Why didn’t you?
Why did you?
You should have known.
Such are the premises of any horror movie, a series of bad decisions. The audience yells at the screen, imploring the characters not to turn down that road, not to split up, not to trust the stranger. We are confident we would do better. We would know better. Our victim-blaming would protect us.
Horror movies work, in part, not just by asking the question “what would you do?” but by presenting a heightened reality. We know that ghosts, vampires, zombies, and chainsaw-wielding maniacs aren’t real. After the movie, we might still check the closet for monsters, but we don’t really expect to find any.
NH10, then, asks us to consider: what if the horror is just part of society, just a part of everyday life, something that is expressed at the micro level (a husband ignores a wife’s wish not to go to a party) and macro level (a young couple is brutally murdered for their inter-caste marriage). There are no monsters in the closet, but misogyny, discrimination, and violence are everywhere.
The plot is a spiderweb of small decisions, splintering off into moments of no return. The most important decisions, though, are made by men, disrespecting women. Meera (Anushka Sharma) repeatedly tells her husband Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) she doesn’t want to go to a party, but he overrules her (“Just because you don’t want to go, stop making stupid excuses”). Pinky (Kanchan Sharma) marries outside of her caste, and instead of letting her leave the village with her husband, her brother Satbir (Darshan Kumar) murders her.
Low-key sexists like to tell women, “How can you complain when women in X place have it so much worse?” So we draw a comparison between these two women: it’s a bummer that Meera’s husband ignores her wishes, but at least she’s not murdered by her brother! But the dehumanization that leads to a brother killing his sister starts with the kind of disrespect of a man ignoring a woman’s wishes.
Meera and Arjun clearly love each other and have a fun, easy relationship. But Arjun continually ignores Meera’s requests. After she is attacked while out alone at night, Arjun suggests getting out of town. While stopped at a roadside restaurant, Meera and Arjun witness Satbir and his gang chase Pinky and her husband, beat them, and bundle them into a car. Arjun had tried to intervene, though Meera begged him not to (she had also refused Pinky’s earlier requests for help). Meera then suggests just going home. But Arjun continues, eventually crossing paths with Satbir’s car. Again, Arjun ignores Meera as he goes to confront Satbir.
As Arjun leaves Meera alone in the car, I had to confront my own biases. Earlier in the film, I had been angry as police dismissed Meera after her attack (“Why did you get the license plate number? Why were you out alone at night?”) but I also thought Arjun was an idiot for getting involved in the parking lot confrontation. I like to think I’m a good person and rail against The System, yet I agreed with Meera about not helping Pinky. I wanted to assure myself it was because of the genre. If this was a superhero film, my reaction would be different. Right?
And so these decisions lead to Satbir and his gang hunting Meera and Arjun. Here the movie turns into a more stereotypical horror film, as Meera runs, looking for help at shacks in the middle of nowhere, even tripping at one point and nearly getting caught. She asks for help from multiple sources, only to find that everyone knows Satbir.
A police officer explains the movie’s reality to Meera:
Policemen are not above all this. They are still a part or society. Out here, even a 12 year old boy knows his subcaste. It’s against the rules to marry outside your caste. Democracy doesn’t exist where the mall ends. How can the Constitution reach where water and electricity cannot? Thank the caste system. It keeps people divided. Otherwise there would be revolution.
So blatantly stating the obvious seems unrealistic. Even though the officer is planning on killing Meera, the speech feels like a super villain explaining his evil plan. But in a way the obviousness of the statement still obscures the movies main theme: perhaps the inciting incident is Pinky marrying outside of her caste, but the real issue is women’s treatment. Even a character stating the movie’s thesis isn’t actually stating the movie’s thesis.
The movie is brutal and bloody, showing the consequences of violence, with few discretion shots. Pinky’s beating and murder are raw, visceral, emotional. Arjun is the only person who tries to help, and fails spectacularly. There is no help, and even worse, nearly everyone else tacitly accepts the honor killing.
As the movie ends, dawn breaks. A bloody Meera walks into an uncertain future. These monsters are dead, but there are more. They do not hide in the closet. They are everywhere.