Dir. Navdeep Singh
The lawless countryside does have a law of its own, explains a character in NH10. The laws established under the Constitution make sure everyone drives on the left side of the road, and if someone deviates, people die. Likewise, this character says, in offhanded justification of an honor killing, if you deviate from the rules of the countryside - know your caste, know your role - there is a price to pay. NH10 presents this argument but does not endorse it. It does not take the side of so-called honor killers, of the people who enforce the rules by killing their sisters and daughters. But it does present a troubling moral conundrum.
NH10's violent spiral begins when Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) attempts to protect a young man and woman, strangers to him, from a vicious beating and abduction. These precipitating evens are a clash between two different types of toxic masculinity. Satbir (Darshan Kumar) and his cohort, the enforcers of the village code, represent one type; when Arjun confronts him, Satbir spits "she's my sister," as if that assertion of ownership both explains and justifies his brutality. But Arjun's reaction to witnessing Satbir's brutality against his sister and her husband is also an expression of masculinity at its most aggressive and damaging. In his rage, Arjun turns inward, refusing even to speak to his increasingly alarmed wife, Meera (Anushka Sharma), gripping the steering wheel of his SUV until his knuckles go white, and finally ordering Meera to stay in the car - his work is man's work - while he storms after Satbir with a gun.
There is no question that Arjun's actions are foolish and dangerous and wrong. Indeed, his wife, Meera, a grounded voice of reason until the film's relentless tragedy pulls her down into its darkness, begs him not to interfere in this internecine violence. But what should Arjun have done? Certainly turning a blind eye toward the violence he witnesses cannot be the morally right answer. And even if it isn't apparent when Arjun makes his costly bad decision, the film makes amply clear that calling the police wouldn't have helped either. None of Arjun's options - get involved, contact authorities, do nothing - is satisfactory. NH10 presents the dilemma but does not resolve it. The bleak truth is that there is no right answer. The vicious injustice of honor killings is a terrible wrong, but there is nothing that the righteous anger of a city boy in an expensive car can do to right it.
This moral question is troubling enough, but NH10 goes further; Arjun's choice is only the beginning, and it sets Meera on a harrowing trajectory of pure descent. Though Arjun's agency creates the nightmare, Meera is the one who lives it. In a chilling bookend to the explosive displays of masculinity that spark the narrative, the film concludes in a grim accord of sorts between two willful women, Meera and Ammaji (Deepti Naval in an electrifyingly forbidding avatar), whose relationship to the story I do not want to spoil here. All the women of NH10 bear burdens placed upon them by the patriarchal rules of their society, and each is uniquely damaged by them. Even on opposite sides of a conflict, they can agree on that basic truth.
For most of the film Meera is driven only by survival; when she breaks, and her motive morphs into revenge, it completes the tragedy. Meera's arc is a precipitous plummet, not an arc of wrongdoing and redemption. And it amplifies the challenging morality of the film, which pits two facets of modern India in opposition, progressive city values against the regressive, caste-bound rule of the fist; Nehru against Manu. NH10 seems at first to stand in judgment of the vicious law of the countryside, but its narrative questions whether the difference between the two worlds might not be so great after all. One of the Haryana men refers to Meera as an "English" girl; another shakes his head knowingly when he learns that Meera has never even been taught what her jati is. NH10 establishes a distance between Arjun and Meera on the one hand, and the Haryana countryside on the other, the world inside their SUV and outside of it, a distance which early in the film the characters either do not attempt or completely fail to bridge. Shown as it is through Meera and Arjun's eyes, the brutality of the honor killing is an obvious wrong, something the society which shapes them has moved beyond, risen above, left in the past. But Meera's modern modern world is only marginally better in key ways; when Meera narrowly escapes a carjacking, a police officer who can barely conceal his indifference asks Arjun why he allows her to travel alone at night in a city that he compares to an unruly child. And then, what happens to Meera, the point of utterly broken detachment she reaches at film's end, suggests that under the most extreme conditions, all the western education and progressive values in the world do not tame the primal human beast. No matter our background or our upbringing, we may all be capable of cold-blooded brutality.
NH10 embeds these challenging questions in a matrix that is emotional and brutally effective. It's a superbly crafted, taut, terrifying experience, driven by what could be a career-redefining performance from Anushka Sharma, who renders terror so relatably and without melodrama that my fingers went cold. And brace yourself; NH10 is incredibly violent; people are beaten, shot, stabbed, run over, filmed with an unflinching camera and popped with stomach-turning sound effects. But unlike Meera, you can close your eyes until the worst is over. NH10 makes you ask yourself if you could be as strong as Meera during her ordeal. And if you can be as strong as Meera you can break too, as badly as Meera does.
Post Scriptum: Proofreading this post, I find it extremely detached in tone. I think I resist reliving any part of the emotional experience of watching NH10. It is a fantastic piece of art, both affecting and thought-provoking, and very, very difficult to watch. I have a notoriously low tolerance for film violence. I was scared away from watching Gangs of Wasseypur, and have even complained about violence in masala films like Dabangg. So NH10 was hard for me. Yet I am glad that I watched it, even if I'm not sure I could ever watch it again. Although I hate film violence, it is (like film sex) a valuable tool when a filmmaker uses it appropriately to tell an affecting story. The violence in a film like NH10 has a point; it is not entirely gratuitous. (It's probably not entirely gratuitous in Gangs of Wasseypur either, and having survived NH10, I might pull up my big-girl shorts and give Kashyap's opus a try.) But while it makes for a stimulating cinematic experience, it isn't a pleasurable one. Someone just asked me if I liked NH10. I think it is an excellent film, but "like" is absolutely the wrong word.
And here is my convenient catch-all to cover all the observations I haven't made: Violence aside, NH10 is an incredibly rich text that supports many other readings besides the ones I've sketched here. It has much to say about class, and tradition, and as a friend just said, about "what it means to live in this country, especially as a woman." I feel I could keep pondering and jotting down ideas for days. But I will take my leave here.