NH10 – A stumbling slasher made horrifying with social context

Yes, NH10 is a movie from India, and from what I’ve heard, unlike anything else that Bollywood has to offer. To my friends, my enjoying a Hindi film comes off as surprising as Christopher Hitchens saying his favourite book is the Bible, so you can imagine their surprise when they find this review of one. Now I can only analyse this realistic horror flick from an objective standpoint, as my knowledge of pre-existing conventions in Hindi cinema continues to be laughable. But I do feel there needs to be talk on this kind of film, simply because it is a right direction for cinema to go, experimenting beyond frontiers no one dared trespass, and perhaps with time the industry will start churning out better-crafted ones. NH10 did impress me, through its edging toward heavy tension and the bare realism that overshadows the entire affair, and yet it can be far better than it is.

Meera and Arjun are a married couple who take off on a romantic weekend to the outskirts of the city where they find themselves in the middle of a horrid incident of honour killing. Alright, ‘find themselves in’ is probably not the right phrase given Arjun’s most foolhardy actions in pursuing a gang of about six men who they just witnessed drag off a couple into a car, carrying rods and daggers. Meera had recently become victim to a gang attack from which she barely escaped, and it is in this backdrop that we are to indulge in her character for the rest of the film. Once they see with their very eyes the murder of the local couple, they are discovered and then there is no escape from this treacherous jungle that plays stage to the best part of the film – the thrilling game of hide-and-seek between Meera and the irony-abounding hooligans who draw the line of dishonour at the point of using guns for some odd reason.

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Although the hunt and the constantly building fear with baited breath is the most exciting part of the film, it wouldn’t be anything special without the context it is set in. ‘Honour killing’, for those unfamiliar with the term and haven’t already run it through Google, is the practice of a family murdering one of its members on the pretext that the person has brought shame to their family name and honour, thus giving it its name. This is what sets the tension of NH10 apart from that inflicted by the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees, the fact that the sticky situation the characters are caught in is very real and the rural outskirts of Haryana are notorious for exactly this. It doesn’t hurt that the director was able to capture the landscape and atmosphere in a way that sings of the hopelessness of being trapped there, by both murderers on the lookout for you, and ugly societal traditions from a seemingly bygone that are somehow preserved in the stretching sands beyond the last mall in Gurgaon.

Now while watching the movie in a generously filled theatre where a caterwaul or whistle broke the silence every few scenes (because Bollywood), I did see some uncanny similarities in the premise and construction to Eden Lake, a British thriller starring Michael Fassbender. There too, a couple is out for a romantic getaway, where a gang of violent youth incapacitates the husband and hunts down the wife in a tricky game of cat-and-mouse. Putting it across in such a manner, a reader who hasn’t seen NH10 would never bother giving it a try, since Eden Lake isn’t that great either, but the relevance of NH10 and the reason it comes out swinging is the haunting realism that flows in the undercurrent. Every time a gang member calls out ‘randi’ (Hindi for ‘whore’) and comes after the woman with daggers, what resounds in our mind more than the primal fear of danger itself is the glaring fact of how real all of it is. In a way, NH10 is able to capture the realism afforded by the found-footage genre that has taken over horror in Hollywood without being shot on amateur camera. This is also hugely owing to the director’s brilliant decision to emphasize the sounds of the Indian night – cicadas, flies and trains – while leaving out all else to a gaunt silent note. This eerie silence elevates the experience of the hunt to another level altogether, one from where we can see the bigger picture of caste-cruelty, twisted orthodox traditions and the uncensored vulgarity of people.

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Now that I have praised the movie for its brilliance in tension and atmosphere creation, as well as the reason for its impact, let me tell you how it is all spoiled by the minimal creeping in of Bollywood that these films just can’t seem to get rid of, very similar to how Meera can’t seem to shake off the gang. At close to halfway through the film, Meera finds herself having to leave behind the incapacitated Arjun to rest while she searches for help, and out of nowhere comes a moment stolen from a romantic blockbuster of the likes of Nicholas Sparks: Meera blurts out a line in Arjun’s mother-tongue which inexplicably (or as I like to call it, Bollywood strikes again) rescues him from the stab-in-the-thigh-induced-unconsciousness to deliver a parting line of ‘Happy Birthday’ that fulfilled its purpose of gathering whistles and howls from the audience. The film then cuts to a completely out-of-place and way overstayed shot of Meera running away to seek help, as the band led by the baritones of a murderer steamrolls over the tension they spent half the movie building. And apparently it’s clearly not just a personal opinion of mine, groans filling the theatre after a minute of glory-shots of Meera running.

This butchering of material with immense potential takes you out of the experience and calms your rapidly beating heart, something that is poison to any thriller worth its money. The moment you hear music that resounds with both redemption and spirit, you know there’s nothing to worry about for the moment, and you can sink back into the seats you spent the better part of the film crawling to the edge of. It all comes down to directorial decisions again, if the film wasn’t so taut and claustrophobic with its lack of score throughout and then eases into such a ballad, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much. It’s the same as when you’re listening to Yanni and suddenly get hit in the face with a sledgehammer. This then continued to happen in the second half of the movie, which I didn’t find as exciting as the first, bringing in too many coincidences, unnecessarily clever wordplay and dialogue that cannot be there for anything but the audience.

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NH10 keeps jumping between genres, and ends up in a queasy spot where it does not know its place. However, that is not to undermine the steps forward taken by it in displaying gut-wrenching violence without glorification, not including of course the closing sequence which is more fitting for Kill Bill than the realistic thriller NH10 was shaping up to be. Anushka Sharma as Meera was particularly satisfactory in the performance she delivers, having to carry the weight of the film on her shoulders which are present in almost every frame of the movie. All that said, it represents baby steps toward cinematic experimentation and stretching the limits of what seems possible, without which we would not have most of the things we love in cinema today. Films which have come to represent classics that will stand the test the time, from Gladiator to The Shining, The Dark Knight to Pulp Fiction, none of these would exist if not for experimentation and a few people daring enough to venture out into the unknown. Baby steps falter and stumble, but once they get the hang of it, the possibilities are endless.

Rating: 6.8/10

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