Bollywood produces a fair amount of “Bombay” Films — ones that, according to the oft-used descriptor, “treat the city like a character” — and one presumes it’s only natural: Bombay is, after all, home to the Hindi film industry. However, in the last few years, Bollywood filmmakers have adeptly begun to detail the minds of some other Indian cities, too. Dibakar Banerjee bared Delhi’s peculiar venality in Khosla Ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!; Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, among other things, fixed its gaze on how Wasseypur, a small town in Jharkhand, gradually evolved with time, and shaped its inhabitants’ curious associations with violence, vengeance and movies; Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani revolved around a chaotic Kolkata that complemented its protagonist’s obsessive restlessness. Navdeep Singh’s latest, NH10, too, is set in and around an Indian city whose make-up is indispensable to the film’s plot: Gurgaon.
Take, for instance, the film’s first scene, shot through a moving car, where we see the city’s well-illuminated night sky and hear the protagonists’ casual banter — the wife is trying to convince the husband to move back to Bangalore. Slowly, Gurgaon’s seamy, untrammelled side begins cropping up in everyday conversations: a toll booth operator cautions the film’s male lead, Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam), that a few days ago four people in a Pajero shot down his co-worker because he had the temerity to ask for a toll fee; Arjun advises his wife, Meera (Anushka Sharma), to carry a gun at all times because she was attacked by a bunch of strangers a few nights ago; and a while later, Meera says this: “Gurgaon badhta hua bachcha hai toh gun toh mujhe hi carry karni padegi na.”
NH10, however, soon moves away from Gurgaon to its poor cousin — a vast stretch of nothingness that breathes and subsists on the borders of the Millennium City: a hapless, rurban settlement that missed the last train to civilisation. Meera and Arjun — finer, richer and classier specimen of Gurgaon — find themselves in this barren, foreign locale because they stop by the eponymous highway en-route to their romantic, luxurious getaway. NH10 revolves a lot around these contrasting intersections: between the privileged and unprivileged, naïve and malevolent, civilised and barbaric.
It’s essential for a thriller like NH10, which unfolds like a gory cat-and-mouse game for the most part, to etch out its protagonists in the film’s beginning so we can care about them later. And Singh needs no more than a few scenes to set the stage: we soon understand that Meera and Arjun are an ordinary, affluent couple very much in love, trying their best to avoid the rough sides of their partners. But, as they soon come to realise, in a world beyond NH 10, not too far from their comfortable cocoon, differences don’t materialise with disgruntled sighs and disapproving looks, but with flying bullets and falling shovels. Honour killing, here, is not a crime, but a necessary obligation. So when Singh pits a bunch of bloodthirsty, uncouth hoodlums against two easy-going, young urbanites — the result is not just a taut thriller, but also a heightened, disturbing exploration of rural-urban divide. Singh doesn’t just stop at that — the plot slowly unravels to reveal what makes this village: helpless and corrupt cops marginalising and deriding city slickers, migrants living under the constant dread of losing their homes, kids growing up in houses where violence is commonplace. Misogyny, too, in this lawless hamlet is posited like a vapid worldview: an expression of both nonchalance and disgust.
But the real triumph of NH10 lies in it not being overburdened by motifs or ideas; in fact, Singh expertly employs the usual tropes of thrillers (setting up the stakes, assiduously building suffocating tension to a calculated and delayed payoff) to arrive at a story that’s larger than the sum of its parts. NH10 is not telling you something you don’t already know, but by masterfully juxtaposing the “two Indias” that live among and beyond us, it shares some disquieting insights about the perpetual, uncomfortable darkness that observes dazzling city lights with wonder and malice.
An edited version of this review was first published in The Sunday Guardian.