NH10, directed by Navdeep Singh, is about a road trip that goes horribly wrong when a young married couple crosses paths with a gang of ruthless killers on the national highway. It’s a standard genre movie on the surface, and Singh does a good job of creating edge-of-the-seat tension. But he also layers the narrative with rich subtext, delivering so much more than your average thriller.

Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neel Bhoopalam) head out to a weekend getaway on the outskirts of Delhi to bring in Meera’s birthday. While snacking at a dhaba on the highway, they witness a group of men (led by Mary Kom’s Darshan Kumaar) savagely attacking a pair of helpless eloping lovers. When Arjun intervenes, their romantic break quickly takes a violent turn.

Through the nightmarish chain of events that follow, Singh and writer Sudip Sharma reveal the stark contrast between the urban India these protagonists inhabit, and the vast lawless badlands that exist just around the corner. The film puts the spotlight on such ugly realities like the parochial attitude towards women in these parts, the apathy of the local police, and the helplessness of the migrant laborer – but it does so without once resorting to heavy-handed speechifying.

Admirably, the film trains the same critical eye on those sitting comfortably at the other end of the socio-economic divide. Through a scene in which a local from a nearby village approaches Meera, possibly to hitch a ride with the couple, Singh exposes our instant suspicion of, and deep-set prejudice towards those that are less economically sound. When a hapless girl pleads with Meera for help, she walks away, not wanting to get involved. Yet hours later, when Meera frantically scours for help, she rages at passersby who ignore her. The film subtly hints at the unmistakable sense of entitlement felt by privileged folk.

The violence in NH10 is brutal and uncompromising, and it serves the plot well. Early on in the film, it becomes clear that their pursuers mean business; as a result, there’s a very palpable sense of danger that looms over the scenes in which the couple struggles for survival in the wild, unfamiliar terrain. For extended portions of the film, I found myself holding my breath, concerned for the safety of the protagonists. Singh transports you front and centre to the heart of the action.

There are occasional holes in the script, and twists that aren’t entirely convincing. What are the chances of Meera only encountering people who cannot or will not help? Or of a village so conveniently deserted because every single local is watching a tamasha troupe? Cinematic license perhaps, but they jar in a movie that otherwise feels so real. The film’s final coincidence, strikingly similar to the British thriller Eden Lake, is also a bit of a stretch.

What NH10 gets bang on is the milieu: the atmospherics, the language, and the tension that creeps up on you that you can’t shake off. The performances too complement the storytelling. Neil Bhoopalam brings charm, and then genuine fear to the part of Arjun, a city slicker who realizes too late that dropping names scarcely works in a strange land. Darshan Kumar is ruthless and menacing – the kind of man you’ll wish you never cross on a lonely highway. The always dependable Deepti Naval is fittingly creepy, cast against type in a small cameo.

The part of Meera is a terrific opportunity for Anushka Sharma, who sinks her teeth into the character, an educated professional thrown into a violent world, and called upon to respond with both physical and emotional courage. Watch her eyes and her body language in a scene where she lights a smoke and watches dispassionately as her offender struggles to get on his feet. Her performance powers the film. Kudos to the actress also for putting her strength behind the film as a producer, and for backing Singh’s bold vision all the way.

I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for NH10. It’s often terrifying on this highway, but you’ll be glad you were there for the ride.

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