NH10 Review: Anushka Sharma holds together this flawed movie with her performance

Deepanjana Pal

Mar,13 2015 18:49:21 IST

Brava Anushka Sharma! In an industry that likes its heroines to be dolls, on and off screen, Sharma has put her name, reputation and bank account behind a film that few would have the gumption to touch. NH10, directed by Navdeep Singh, is a dark, unforgiving film that offers its viewers little relief, few songs, no dances and no silver linings. It's tense, gripping and violent in a way that doesn't let you dismiss it as filmi. It's also proof positive that Sharma is not just a gifted actress, but a bold producer too.

Mira (Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) are the standard DINK (double income, no kids) couple. One night, when Mira is alone in her car and driving through Gurgaon's empty streets, she's almost carjacked. When they go to file a complaint at the police station the next morning, the inspector says unapologetically, "Yeh shahar toh badhta bachcha hai. Kood toh lega hi." Mira is rattled by her encounter with the carjackers while Arjun is burdened with guilt that he hadn't driven Mira on that fateful night. Since Mira's birthday is coming up, Arjun decides to take her on short holiday, outside the city, to cheer her up.

Anushka Sharma in a still from the film. Image courtesy: Facebook

Anushka Sharma in a still from the film. Image courtesy: Facebook

Leaving Gurgaon and hitting NH10 proves to be the worst things Mira and Arjun could have done. By the time they've made their first dhaba stop, they're knee-deep in a situation they don't entirely understand. Arjun's been punched. A young woman Mira doesn't know from Adam has told her she'll be killed if Mira doesn't help her. There are grizzly men making snide, unhelpful comments. In a nutshell, it's all going to hell in NH10.

Sudip Sharma's script isn't the strongest or the most coherent. It has some borderline tackiness, like Mira taking on a new avatar on her birthday (she's being reborn, geddit?). There are also details that don't entirely make sense, but as you watch Mira and Arjun negotiating their way through the nightmare in which they've found themselves, it becomes painfully clear that much of what we call "common sense" is actually anxious caution that borders on paranoia. For instance, the moment Arjun leaves Mira in the car alone, your breath catches in your throat because you're certain something horrible will happen to her. Or when you realise Arjun has left his phone in the car when he went running after the bad guys, there's a chill that runs down your spine.

Yet these aren't catastrophic mistakes. Mira and Arjun are on a highway, a public space, in a country that's overpopulated. That the horrible consequences feel entirely credible is a piercing insight into the reputation north India has cemented for being violently lawless.

More seriously, there's a stereotype that NH10 promotes without reservation: that the violent, misogynist bad guys are rural folk who don't have the patina of progress and modernism. There's a clear opposition set up in the film — Mira and Arjun are English-speaking, upper middle class city slickers, or the good guys. They step beyond the lakshman rekha of urbanisation and face illiterate or barely-literate brutes who speak Hindi with a Haryanvi burr and think nothing of butchering women. It's interesting that the only people who help Mira are a couple who work in a construction site, another symbol of urbanisation.

Yet the uncomfortable reality that NH10 doesn't acknowledge is that from female foeticide to honour killings, every symptom of gender bias can be found across class barriers, in cities as well as outside them. These regressive attitudes are not laid to rest under skyscrapers, malls and concrete roads.

This stereotype would be less disturbing if NH10 wasn't shot and told in a way that emphasises how realistic the film is. Sure, it's fiction, but realism is constantly being emphasised in NH10 — in the costumes, the striking but unflamboyant cinematography; in the fact that Mira's make-up isn't smudge-proof, and so on. Consequently, the logical conclusion is to assume NH10 reflects reality. Except it doesn't. In NH10, the 'civilised' set only give in to their base, violent tendencies when they're pushed to a corner. Who's doing the pushing? Those "low class" people who live beyond the urban pale, naturally.

Fortunately for Sharma, the flaws in his script are camouflaged by Jabeen Merchant's brilliant editing, which keeps you on the edge of your seat from the very beginning. Between the unrelenting pace that Merchant sets and the ominous background score, there's little breathing room in NH10, which wanders around the murderous, noir terrain that Singh explored in his first feature, Manorama Six Feet Under.

And then there's Anushka Sharma, who holds NH10 together with an outstanding acting performance. There are other actors in the film — Deepti Naval, Darshan Kumaar, Neil Bhoopalam — but only Sharma is able to rise beyond the thinness of the script and its weak characterisation. As Mira, Sharma is unaffected and entirely credible, whether she's making a work presentation or spilling blood. Her screen presence is phenomenal and it's the reason that NH10 can lay claim to being that rare breed of Bollywood films that doesn't suffer from The Curse of The Second Half.

Post-interval, NH10 is mostly Sharma running, getting rude shocks and occasionally driving. It should get monotonous, but it doesn't. Ironically, the weakest moment in the film is the climactic fight, which drags unnecessarily.

Without any fanfare, Sharma delivers with smooth, skilful grace what Varun Dhawan utterly failed to do in Badlapur: a convincing portrait of how one can become a completely different person, because of a few silly choices and their consequences. No matter how extreme her reaction, Sharma's acting, particularly in scenes with no dialogues, makes Mira's every move adds up. When she finally picks up a weapon, it's is a chilling reference to the 2012 Delhi gangrape — a metal rod — and she's wearing a yellow jacket, a barely-disguised salute to The Bride in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.

There is, however, a significant difference between The Bride and Mira. The Bride went on a rampage to avenge what was done to her, the way she was exploited, and to claim her own story and her future, as embodied in a daughter who was being kept from The Bride and the truth. Mira is driven to her outburst not by what happens to her, but because she wants to avenge someone else. Perhaps that's still the only way we can imagine strong women in Bollywood — in relation to men, rather than on their own terms. It's poetic justice that Sharma's electric performance makes you forget that anyone else existed in NH10.

NH10 was not an easy film to make and it isn't an easy film to watch, but give it five minutes, and it will suck you into its menace-riddled story. A thoroughly average idea and a flawed script add up to a gripping experience, thanks to Singh's direction, Merchant's editing and Sharma's acting. That's rare, particularly in Bollywood.

Updated Date: Mar 13, 2015 18:50 PM