Sunday, March 15, 2015

Yuppies and cavemen: NH10 as a thriller about contrasts

[Did this piece for the Daily O]

“So close to civilization is the cave,” Roger Ebert wrote in his passionate review of Luis Bunuel’s film The Exterminating Angel. (He was describing the scene where three sheep – having strayed into a room full of agitated socialites – are cooked on a fire made from expensive furniture.) I loved that piece when I first read it nearly 20 years ago, and I remembered the line again while watching Navdeep Singh’s tense thriller NH10, in which two sheltered Delhi yuppies – Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) – find themselves in the Haryana hinterland a few miles beyond the National Capital Region, witnesses to a brutal “honour killing”, and then stalked by a gang of rough-spoken, homicidal men.

The short walk (or drive) between civilisation and the jungle, and how easy it is to cross over in either direction, is a clear subject of this film. Yet I also felt that on some level NH10 invites us to consider what words like “civilized” and “savage”, “sophisticated” and “crude”, really mean, and how they can bleed into each other.

Singh’s long-overdue second film – which lived up to the expectations I had after his wonderful debut Manorama Six Feet Under nearly eight years ago – is, first and foremost, a tightly constructed genre movie, an exercise in suspense. The immediacy of the experience – being glued to the screen, holding your breath, forgetting to pick up your cold coffee, wondering if it was a good or a bad idea for this film to have an Intermission (the break provides a needed breather, but it also has the effect of toning down the intensity) – precedes everything else.

And only then, after exiting the hall and collecting one’s thoughts, does one reflect on the deeper issues being dealt with here: about the many faces and inner contradictions of a society heaving between old and new ways of life. Where a woman may have a high-paying job in a posh, gated office complex, but may still be encouraged to carry a weapon for her safety, and to anticipate and be “responsible” for other people’s criminal impulses (“Gurgaon badhta bachcha hai, toh gun mujhe hee lena hoga,” Meera says drily) – because the police can do only so much to help, and they would rather she didn’t travel alone anyway, it makes their job more difficult. (Besides, the idea of a woman driving by herself late at night discomfits them at a more primal level. Cops don’t emerge from thin air, as someone points out, they come from society and are very much part of it.) It's a world where elegantly dressed, well-spoken male colleagues may listen attentively to her presentation, but later rib her about the boss making special concessions for a woman.

This film is about other divides too, such as the big difference between a defiant but safe gesture (wiping off a sexist pejorative that has been scribbled on a bathroom door) and taking real action in the face of terrifying aggression. And it is, in a notable way, about the difference between being rooted, versus being adrift or cut off. NH10 bears a slight structural resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – which also had innocents being stalked through a forest-like setting by unspeakable evil – but there is a subtler link between the two films. In the 1974 movie, a group of teenagers, having moved far outside their comfort zone, fall afoul of what is eventually revealed to be a
family of cannibals. A key word in that description may be “family” – these are the primitive monsters, sure (just as the “honour-killers” are the clear bad guys in NH10), but they are also quaintly tradition-bound and rule-abiding; they live in a big house in the fashion of a joint family (with the repulsive Leatherface putting on an apron and playing the “woman’s” role at dinnertime). And one reason why they are so successful at the hunt is that they are united and organised, while their terrified prey is scattered to the winds. The family that slays together stays together.

In NH10, Meera and Arjun, after they get off the main highway, are alone in the wilderness, then gradually stripped of things they have taken for granted – cellphone, wallet, car. And this is especially scary because we already know that they are used to being in their private bubbles. The film’s opening-credit sequence has views of nighttime Delhi and Gurgaon, seen through the windows of their car, and we hear the murmurs of the lovebirds drifting in and out of the background music. When the credits end and we see them for the first time, it is in tight close-ups and they are now in an elevator leading to a friend’s apartment party. (The scene is a romantic one, centred on flirting and dirty talk, but there is something sinister and stifling about how it is composed.) Their inter-caste relationship is, of course, presented as a progressive contrast to the insular lives of the Haryanvi villagers – but Meera and Arjun are insular in their own ways, and seem cut off from a larger sense of family and community. (We don’t hear anything about their parents, apart from a very brief phone chat Meera has with her mother, which she hurriedly ends because the battery is low, or because she wants to have a quick smoke in the toilet).

In contrast, the bad guys of NH10 have a more sharply defined sense of family values than the heroes do – even if those “values” allow a man to murder his sister for breaking the “code”. The rustic setting that Meera and Arjun stumble into is a big, monstrous joint family in a way; a world where there can be no secrets, no privacy,
where everyone knows what everyone else is up to, and is more than willing to hold the fort against outsiders. And here are our hero and heroine, unaware even of their family caste, accustomed to booking a private villa for themselves whenever they want a getaway, and thoroughly ill-equipped to deal with such a place. The film is about what might happen when these two very different worlds collide for any length of time in a situation of extreme stress and emotion. What happens when the bubble bursts, so to speak? (A very early scene, when the window of Meera’s car – or cocoon – is smashed, comes as a shock to the system. It also prepares the ground for bigger horrors to follow.)

Just to repeat, NH10 doesn’t pedantically underline any of these things. I can already imagine ideology-driven critiques that come down on it for making a woman “win” by resorting to vicious male violence, or perhaps for encouraging a multiplex viewer to sweepingly judge “those savage Haryana types”. But the specific situation shown here involves a game of survival where anything goes, and where moralizing or philosophizing is a luxury the characters can’t afford. At the very end, where another film might have engaged in some gyaan-dispensing about the sickness in our society, this one leaves us with a single desolate line, spoken first by one person and then echoed by another. “Jo karna tha, kar liya.” No quarter is given. This has been a clash of civilizations, but the victory won at the end is a shallow, Pyrrhic one. At a time when so many movies are about affirmation – providing views of the world as it should be rather than as it is – this one uses genre tropes (from horror, suspense, even the road movie) to mask the fact that it is one of the bleakest, most nihilistic depictions of our social framework.


  1. great piece and I can't wait to see this one!

  2. I want to watch this film but unable to sum up courage after a gory Badlapur (which I loved, though). I am uncomfortable with scenes with body parts being sliced and nails being pulled out and throats being slit. It might seem a very silly question but does NH 10 have such scenes?

    1. Oh yes, it does have violent and gory scenes - and those are more disturbing than the ones in Badlapur (which is a more stylised film, not "realistic" in the way that NH10 is).

  3. I was quite glad this didn't stop at being just another slasher film liberally borrowing from Eden Lake and delved into class and caste issues as much as one can in films of this genre. That's where it transcends both the genre and its inspiration (and allows usage of this word instead of the much abused "copy"). I loved the stretch from when Meera takes a lift in the cop's car, he quizzes her about her caste, name drops Ambedkar only for an already confused Meera to give bewildered looks (her privileged self has no understanding of this issue or at least doesn't get the gravity of the issue). The quarry scene was simply phenomenal. I couldn't help but read it as Meera climbing up the rocks, standing high up (her own ivory tower) and throwing rocks down at people below. And to Navdeep Singh's credit, he also dares to show that this is not black and white but more of a hierarchy and there are people further below Meera's attackers and that's where the Bihari construction worker comes in to Meera's rescue and whose house the Mama won't step into. This stretch soon after the interval made the film for me.

    1. Gradwolf: great comment, thanks. Just one thing though: I'm always a bit wary when I hear talk of "transcending the genre" - in my view, most of the effective genre films (and I'm not only speaking of something as good as Texas Chainsaw Massacre) already have many "social issues" as subtexts and get a lot of their frisson from that, even if it isn't addressed directly. (Haven't seen Eden Lake, so won't comment on that one specifically.)

      I just read a mention of Last House on the Left in a Navdeep interview. Makes me want to go back to Robin Wood's iconic essay on the American horror film.

  4. What this movie did was to show that the response of people of all backgrounds is the same when it comes to their "code" being violated. Meera, at the end, probably justifies her violence by telling herself that she killed "butchers" who murdered her husband and their own sister - both of which are against her "code" of living. Arjun, well, he probably justified his action by telling himself that they shouldn't harm the couple for an inter-caste marrriage - because in his code, evidently, such things are normal. Whatever be the stimulus, a sense of putting things right, or a sense of doing right pervaded the actions of the rural and the urban, neither of which, in the end analysis, was justifiable?? Jo karna tha...

  5. @Jai - Respectfully disagree with you rating of the movie. As a long time fan of the slasher genre ( and to some extent the road movies sub genre within it), I found the movie lacking and was disappointed with the quality of this one after the quality he dished out in the first one. I did not find the editing tight, the acting and/or casting was bad, too much melodrama for the genre, the whole social issue thing was blown out of proportion and was not subtle as in the hollywood lower budget slashers and found the movie confused between wanting to be a slasher and social issue movie.

    However, I will agree that this is big step for slasher movies in Bollywood with higher budget than usual.

  6. Lovely post! I felt the same way about the divides... In a way the divides are superficial and the misogyny is a continuum from one end of the spectrum where male ego gets hurt in a boardroom and at home to a woman being killed for choosing her own partner... It was an unsettling film... Btw it's "Jo karna tha so karna tha." I hope more films could be made on this topic... It is indeed a long way to respect for human rights. And indeed civilisation is a myth.. But I wish someone makes a film on fighting for good institutional response to honour killings.

    Best wishes,

  7. I think you are giving too much credence to the movie for the side subject of "honor killings". I think the movie would have remained same if it was caste rivalry or any kind of rural lawlessness. I think the movie was good n setting up authentic environment but there were too many coincidences and convenient devices employed by the director.

  8. just saw the film yesterday. The slickness and the craftedness of the film notwithstanding, there were few ambiguities that one was left with. At one level I saw the film as delineating the clashes between two elite groups - the rural and the urban and not as much between the haves and have nots, an impression that one otherwise may get. Do the urbane upper class denizens couped in their glass, tinted and seemingly exclusive spaces (notice how frequently the divisions between them and the rest is mediated through a mere fragile glass screens - car, office, residence) have greater nihilistic rights in their inability to comprehend the brutality and savagery of rural India? It appears that bourgeois sensibilties alone,even as it is opportunistic and hypocritical, can claim greater moral rights, in which other groups inhabiting a different moral world, however repugnant, are best eliminated. No engagement is possible, either politically or socially as India hurries towards disingenuous modernity.