A Note on NH-10 (Hindi; 2015)

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There was a fair amount in the NH-10 trailers that I find off-putting about contemporary Bollywood: the utterly (and to me, somewhat alienating) Hollywood cinematic idiom, the sense that the film’s audience must share the socio-economic aspirations of the two lead characters, the sort of de-racinated upwardly mobile Indians presented as normal, almost the only “normal” in a milieu where to be “ethnic” is to be associated with violence and deprivation’s dark heart. Director Navdeep Singh’s film (his second, after the atmospheric Chinatown remake Manorama Six Feet Under) certainly pushes those buttons, but there’s much more to the film, making it one of the best (and certainly the most harrowing) Hindi films of the last few months.

First, NH-10 is completely gripping, pervaded by violence that is raw, and completely human-scale. In fact, most of the film’s suspense is tied up with the prospect of such violence being visited on this or that character: it isn’t the plot twists that hold us (rule of thumb: if a lead character has spent a lot of effort evading baddies, she isn’t going to get caught) so much as the fear and nausea that (yet more) punishment might be in store for Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam), the preppie couple from Delhi who find themselves entangled in an ugly situation involving an “honor” killing in rural Haryana. And it is to Navdeep Singh’s credit that NH-10 evokes this atmosphere in a way that never lets the prospect of rape (i.e. the titillation that is all too often inextricable from representations of rape on-screen) distract us from the pain and brutality involved: you won’t see goons foisting themselves on the heroine here — but you will see her and others get viciously beaten, in ways that will stay with you long after the film has ended.

But by film’s end, it’s clear that Singh is getting at something more than a run-of-the-mill thriller: NH-10’s two hours are littered with signs that Meera and Arjun’s world shares some of the same codes as that of the Haryanvi village, even as the former cannot pick up on any of the latter’s signals (even benign ones). Looking back one may chuckle at Meera’s powerpoint on the “rural consumer” of contraception and the right marketing strategy for him/her — she is at once spot on and hopelessly naive — but NH-10 won’t allow its viewers the smugness of distance. Arjun’s own patriarchal codes contribute heavily to the mess the couple find themselves in, and he isn’t the only one: witness the snide remark from Meera’s male colleague about how women find it easier to impress their bosses; and then there’s an excellent scene early on in the film when Meera and Arjun are in a Delhi police station to file a complaint about a night-time attack on Meera; the kindly-looking policeman spends most of his time talking to Arjun, and finally asks him how he can allow his wife to go out unaccompanied late at night — we all know the sort of city this is. Indeed we do, and Navdeep Singh reminds us that the world of rural Hissar and Rohtak aren’t as far away from New India’s great urban centers as we might like to imagine. (Conversely, we don’t often encounter female characters in action films with as vigorous a sense of agency as Meera — sadly, even in American cinema this sort of indomitable spirit is typically associated with the likes of the super-heroine goddesses of Kill Bill and Lucy — and that is reason enough to take notice of co-producer and actress Anushka Sharma here.)

Mahatma Gandhi’s phrase “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” haunts this film (mostly because no-one subscribes to the credo), and as NH-10 narrows its focus onto Meera, we see that she has more than a little in common with the iron sarpanch (played with scene-stealing competence by the unexpected Deepti Naval) who combines in her person great tenderness as well as unspeakable cruelty. “Jo karna tha, so karna tha” is the motto of more than one person here, and the line is no throwaway, embodying the film’s darkest insight: that we can inflict great cruelty on others when we feel there is no other choice; more accurately, that cruelty can be just as natural as breathing if it is woven into the texture of our immediate experience so finely that its ideological underpinnings may no longer be seen as anything other than natural.

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18 Responses to “A Note on NH-10 (Hindi; 2015)”

  1. Sharp, polemical read as always Qalandar. Will check this out at some point.

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  2. Excellent! very well written. I really liked the film, the raw and disturbing violence is unlike any other hindi film I have seen. Kudos to Anushka Sharma for portraying the gritty character of Meera effectively and also financially backing the movie which was otherwise stalled for lack of producers.

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  3. You wrote a glowing note on the film. I found the movie underwhelming and poor. I find C grade Hollywood slashers have better screenplay than this. The film is littered with coincidences and conveniences. I agree the rural milieu is authentic and side story (honor killing) sas potential but the film focus is never there. It is more on someone sucked in lawlessness of rural Haryana for a night.

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  4. Thanks,Q. Am glad it gets your seal of approval. Plan to watch it when DVD comes out.

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    • I’ve been waiting to do the same on Baby. On that note the Ugly DVD is out. Caught up with this recently. A very brief comment from the other day:

      [Saw Ugly recently myself. Liked it overall even if the film gets clunky at very many points, a bit overburdened by all the layers Kashyap wishes to add on here. Still it’s interesting till the very end and the climax hits you in the gut. Even with its failings it’s vastly superior to Badlapur.]

      finally I’ve had the Haider DVD lying around for a while but somehow haven’t gotten into it. Rocky has said I can’t watch it without purifying my soul with Baby right away!

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      • omrocky786 Says:

        LOL…you should watch back to back !!
        I had the same feeling with the new Umrao Jaan, where I had the DVD for months before I actually watched it.
        Right now I am having the same issue with Kill Dill , saala mann hee nahee karta dekhney ka, inspite of it being Shaad Ali and Govinda movie, have been watching the award shows instead ..aajkal it’s the Star Guild Award ..LOL
        I actually did not end up minding Haider except for filming the song at the temple .
        I am sure you will love Baby.

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      • omrocky786 Says:

        Great piece Q, specially liked the fact you had the balls to take on the American Cinema.

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        • movies are secular 😉
          Either they are good or bad (provided they are not part of propaganda) and of course liking is individual’s taste.

          Question: Can you withstand same masala movies with Chinese/mexican actors; with same melodrama and fiery diologues? I think we tend to overlook many shortcomings of a desi movies because we relate to setup.

          ps – Did you watch Hukum Narayan Yada’s video in BO thread? That is authentic Bihari not what is propagated by Govinda or Kashyap’s movies.

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          • omrocky786 Says:

            LOL on Movies are secular..
            Till yesterday “Beef” – Food has no religion , today “Biryani” – dekho Muslims ko badnam Kar rahe hain !! Adarsh Liberals are simply amazing !!!
            I watched parts of the video, he is really well read and talks with great logic. Lekin Lohiya ka bhakt thoda problematic hai !! LOL !!

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  5. Seems you liked it . Otherwise you wont write a review. and obviously Munna did not like it and he is making his point again and again. I cant stand violence but I am curious and would like to watch it. And Satyam has to prove himself patriotic and watch Baby and then he can watch the other flicks. Otherwise he has to bear the cross of becoming Adarsh Liberal with a capital A and L. Meanwhile Adarsh illiberals are busy in fishing in troubled waters ignoring what is happening in J & K.
    Dont blame me for bringing politics. It is someone who started it by bringing those tweets about AL on SS.

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    • “point again and again.”
      lol..that is true. Big write-up, slightly bigger rebuttal than last time 🙂 My comment is more about “as a movie”.

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    • Someone asked me to elaborate what I didn’t like in the movie. Here is the comment:

      *Spoilers Galore**
      I am not sure what to like (setup I liked). I was restless at many points during the movie especially when director was taking too much cinematic liberties, questioning my intelligence as audience.
      If you remove the honor killing part, what is left is a straight c grade road slasher which you get in plenty in Hollywood. Even the honor killing angle I don’t think the director took any position. The killings in the end were not for “honor killing” but revenge. So what did director do with the subject? Nothing. If you say that brutal killings are new. So many of Hollywood aping (Kashyap and ilk) directors have already shown such kind of violence. Now come to premise that urban couple are sucked in rural lawlessness IMO was flawed. When Anushka wanted to leave the party in middle of night, she was asked by husband that she should phone him after reaching office. This was Gurgaon/Delhi. When he was slapped at dhaba in front of many people, Arjun didn’t do any thing. But the premise that his male ego was hurt and wanted to chase the goon risking his wife safety in wilderness was jus too much for me; Then leaving the phone in car when out with gun (they showed initially that he left the phone in car before the party). When anushka arrives at home of laborer at night for help, the man saves her from the goon (he was given water) but directs her to go to Sarpanch (that goon was sarpanch relative) house. Then of course her change of avatar from one fleeing to fight the goons who ran circle in the village and willing to come under the vehicle.

      some of the points written much better than me here: http://www.hindustantimes.com/bollywood/nh10-five-bollywood-stereotypes-that-spoil-the-film/article1-1326335.aspx

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      • This is desi thing and the intention was to create drama at the expense of logic which happens in films like Ghajini, Badlapur and many other films too. The audience usually see the bigger picture and ignore the illogical things. It is not due to lack of intelligence but when we enter a cinema hall, we like to be entertained, shocked, thrilled, amused.

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  6. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    One of the most insightful and nuanced reading of this smart and nuanced film . Somewhere just a few minutes after the interval, I was getting restless, wondering why is Navdeep mixing up this thriller and social observation business. Then I started getting sucked into this intense experience..at once draining and cathartic, as I realised what an ambitious scale Navdeep was operating! No film in recent times, at least not any indian film, has taken me so close to the nature of violence. He shows us , no, not show2s, he makes us feel, what violence is really like. The Nature of Violence..that as well could be the subtitle of this masterpiece. I am really impressed how these breed of Bollywood filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan and Navdeep Singh are able to take generic material like Korean revenge drama and American slasher films and alchemise them into transcendental high art. If NH10 takes us in to the core of violence, Badlapur is a poignant meditation on the blurred line between god and evil, and the relative effectivity of vengeance and forgiveness in bringing a grief to closure. I am the biggest fan of Anurag Kashyap, but I feel, his UGLY , though in the same league as the other two, misses out on leaving that big impact, by not being able to contrast his world, where everyone is evil in varying degrees, against some form of goodness. THe ultimately ennobling nature of art , however bleak the theme, is missing from that film. But that is a fine film otherwise and it is very satisfying to have four wonderful films ( Dum Lag Ke Hiasa, being the fourth) within the first quarter. And each of these four films speak in so totally different voices and yet move us in the real sense instead of just going through the motions.

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  7. Just saw NH 10 and really, really liked it. And this is a rare contemporary Hindi film which becomes stronger as it progresses, I was absolutely riveted throughout the last 30-40 minutes. Anushka held the film the together, but Deepti Naval steals the handful of scenes she is in (who would have thought that girl from Chashme Buddoor could play this sort of a role).

    Incidentally, terrific piece Q…especially loved your last paragraph. Thanks much for this

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