You Don't Want To Mess With Anushka Sharma

(Shobhaa De is an established writer, columnist, opinion shaper and social commentator, who is considered an authority on popular culture.)

It's not a movie... it's a truth serum...

My daughter warned me, "Mama... please avoid! It's not for you. The violence depicted is so graphic, so gory, you won't be able to take it." Anandita was right - I couldn't take the relentless pulping of bodies that NH10 feeds on. But the movie was definitely for me. And for every other citizen who is shocked by the stepped up attacks on women in our superficially modern, but essentially medieval society.

NH10 is 'unwatchable' if you are like me and shut your eyes during scenes that show even a drop of spilled blood. NH10 depicts the worst, most cruel acts of physical torture being clinically inflicted on half-a-dozen characters for most of its 120 minutes of running time. Paradoxically, that's also what makes the movie a 'must watch'. We can't go on averting our eyes, blocking our ears, blanking out the sordid truth that is staring us in the face, day in and day out. Or...can we?

NH10 is not just about a road trip going wrong! Please! Come on... some of the reviews have described it as belonging to a 'thriller-horror' genre. Anything but! There are no bhoots in it...and it's Anushka in the lead, not Bipasha. NH10 makes a pretty powerful statement about a deadly disease eating into our society's entrails - the doings of khap panchayats which endorse, support and encourage honour killings. Unfortunately, we refuse to acknowledge the widespread existence of the practice, believing honour killings happen to 'other people' in distant villages, and have nothing to do with us city slickers. Well, guess what? In this dark and pessimistic film, the shocking narrative which unfolds through a bizarre turn of events involves just such stereotypical 'city slickers'. 'People like us', who are expected to be totally insulated from pretty much everything that happens 'out there' to 'people like them'.

Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam), are regular, upwardly mobile Gurgaon professionals, flashing all the 'right' accessories and living the sort of lifestyle that's showcased when one discusses 'Aspirational India'. Arjun sports a watch that Meera assures a villain is worth two lakhs, when she tries to buy their freedom. They own an impressive SUV, she is a languid smoker, he hires a luxury suite for her birthday getaway, they call each other 'man', kiss in elevators, and talk sexy in bed. You almost expect to run into them at the trendy Farzi Cafe in Cyber City. Yup. That type.

Once they set off on the 403-km-long NH10 - the crowded national highway that starts in Delhi and ends at the Pakistan border in Punjab - something awful happens. They witness the chilling honour killing of a young couple...and naturally, the killers don't want to spare these two, either. I am not sure whether Anushka Sharma (producer-actor) based the movie on the horrific slaughter of Manoj Banwala and his bride Babli in Haryana (which led to a landmark judgment and the five perpetrators were sentenced to death). But in NH10, the reality of this scourge explodes in our faces as the movie progresses.

For me, it wasn't the ugh close-ups or the thud-thud of blunt weapons bludgeoning the young couple to death that disturbed as much as the complicity of all those involved in the deliverance of 'justice' - the local police, the woman sarpanch (whose daughter is being 'punished' by the son and his accomplices for daring to marry a man from the same 'gotra'). I was numb for hours after I walked out of the multiplex.

This is happening. This is happening even as I key this in right now. This is happening a few kilometres from where you and I live in our comfortable urban ghettos. This is happening on the fringes of our lives... our cities. Most times, we don't know. And let's be honest - we don't really care. Till it involves us directly. That's when it hits home. The violence we find so repugnant and 'uncivilised' is right at our doorstep. The cop who 'rescues' Anushka asks her snidely to identify her caste, her "gotra". When she is stumped by his question, he smirks, as if to suggest 'no wonder you are in such a mess'. He gives her a swift lecture on caste and its relevance to our society. That's when it dawns on her that this protector of the innocent is hand-in-glove with the hardened criminals who are out to kill her.

I wonder what made Anushka Sharma pick such a bold subject? It is clearly not a vanity project - she could have backed something far more commercial. NH10 is a grim watch. And I admire Anushka for putting her money where her mouth is. As cinema, it is far from flawless or brilliant. It is not even aimed at the film festival circuit. Director Navdeep Singh goes about his job with a heavy hand that will not win the film any National or popular awards. So what?

Towards the end, when the audience is as exhausted as Anushka, there's a telling scene with an unambiguously 'urban' subtext. Anushka is about to crush one of the villains by driving an SUV straight into the man, who is pinned against a stone wall , his legs broken, his life hanging by a thread. What does our girl do? She pulls out a ciggie from a pack, and lights up. She takes her time taking a few long drags, all the while staring coolly at her victim as he groans and moans in pain. Once done, she stubs out her cigarette, gets into the SUV, revs up the engine and drives full throttle into the guy, flattening him instantly.

Oooooof! No wonder Virat Kohli made sure he praised his 'love' on Twitter.

You definitely don't want to mess with Anushka Sharma.

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