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aka NH10

D: Navdeep Singh / 106m

Cast: Anushka Sharma, Neil Bhoopalam, Darshan Kumaar, Jaswant Singh, Yogendra Singh, Ravi Jhankal, Ravi Beniwal, Deepti Naval, Tanya Purohit, Kanchan Sharma, Tushar Grover

Meera (Sharma) and her husband Arjun (Bhoopalam) are attending a party that Meera doesn’t really want to go to. When she gets an emergency call from her work, she leaves by herself. While driving she is almost forced off the road by thugs attempting to rob her. She escapes but is left so traumatised by the experience that, when an otherwise unhelpful police officer suggests she buy a gun, that’s exactly what she does. To make amends for not being with her, Arjun suggests they get away for Meera’s upcoming birthday. He books a private villa and they set off on the long journey along National Highway 10.

But along the way, Arjun decides to take a short cut, a bypass road that will shorten their journey considerably. They stop at a roadside Dhaba for something to eat, only to witness the abduction of a young couple by a group of men. Arjun attempts to intervene but the leader of the men, Satbir (Kumaar) strikes him; they then head off. Meera and Arjun continue on their journey but Arjun spies the men’s vehicle on a spur road and angry at the way he was treated, decides to follow them. The couple find the men’s vehicle and Arjun goes after them – with Meera’s gun. He finds them but is horrified to see them beating and kicking both the woman, Pinky (K. Sharma) and her partner, Mukesh (Grover). It becomes clear that Satbir and his comrades are about to commit an honour killing: Pinky is Satbir’s sister and she has married outside her caste.

Back in their car, Meera encounters Chhote (Beniwal), a simpleton who is with the group of men. She goes in search of Arjun who has witnessed Satbir pouring poison into Pinky’s mouth. But they are both captured, and are forced to watch as Pinky is killed by Satbir using Meera’ gun; Mukesh is then bludgeoned to death. During this, Chhote picks up the gun and Meera and Arjun manage to get it from him, but in doing so, the gun goes off and Chhote is killed. They run away but are pursued by Satbir and his friends, one of whom, Omi (Singh), is Chhote’s older brother. One of the gang catches up with them, but before Meera can intervene with the gun, Arjun is badly injured. Leaving him in a railway underpass, Meera goes in search of help. But when she finds the nearest police station, she also finds that things are about to get a whole lot worse.

Nh10 - scene

With its standard plot of urban couple versus rural gang, Nh10 contains – and relies on – several key elements from earlier movies such as Straw Dogs (1971) and Eden Lake (2008) (to name but two), but its unfamiliar setting and unwavering performance from Anushka Sharma stops it from becoming too derivative or banal.

It begins promisingly too, with the dynamics of Meera and Arjun’s marriage quickly and concisely outlined. Meera is the more successful of the two, and Arjun finds it hard to put aside, or hide, his dissatisfaction. When the police question his allowing Meera to travel by herself at night when she was attacked, his already wounded pride leads to the acquisition of the gun, but it’s as much to show that he can protect her as for her own peace of mind. And when he pursues the gang, against Meera’s increasingly anxious wishes, his later assertion that he was trying to do the right thing seems horribly disingenuous. By making Arjun the weaker, less confident half of the relationship, the script by Sudip Sharma sets up the movie’s second half and Meera’s resourcefulness with a confidence and an ease that belies the waywardness that is to come.

For once Meera makes the decision to leave Arjun and go for help, the tone of the movie – and its dramatic potential – becomes locked in service to the revenge motif that Chhote’s death has set in motion. As Meera encounters further danger at every turn, and finds herself trapped in a nightmare world where Indian law ends at the site of the last mall in the town where she and Arjun came from, the movie ratchets up the tension, but does so by piling coincidence on top of contrivance, and at the expense of its own credibility. In doing so, and despite Singh’s expertise in directing, there’s an inevitability about things that lets the movie down badly, and the movie struggles to maintain any sense of danger as Meera escapes the gang time after time.

As the movie drains of tension and excitement on its way to what feels like it should be a hard-hitting nihilistic conclusion, Nh10 provides enough revenge to satisfy the average viewer, and is defiantly graphic about it. These scenes benefit from – as mentioned above – an uncompromising performance by Sharma that at least adds some depth to events as they unfold, and which counteracts the descent into conformity that ensues. Sharma’s cold, dead-eyed stare in the movie’s final ten minutes is completely unnerving to watch and shows exactly how far Meera has come in such a short space of time.

The villains prove all too disposable by the time Meera makes her stand, and the introduction of a chief villain towards the end – who conveniently provides Meera with an excuse for what she feels compelled to do – lacks the kind of impact the script is aiming for. Singh makes the final showdown as exciting and horrifying as he can but with Meera’s invincibility already pre-determined, the outcome isn’t as rewarding as expected.

Rating: 6/10 – a good first half is squandered by the requirements of the second, leaving Nh10 feeling like it’s left itself high and dry; with a commanding performance by Sharma that compensates for most of the movie’s shortcomings, the movie ultimately lacks true audacity and cohesion.