17 March 2015

Highway to Hell: Thoughts on NH10

My Mirror column last Sunday:

Navdeep Singh's NH10 takes the road out of Gurgaon to a chilling, edge-of-your-seat conclusion you wouldn't foresee. But that isn't the only reason you should take the ride.

NH10 has very little dialogue. By Hindi movie standards, it's really quite minimalist. But there's one extended monologue -- placed appropriately enough in the mouth of a Haryanvi cop -- that's the single-most powerful pointer to the film's worldview. "Have you read Manu? He was a very wise man. Like Ambedkar, who wrote our constitution," asks the policeman, in what initially seems a bizarre analogy. "Now, since Ambedkar said we should drive our cars on the left hand side of the road, we all do it, right?" As Anushka Sharma's Meera looks on, flummoxed yet watchful, the cop makes it clear why his analogy isn't so bizarre after all. Where Gurgaon's last mall ends, he says categorically, so does the power of the constitution. After that, he implies, the law of the land is not Ambedkar's, but the Manusmriti's.

That dichotomy might not be one that would stand up in an academic article, or even in a newspaper op-ed. But everyone who watches NH10 will know exactly what he means. So does Meera. Which is why she interrupts what seems like his ostensibly innocuous, Uncle-style, rambling lecture with the kind of act that no Uncle-style rambler anticipates.

But then Navdeep Singh's film is an exceptionally rare creature - certainly for Hindi cinema, but arguably for any cinema anywhere in the world. I'd like to call it a feminist thriller. This is a horror film in which the scary creatures are two-legged: A band of men. And it's a horror film in which the Final Girl - the last woman who survives, and manages to defeat the killer/ghost in the Hollywood tradition of slasher/horror/thriller films - isn't burdened with the weight of being virtuous and virginal.

NH10 isn't the first time a commercial Hindi film has tried to show us non-metropolitan India through the eyes of a metropolitan young woman. Last year's Highway, directed by Imtiaz Ali, picked up Alia Bhatt's cosseted PYT and turned her out into the badlands of North India, also using the highway out of the National Capital Region as a motif. But where Highway sought to turn its heroine's vulnerability into her strength, and the road into both a route to and metaphor for self-discovery, NH10's highway is a highway to hell.

In an opening sequence that hooks you right in, we drive past Gurgaon's glittering malls and high-rises, the darkness a velvety cocoon for the flirtatious conversation between Meera and her husband Arjun (we only hear them, not see) but also exuding a sense of the unknown. The choice of Gurgaon as locale is perfect, allowing Singh to sketch his characters with ease, while also serving as shorthand for the sense of siege that women like Meera - women like us, I who am writing this column and you, who are reading it - so often experience in our own country. The bright lights encased by the surrounding darkness offer an analogy so simple as to be simplistic, but there is no getting away from the film's frightening picture of India's big cities as citadels, where a new and unrecognisable form of civilisation retains its tenuous grip, in a country otherwise full of barbarians.

There are so many interesting things going on in the film that I'm only going to manage to gesture to a few. The first thing that struck me was that Singh begins the film with the threat of sexual danger, but then turns that sense of menace into something much wider, something that encompasses not just women who aren't toeing the line, but also men who are foolish enough to support them. The second is that the film is almost programmatic in the clarity with which it places itself (and therefore the viewer) on the side of the young DINK couple, and cuts no slack for the gang of rurban Haryanvi men, presenting them as villainous brutes. They're hardly likely to spare anyone else, you think, if they don't even spare their own sisters. And yet, Singh does offer the necessary moments of recognition that these men can show tenderness when it isn't prohibited by the codes they live by: Like when they weep for the death of a defenceless younger brother, or safeguard the life of a (male) child.

There is also the quiet but brilliant use of objects, flashy consumer goods, as a kind of bait held out by the citadel of desire to the surrounding empire of the deprived. But it is only children - or the childlike - who are swayed by these objects: The keys to a grand big car, or a shiny watch that seems full of gizmos. The analogy used by another policemen earlier in the film makes threatening use of the child metaphor: "Yeh sheher badhta bachcha hai, madam," he says when told of a late night attack by men on motorcycles, "Chhalaang toh lagayega hi."

What's great about NH10 is that it tells a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat; it lays out a view of the world, convincingly and without apology; and it offers no reassuring solutions. It is the chilling war cry of the besieged metropolitan woman. This battle may have been lost, but the war has just begun.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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