It has been a little over seven years since Navdeep Singh's debut feature, Manorama Six Feet Under, released in theatres. Based on the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown (1974), Manorama... stood out at the time for the refreshing and relatively restrained manner in which it adapted Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay to an Indian setting.
In an industry that has since evolved much less than its audience has but still endeavours to put out more wholly original films every year, it is quite surprising to learn that Singh has done the same thing a second time. NH10, credited to writer Sudip Sharma, is an Indianised adaptation of 2008 British horror-thriller Eden Lake, starring Kelly Reilly and a pre-Inglourious-Basterds Michael Fassbender.
The Internet had pointed this out a couple of weeks ago, of course, and it really begs the question: why, in 2015, have the makers not given credit where credit is due? Especially since Sharma has previously written Players (2012), which was an official remake of Hollywood film The Italian Job?
It is an odd decision, but if you can skip past this (which you shouldn't, technically) and think of Eden Lake merely as 'source material', NH10 isn't a bad movie. It opens nicely, with Karan Gour's refreshing background score setting a different tone, as we hear Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) have a conversation while the film shows us Gurgaon's infrastructural overload.
"If ever a Hindi film did not require songs or an interval, it is this."
Gurgaon proves to be a marvelous setting and a character all by itself. While Eden Lake's central theme dealt with the idea of 'Broken Britain' — a hot-button issue in the UK — NH10 uses Gurgaon and the state of Haryana to remind us that there are indeed two Indias. As a character wryly observes, "Gurgaon mein jahaan aakhri mall khatam hoti hai na, udhar hi tumhari democracy aur constitution bhi khatam ho jaati hai."
So while Meera and Arjun (a couple so yuppie they could feature in an iPhone ad) enjoy the benefits of bourgeois Gurgaon house parties, they are frequently reminded by events around them that they are in patriarchy-fuelled Haryana. After an unpleasant incident where Meera tries to drive to work late at night, the two decide to buy a gun. A few days later, they decide to go out of town to a 'private villa' to celebrate her birthday, taking the titular highway straight into Jat country.
The film takes flight when Arjun and Meera witness a gang abducting a boy and a girl at a dhaba, in what looks like a potential honour killing situation. Arjun tries to intervene, but is punched in the face by Satbir (Darshan Kumar). While Eden Lake dealt with so-called 'chav culture', NH10 casts an eye on the world of khap panchayats in areas where everyone is all too aware of which gotra they were born into and is definitely never afraid to pick a fight.
"It would, therefore, have been much more satisfying if the film had been ethical about its origins and gone all out."
To his credit, Singh's direction is tight and restrained enough to only allow two songs to disrupt his fear-and-blood-soaked narrative (if ever a Hindi film did not require songs or an interval, it is this). However, at no point is it as harrowing as its inspiration — the violence, while still bloody, is tame in comparison to what Eden Lake puts you through. Sharma's script makes references to masculine entitlement in Gurgaon boardrooms as well as in a Haryana jungle — but these are more superficial than what we saw in the recent Dum Laga Ke Haisha. To be fair though, NH10 betters Eden Lake on one aspect: while the Brit film depicted nearly all its characters as dehumanised sadists, we do see a few moments of redemption from some of the villagers here.
However, it does largely suffer from the same problem as its inspiration — an agenda-driven screenplay that encourages city-slicker paranoia against local yokels. So while Satbir and his gang (including a sometimes hilarious 'tauji' played by Ravi Jhankal) get a fair amount of screen-time, there is very little by way of character development for them. As if to make up for this, however, there is an extended cameo towards the end by a well-known actress, who plays a village sarpanch and is given meatier moments.
Bhoopalam, otherwise a decent enough actor, is an interesting casting choice but seems a little stiff in this role, which requires that his inherent nice-guy-ness disappear behind a cloud of forced machismo. Kumar, last seen in Mary Kom, simmers and growls but suffers from the script not really giving him the lines or moments he needs to be a truly effective antagonist.
Carrying the film on her able shoulders, then, is Anushka Sharma, who is more natural than we've ever seen her before. Switching between Hindi and English, brave and terrified, Sharma turns in a memorable performance and sets quite a few benchmarks for her fellow commercial leading ladies to live up to.
Overall, it would have been much more satisfying if the film had been ethical about its origins and gone all out. As it stands, NH10 is an watchable-enough adaptation of Eden Lake to pass muster. However, it probably would've turned out much better had it tried to be its own movie.