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.