes as Meera and Arjun leave the city behind, the creepy guy showing up uninvited as they stop to ask for directions and receiving sarcastic, riddled replies that act as foreshadowing, a girl falling down in front of their car. It is all there. It borrows heavily from James Watkin’s Eden Lake and there is nothing to feel disappointed about that. Singh situates it in the Haryana hinterlands and the the writing here makes NH10 rooted in its milieu. This is an acutely self-aware film that wants to engage in some social commentary as it hacks and slashes its way through. Singh and writer Sudip Sharma make it a point to delineate the caste and class divide. There is an offhand nod to it in an early scene where Arjun won’t budge to the security guard’s pleas to move his car from the driveway as he waits for his wife. As they leave Arjun offers a half-hearted “thank you” that Meera files under him trying to impress her. Another purposeful but not so subtle scene and another foreshadowing occurs when Meera is in a dhaba toilet and looks at the door calling everyone out randi. This may not have been as important if not for Singh using the rest room’s mirror to show Meera walking in. A hint on what’s to come and how women are really treated by the men
The film’s most superior stretch occurs early in the second half. It tries to subtly hint at the class hierarchies and does so beautifully with razor tight hold on the medium. A police officer gives Meera a ride and quizzes her about her caste only for her to respond as if she was asked to break down the theory of relativity in two words. The privileged Meera has no faculty for the point the cop tries to make and he helpfully name drops Ambedkar, driving on the left (cheeky Navdeep Singh) etc. This was simply not a problem in Meera’s world. As this lead up ends in a quarry, we see the men chasing Meera searching for her as she hovers on the rocks somewhere. They spot her and throw stones at her to pin her down. She climbs up and throws bigger stones at them. This is desperation but it is also the single most important scene of NH10 when this is filmed as if to show Gurgaon’s Meera comfortable at her height looking down and attacking those below. A more simplistic film would stop here but this leads to a Bihari construction worker’s shack where Meera takes a brief refuge, a worker who is allowed to stay only outside the village and is placed even below those that were attacking Meera in the hierarchy. The worker’s wife hides behind a curtain and Fauji (Ravi Jhankal is terrific here) won’t step inside that house. Or will he? Don’t miss the kaldarshik calendar behind Meera in this scene.
NH10 also wants to expose that there is only a thin line between sanity and madness. The bread and butter of a slasher film. It doesn’t take much for Arjun to go after Satbir (Darshan Kumaar) and gang. He’s guilt ridden with misplaced priorities and a misunderstood definition of manhood. A sister is killed with little flinching and little afterthought and minutes later, a few steps away, a brother is painfully mourned. We are repeatedly shown the novelty item that’s hanging in Meera’s car and it looks like an eye. As all hell breaks loose and there is only one way to go, we see it again – the third eye that has opened. Meera is lit in ghostly fashion inside the car. Her face pale and betraying several emotions from laughter to sadness to hatred to fury to murderous rage. The many faces of a fantastic Anushka Sharma, versatile on screen and adventurous off it for presenting this great film.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)