Verdicts rolling in about “NH-10” are sure to point out the film’s place within the larger, current social framework, where concerns over the lack of safety for women converge with assertions of empowerment.
And yes, director Navdeep Singh’s latest movie—in which a female lead (Anushka Sharma, no less) fights for her life as well as her husband’s—is certainly a remarkably well-timed film, touching on a cultural nerve that has become exponentially more sensitive in recent years with the exposure, outrage and discourse over what it means to be a woman in India.
But contextual relevance aside, “NH-10”s appeal also stems from the fact that it is simply just a straight-up, scary movie, with only occasional moments where I was not on the edge of my seat or watching through clenched fingers over my eyes.
Meera (Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) are a happily (enough) married Delhi couple and working professionals, who are at the top of their game. After a brush with a gang of potential molesters one night, Meera is left unnerved, so Arjun decides to take her on a weekend getaway for her birthday in an effort to rejuvenate her spirits.
A private villa a few hours’ drive from home sounds like the perfect mini break, but the road trip soon morphs into the highway to hell when the couple mistakenly becomes involved in an honor-killing incident. With the murderous gang now hot on their heels and Arjun bleeding profusely from a stab wound inflicted by one of them, it falls on Meera to seek help or defeat the enemies—whichever comes first.
Said to borrow heavily from the 2008 British thriller “Eden Lake,” “NH-10” may not be entirely original, but in placing the story against the backdrop and tropes that dominate the outskirts of urban India, Singh weaves a narrative that is gripping in its own right. The film shines in the first half during the buildup to the central conflict.
Brilliantly brewing a foreboding aura from the get-go, Singh infuses an ominous sense of danger into every beat: the unsettling silence as Meera takes a solitary swim. The strange man lurking outside her passenger seat window while she waits for Arjun in the car. Even a cup of chai, its milky, muddy contents swirling counterclockwise, oozes sinister vibes. The long pauses, looming omens and false alarms steadily coil us into a bundle of nerves, waiting, watching, for something to go horribly wrong.
The payoff is a double-edged sword, and the actual trigger for their doomed path is one of the film’s weaker links: Arjun, consumed by ego, sets out to put the killers in their place when simple common sense (a trait you’d expect any savvy city slicker to possess), not to mention his wife’s pleading for him to stop, would have prevented him from making an obviously terrible decision. But despite the exasperating motivator, the mess it leads them into is rocking to the core and riveting, largely in credit to Sharma’s authenticity as Meera.
At the center of virtually every shot, Sharma bears the bulk of the film’s weight as she takes on Meera’s role as a fighter, protector, victim, and eventual hero. Oscillating between powerless and vengeful and transforming from terrified to ruthless, she plays the sympathetic target as well as the quintessential badass with earnestness and vigor in equal measure, and pulls it off with impressive restraint—perhaps even more than the occasionally contrived screenplay would have allowed for in the hands of a less confident actor.
As a producer as well as the lead actor, she carries the film behind the scenes too, making “NH-10” a representative of emboldened female roles both on and off screen. It’s a gutsy move, and it pays off, if for nothing else than to expand her range as a force within the industry.
While rising way above average with Singh’s slick execution and Sharma’s performance, “NH-10” is not without gaping flaws. The film blatantly draws on rampant stereotypes, namely, those of uneducated villagers, their brutish ways and backward mindsets.
The script stumbles with several overt, on-the-nose digs at patriarchal society and the derogatory attitude towards women, particularly in northern India: Meera scrubbing off an offensive word scribbled on a women’s bathroom stall at a roadside dhaba. The entire scene in a car devoted to a character essentially lecturing Meera on the power of the caste system to dictate one’s fate around these parts.
The message, intentional or otherwise, is clear: the further you drive away from “civilization,” (modern metropolises) the closer you are getting to the big bad world of rural India, where nobody can be trusted and low-life predators with archaic mentalities lurk at every dust-swept rest stop.
By now we can all understand that is a gross generalization. But what the oversimplification allows for is the appropriately treacherous, remote terrain in which Meera and Arjun’s waking nightmare occurs. Well-acquainted with rural India, as seen by their 2007 thriller “Manorama Six Feet Under,” Singh and cinematographer Arvind Kannabiran expertly capture the countryside rising into rocky hilltops, flattening into sandy, deserted roadsides and getting shrouded in wooded curtains as Meera hides, runs from, and confronts the truly menacing killers on her trail.
Cell phones are forgotten in cars, leaving no hope to call for help, no glittering skyscrapers reassuringly illuminate her surroundings and there are no bustling restaurants to duck into for respite. The rugged expanse, varied and yet largely deserted, is as haunting as the killers themselves.
But the landscape is not the only unadorned element here. With no humor to cut the tension or musical numbers to disrupt the flow, Singh’s no-frills treatment of his characters, his setting, and his structure crescendos into a disconcertingly convincing results.
Post-interval, there are moments where the realism falters, with a woefully forced climax, which takes the searing edge off the fear Singh had deftly simmered for the 115 minutes leading up to it and veers Meera a bit too far from her otherwise-plausible arc.
But even as the story dips in and out of melodrama, it hovers in a disturbing limbo between seeming incredible and believable. It is that gnawing feeling that this—or at least, a hefty chunk of it—could actually happen that makes “NH-10” a white-knuckle experience.
You may not find the ride enjoyable, but it’s one you won’t soon forget.