Meera (Anushka Sharma) runs on a dark, lone Haryana highway road, in search for help to stay alive, for most part of the film. It’s no ordinary highway either. It’s a 400 km long highway National Highway 10 from Delhi to Pakistan border in Punjab, which crosses Haryana. This perfect location is the best and the scariest character in NH10. A small railway tunnel, the sound of a train rushing by and a long shot of Meera and her injured husband looking tiny and helpless, is particularly noteworthy.
When Meera is not running, she gets the barest of respite on a bed of gravel and you take a deep breath of relief filled oxygen with her. Moments later, she finds herself climbing up a steep, hard rock to escape four Haryanvi goons pelting stones at her. The strength of sheer desperation pushes her up across and on her feet.
It is the most ironical, hilarious, ridiculous and pathetic sight at once, to watch her singlehandedly throw stones back at the men below her.
A city woman pitted against village goons in a lawless area, on the night of her fateful birthday, makes director Navdeep Singh’s NH10 a rivetting and a relentless watch. Yet, not one can carry back, once out of the theatres.
NH10 adheres to the kind of dark cinema which holds your fascination for the kind of violence the Haryanvi hinterland is capable of but does nothing to make you care. The screenplay is pregnant with strong tension and deep fear of attack and stays so focused on constant buildup that the real baby of emotional connection, gets forgotten.
Axes, iron rods, kicks and slaps that look and feel too real and frightening, are used with a vengeance. At the centre of it all, is Meera who is not spared a few hard kicks, herself. All because she and her husband, Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam)- happened to be witnesses to a gruesome honour killing.
When we first see the yuppie couple (actually we only hear them for a good five minutes while the camera takes us through a stylized drive around Delhi by night) Meera is flirting with her husband. Arjun enjoys the banter but his response is not satisfactory enough for Meera. Neither is his lack of eventual response, great for the plot that folds ahead, when the two take off from Gurgaon, armed with a gun for safety (because a police officer tells them after an incident of random attack on Meera, “yeh shaher badhta bachcha hai) and a pack of cigarettes (they have the best role).
Their lunch break at a dhaba is interrupted by four goons headed by Darshan Kumar, dragging a young couple to car. When Arjun tries to stop them, he gets a hard resounding slap on his face. The face off turns into a nightmarish road trip ever taken by any urbanite.
The sketchy script does not bother much with Arjun and Meera’s characters and their backdrop, nor does it go into the lives of the law breakers, right till the end. It simply moves from plot point to plot point of instilling more danger. By the time, the end comes, which satisfies the filmy but disrupts the real tone maintained so far, there is not much to connect with or care for.
Anushka Sharma is brave and impressive as a fighter who never quits both as an actor and also as a producer. She literally throws herself out of comfort zones both of the pocket and performance, dressed in one basic but striking costume of a yellow jacket, black pants and red-laced sneakers. Neil Bhoopalam is the weakest link and no match for her. Darshan Kumar as the ruthless killer has a terrific screen presence and is a welcome surprise after his milder role in Mary Kom. Deepti Naval makes an interesting and powerful appearance.
NH10 may not make you care, but does grip you with its taut pace and very relevance of safety issues. Watchable, if only for the three good moments when there is smoking on screen—one briefly romantic in a car, another provocative in a public toilet and the last, most gratifying.
Just like a much-craved long puff.