When a smart, talented filmmaker takes on genre material, there’s often the tendency to inflate it, to make it mean something – and sometimes the material just buckles under this baggage. The visceral thrills, the purity, of the genre get blunted by the efforts to make things “classy.” Something like this happened when Neil Jordan made The Brave One, with Jodie Foster. It was the story of an upper-class woman whose fiancé (Naveen Andrews) is killed in a vicious mugging; she becomes a vigilante, tracking down the killers, taking them down one by one. Dirty Harriet. It should have been cathartic entertainment. After all, there’s a social function these films perform, and that’s allowing us to see people on screen do what we’re too gutless to do in real life. It’s vicarious wish-fulfilment. For a couple of hours, we feel as though we went about getting rid of the punks in our neighbourhood.
But The Brave One was a disaster. I wrote in my review: “[The film] can’t decide whether to condone vigilantism, explore its consequences, or celebrate it. And as long as we’re talking tripartite confusion, neither can the film decide whether to aspire to the violence-is-inside-every-one-of-us thesis of Straw Dogs, the psychological and moral dimensions of the avenging angel in Taxi Driver, or simply the audience-pleasing revenge-fantasia elements of Death Wish.”
Navdeep Singh’s second outing, NH10, isn’t quite a disaster, but it’s a confused film, one that makes the mistake of having too much on its plate. On the surface, here, Singh wants to do with the Deliverance-type yuppies-trapped-in-the-redneck-backwoods thriller what he did with Chinatown in his excellent first feature, Manorama: 6 Feet Under. The yuppies are Gurgaon-based Meera (a very effective Anushka Sharma) and her husband Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam). (Something about these names must sound terribly urban to filmmakers. In Yuva too, the yuppie pair was Arjun/Meera.)
The film opens with night-time visuals of what could be any city in the developed world, filled with tall buildings, cranes putting up more of those tall buildings, and street lights painting posh cars a dreamy neon yellow. Arjun and Meera are in one of those cars. A little later, Arjun decides to take Meera to a resort in Haryana for her birthday, and soon, we see the other India, and the people of the other India. Like the grinning, special-needs child in Deliverance, we have here an adult with the childlike name of Chhote, who looks and acts like he’s not quite all there. He mumbles. He chomps on a marigold.
And – surprise! – the change in landscape seems to have changed Arjun as well. The hitherto metrosexual-seeming chap discovers a caveman side to him. He won’t ask for directions. And when he’s slapped while trying to break up a brawl, he takes it personally. He broods about it and goes about avenging himself. He becomes the hunter. But things don’t go as planned, and soon Arjun and Meera find themselves being hunted by Satbir (Darshan Kumar) and his cohorts. A little later – no surprise! – Arjun is injured, and Meera has to carry on without him. (When actors like Naveen Andrews or Neil Bhoopalam are cast opposite female co-stars who burn with a higher wattage, it stands to reason that they will, at some point, end up powerless and hand the reins of the story to their women.) So what seemed to be Deliverance is now Deliverance-meets-The Brave One.
And Navdeep Singh adds another element to the mix. In Deliverance, the villains were pure evil, literally demons unleashed from the city-dweller’s id, but Satbir and Co. are more complicated characters. They’re emblematic – or symptomatic – of the India that believes in honour killings, and they want to hunt down Arjun and Meera because they think these outsiders are journalists who’ve witnessed one such honour killing. At this point, a remarkable thing happens. Arjun ends up killing Chhote. It’s an accident, of course – but Satbir and Co. don’t see it that way. And now, Arjun has given up the idea of revenge – he’s too frightened by Satbir and Co. (their brutality is truly horrifying) – but Satbir wants to avenge Chhote’s death. Not every vigilante movie gives the villain a reason to hate and hound the protagonists.
In the midst of all this, or maybe we should say running along in a parallel track, is a “women’s picture.” Meera is in marketing, and she could be shown dealing with any product – but we see her making a presentation on a new brand of sanitary napkins, adding a few lines about how rural women find it difficult to buy this product. After the presentation, we’re reminded that it isn’t all that easy for urban women either. A male colleague smirks to another that women employees have it easy with the boss. Then, during the drive to the resort in Haryana, when Meera steps into a toilet, she finds scribbled on the door the word randi. And on top of these women-oriented issues, we are exposed to how the caste system still thrives in these parts of India, which is really why those honour killings happen.
The point isn’t that a film shouldn’t aim to transcend its genre. The point isn’t that a film shouldn’t preach. But when there’s all this other stuff and it isn’t integrated organically into the genre framework, it begins to stick out. It begins to feel didactic, like in the scene where a cop gives Meera a mini-lecture about the caste system and Manu and Ambedkar. Suddenly, we feel we’re in one of those movies where the bitter pill of socially relevant messages is wrapped in the sugar shell of a story. Manorama: 6 Feet Under, too, stepped out of its ambit. We didn’t just see a noir mystery unfold in parched land; we also saw, through the characters played by Abhay Deol and Gul Panag, a social class that we rarely see in Hindi cinema, people resigned to their circumstances and yet constantly seeking to make things better. But all this was folded neatly into the overarching narrative. NH10 feels like several issues and themes hastily tossed into a pot and set to boil.
The problem is perhaps the realistic nature of the storytelling. This genre is rife with coincidences and things we shouldn’t think about too much, and if NH10 had been just a simple vigilante thriller we wouldn’t be asking: But when did Meera learn how to fire a gun? How come all the victims fall so easily, so conveniently, after a single shot or blow? Why doesn’t anyone “return from the dead” and scare the crap out of us? How does Meera just run into Arjun, Manmohan Desai-style, after their long separation in the wilderness? For that matter, how does Meera seem to know this alien land like the back of her hand, never having the slightest doubt about where she’s headed, where to find this person or that village? And does the first house in the village she visits have to be the one that belongs to… you know?
At some point, I was reminded of the Nana Patekar-Karisma Kapoor starrer Shakti: The Power, which was also the story of First World Indians who get trapped amidst Third World Indians. (In fact, it would make an interesting case study to compare that film with NH10.) That was a melodrama, and the sensory overload barely gave us time to think about the ludicrousness. But here, everything is stark, rooted, real – and the contrivances begin to look ridiculous. The too-neat echoes in the end – Satbir getting hurt in the thigh the way Arjun was; Satbir being battered the way he battered someone earlier – are an insult. They belong in Shakti: The Power.
But I did like a few things. I liked the image of the Deepti Naval character erasing memories of her runaway daughter by scraping away the stickers on a cupboard. I liked the scene where Meera flags down a jeep and backs off when she realises it’s filled with “dangerous-looking” men. In one sharp moment, with no words, we see what it’s like to have to make a decision about whether the prospect of rescue is worth the risk of rape. I liked the way Meera, when in a car, automatically reaches for the seatbelt. That’s the kind of person she is, and while I didn’t look too closely, I’d bet the men in that car weren’t wearing seatbelts. Such a thing would probably never occur to them. I liked the visual of Meera and Satbir’s wife locked up together in a room. Looking at them, they seem to be from different worlds. Meera’s from a world where a woman can do the things a man can – she’s in jeans; she’s wearing the pants. Satbir’s wife, demure in her salwar kameez and dupatta, is from a world where women are women, nothing more. And yet, here they both are: imprisoned. Again, a picture letting slip a few thousand words. I liked the contrivance where a distraught wife asks Meera to help her, and Meera waves her off the way we’d wave off an annoying beggar; and later, karma comes and bites Meera in her shapely behind – when she’s the distraught wife, and she’s the one who needs help. I liked the overall atmosphere, which is so skilfully created that at a few places I found myself scrunching up my eyes the way I would in a horror film. If only NH10 had been that horror film.
- randi = whore
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