Eight years of living in the cinematic wilderness and two aborted films later, director Navdeep Singh has finally followed up his indie cult Manorama Six Feet Under with NH10. The Anushka Sharma-starrer has become a talking point because of the uncomfortable themes it addresses, including honour killing and patriarchy. In this interview, Singh talks about the politics of his film and keeping the faith for such a long time.
What kind of reactions are you getting for NH10?
It has connected more with women, though it wasn’t designed like that. The industry has also responded positively, which is a bit weird for me to process.
But the film does make a “feminist statement”, so to speak?
I don’t know about the feminist angle. I am not educated in gender studies. The only brush I had with feminist literature was when, at the age of 14, I picked up Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, thinking it would have some good bits! (laughs) That said, while making this film, I was clear about one thing — that I don’t want to titillate the audience in any way. NH10 could have easily been a B-grade movie if we had put our girl in hot pants and made her run across Haryana.
Was the decision to have Anushka Sharma wield the iron rod deliberate, since it instantly connects with the December 16 Delhi gangrape case?
The story demanded it. The rod wasn’t a direct lift from the Delhi case. In the north, the rod or the sariya is a common instrument of aggression. But that did make people interested in the script, which was written about seven-eight months before the incident. Movies are not an ideal platform for sending a message or giving bhaashan (a lecture). That said, every story has a political context. This film has an uneasy edge that comes from the two Indias that rub against each other.
You had to fight with the Censor Board to get the film released. What were you told to cut?
Words like randi, saali, kutti were cut. We were allowed to show the word “randi” scribbled on the wall, but nobody could speak it. We were told to tone down the fights in the honour killing scene and when Meera (Sharma) gets beaten up in the sarpanch’s house. The second time when Meera sees the word “randi” written on the wall after her husband dies, we were asked to cut the shot from six seconds to three seconds. I asked the board members why we had to cut it the second time when it was allowed the first time in the bathroom scene, and the answer was that the first time she erases it. That’s so arbitrary! But the first time we went for the censor certificate, half the members wanted to ban the film.
They wanted to ban NH10?
Yes. That’s when we went to the revising committee. It was a surreal experience. There was a lady who seemed “liberal” — and I made that judgement by the cotton sari, bindi and silver jewellery she was wearing — I thought she would be on our side, but she was the one who said that the film needs to be banned, “because you guys are giving ideas to men on how to be violent towards women”. I argued with her that real life is more horrific, and there are instances like the Delhi gangrape. She said, “Yeh sab educated women ke liye hota hai (These things are for educated women), masses influence hote hain.”
With a Censor Board like the one we have right now, how tough or easy is it for a director to make a film?
A director is fighting all the time — with the producers and studios to maintain his vision, with the Censor Board, and with the film critics, who seem to tell us how to make a film. It’s becoming difficult to make films. As for offending people, if they do get offended, then they do. Everything has to be contextual. If you can’t show violence against women, then you can’t make Ramayana or Mahabharata, too. Wasn’t Draupadi dragged by her hair in the assembly? How did Ravana kidnap Sita?
Was Meera’s yellow jacket a homage to Kill Bill?
Yes and no. We wanted a colour that stands out at night. The choice was between orange and yellow, and the latter just looked better. But it’s nice if people feel it’s a homage to Kill Bill. Why not?
NH10 has similarities with the British film Eden Lake. Comment.
You know this is really annoying because it undermines the work that the writer, Sudeep Sharma, has put in. I feel this has become a blood sport, especially among the fanboys in the Andheri-Versova side. When they come across a genre-specific film, they start finding these things. I don’t understand why we have this weird insistence on originality. These are genre films, so how original can they be? It has to be about creativity and not originality. The common aspects between NH10 and Eden Lake are that they are both road trips gone wrong and that the girl has to fight alone. These are standard genre trappings.
Meera lands up at the sarpanch’s house. In Eden Lake, the protagonist lands up at the bad guy’s party. That’s a similarity, right?
That’s also a genre trope. It’s about leading the hero into the wolf’s lair. Why just Eden Lake? Then you will find similarities with The Brave One also. For me, NH10 was about balancing out the political stuff with the thriller elements.
In NH10, all the men are either stupid or vile. Wasn’t the husband, Arjun, stupid to go after the gang and put himself and Meera in danger?
Yes, he does a stupid thing. In the original draft, the couple had moved to NCR from Bangalore just a year ago, and weren’t fully conversant with the local culture. He is a little bit of an aggressive as***le, who thinks he’s entitled. We toned it down, which was my mistake. He felt guilty that when his wife got attacked, he wasn’t there, so he wants to prove his manhood to her. He’s also been slapped in public. For men, a slap is more humiliating than being beaten up, so his ego makes him go after the guys. But that’s the film — between his sense of honour and their sense of honour, how the woman gets played.
Meera’s decision to take revenge comes across as filmi. Was there ever another ending that you had in mind?
If it were a European film, then I could have shown that after she sees that her husband is dead, the train passes by and she gets into the car, reverses it and you don’t know where she has gone — after the guys or somewhere else. But if I had ended it like that, it would have taken me another eight years to make my next film and the audience would have come back unfulfilled. In that sense, the revenge track was “catharsis porn”. As Janis Joplin sang, Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. When Meera is pushed so far, she becomes one of them. It’s not a positive statement to make, but I don’t know how else to put it: Meera becomes a “man” and goes after them.
You mean, she becomes a beast to kill the beast?
Yes! That’s better. She becomes a beast. She is failed by both the society and the state, so she has to get her own justice.
What’s your fascination with cigarettes? In Manorama Six Feet Under, you had the hero ask for a pack of Ramadoss. Here, Meera’s hero moment is when she’s smoking.
The pack is called Ramadoss in this one too. Cigarettes do look cool. In the beginning, Meera goes to smoke in the dhaba’s bathroom because she is conscious of her surroundings. But when she becomes the man/beast, she smokes aaram se, which was like a shorthand to show that now she doesn’t care. She’s the hunter and he’s the prey.
In the eight years it took you to make your second film, two of your attempts failed. What helped you persevere?
An abiding sense of optimism and the lack of skill for other things. I only know how to make films. I promised myself that however tough things get, I wouldn’t go back to advertising. My accountant thought I was insane. My wife thought I was stupid, but I was adamant. If I had gone back to making ads, the money would have made me comfortable and I wouldn’t have stuck on. Every idea I came up with after Manorama Six Feet Under wasn’t considered commercial enough. Then Basra and Rock The Shaadi fell apart until NH10 got made, with all its hiccups, came up. A lot of producers in our country find it tough to imagine a film that’s not been made before. If there is no frame of reference in the local context, it becomes tougher to sell an idea.
Why is it becoming more difficult, especially when younger stars are championing concept films?
Yes, younger actors want to make the films they watch, but the real game is still with the finance guys. Excel sheets that predict the box-office future of a film on the basis of projected numbers in columns and rows don’t really do justice to the story or the character. People from a marketing background, who were selling toothpaste earlier, are now selling films; they approach films as a product. That’s why you need producers with big hearts.
What did Anushka Sharma bring to the project?
She really impressed me with the way she threw herself into the part and didn’t care if she would look unattractive on screen. When an actor is willing to put herself in that vulnerable space, that’s when she does her best. She’s a natural actor and she really believed in the film, so much so that she produced it.
So what’s next?
The next one that I’m ready with is titled Kaneda, pronounced just like the Punjabis pronounce Canada. It’s about the rise and fall of a Punjabi gangster in Vancouver. It has glorified violence, so lots of slo-mo shots. I’d also love to revive Basra at some point, but it needs a rewrite.