When it is F for Phantom Productions, the audience is riding high on expectations. This thriller ride does take a few right pit stops that are worth the drive:
- Starting Line: It is significant that Navdeep Singh’s NH10 begins not with the hell of the highway but the dreamlike paradise of Gurgaon. The blurring night lights of the city, the motion of the car superimposed with the sound of the sweet conversations between the central characters Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) and Meera (Anoushka Sharma) is a befitting opening scene. It creates the bubble of protection all urbaniites create for themselves.
The exposition of the script seems to follow the film school structure. The minor incident of attack on Meera is a brilliant stroke of foreshadowing. With the metaphor of Gurgaon as a growing baby establishes the gnawing problems of urban growth and development. For, the wider the gap between the haves and the have-nots, the beautiful and the ugly, the greedier and angrier will be the attacks from the margins.
Meera’s brave escape from this incident underscores the heroic courage of this character who eventually takes charge as the plot progresses.
Jabeen Merchant’s editing and Karan Gour’s background score add a strong shade to the film. The transition from the scene at the Gurgaon police station to that of the swimming pool is a point in case. Meera’s suppressed anger bursts out through the sound of the water and the visual shift in scene takes place thereafter. The swimming sequence is devoid of dialogues yet ripe with emotions with the alternating breathing sounds.
- View from the Border: NH10 ropes in honor killing, rural political nexus and rooted caste systems into the central premise of its plot. The filmmakers remind the audience with national highways, the rural and urban social fabrics too get interlocked. The character of the Inspector duly reminds Meera and the audience that with the last mall in Gurgaon ends the last shreds of democracy and the Constitution.
- The Acting Lap: While Bhoopalam may have the persona of the urban angry, young man; he lacks the grit to carry the role on his amateur shoulders. Perhaps the filmmakers were deliberate in their choice of the actor to allow the actress/producer to dominate the screen. However, the truly gut wrenching moments are created by the minor characters- the insidious Inspector, the expletive spouting uncle, the obsessed brother and the sinister-slapping Ammaji.
- The Road Less Taken: A real representation of women is still the road less taken in the sea of celluloid Bollywood produces. With NH10, Singh has gone one mile further and captured varied positions of women in the Indian society. The wide gap between subdued, restricted rural women too shy to buy off the counter products from male shopkeepers to educated, professional urban women influencing business decisions, is portrayed powerfully in the minor office presentation scene. Yet, the sexist comment by the male colleague soon after breaks the clear duality between the two. In addition, in the character of the Sarpanch (Deepti Naval), Singh inverts the stereotype of the subdued rural women to show the deep seated matriarchy only rural regions can create.
However, in between these highlights, the remaining road trip seems to run into dead ends or drive around in circles. For this ‘on the road’ drama allows the passengers to take their naps at regular intervals:
- The Beaten Track: The track is clearly visible- 6 maniacal men chasing a chaste couple with a gun. What are the odds? Yet, since the couple happens to be the celeb stars, the audience is convinced of their triumph. The track turns beaten and highly unrealistic.
- The Roadmap: Until the revelation of the plot and the characters, curiosity persists. After that, it is monotony. The few moments of true suspense are also ruined. For instance, when Meera leaves Arjun under the railway bridge, the scene is excessively stretched and melodramatic. Arjun’s death is only a matter of when; a disappointing giveaway.
- Speed Bumps: The secret ingredients of a chase sequence lie with the director and the cinematographer. Laying the route of the chase and choice of exposure to the audience is paramount. The bright yellow jacket against sparse green bushes and the fairly clear stone quarry do not act as strong locations of building the audience’s anticipation.
- The Fantasy Engine: The audience is required to barter the realistic representation of characters with the hypothetical hyper reality of a lone, unarmed woman killing the villains single-handedly and decidedly.