At one point in Navdeep Singh's NH10, a cop sermonizes Meera (Anushka Sharma) on caste. He tells her that where the last mall in Gurgaon ends, the rule of democracy and the constitution ends as well. There are places where electricity and water does not reach, then, how can the constitution exist at such a place. He adds that one should be thankful for the caste system as it keeps the people divided, else, it will lead to a revolution. It is an apt description of the issue of caste, one of India's deepest fault lines, which continues to simmer, and is likely to become a burning issue as the republic marches forward.
Few minutes later, a hapless Meera manages to run away from her assaulters, and reaches a place of a celebration in the village. It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. A group of villagers is celebrating the republic day. On 26th January 1950, India's new constitution came into effect, henceforth, that day is celebrated as republic day. Villagers are celebrating the constitution at a place where as the cop says the constitution does not really exist. It is a depiction of irony at its best. The constitution's preamble states the equality of all citizens, but, here at this place, equality is a joke. A girl is not allowed to marry someone of her choice. A migrant family from Bihar is placed on the outskirts of the village because of the village's social hierarchy. The protectors of the constitution are the very people who break it. What, then, are they really celebrating about? In Udta Punjab, a cop said that there were places in Mexico where the police cannot enter. Forget Mexico, a village in Haryana is no different than Mexico where the police even refuses to hear any complaint of honor killing because they, too, belong to the same biradari. No wonder NH10's majority of action happens in the wilderness as if the place is a reflection of this lawlessness.
There is another interesting meaning of the celebration scene. One of the men on the stage is actually narrating the story of Savitri. A man says that Savitri was asked by her father to choose her own husband. She was able to find a husband on her own, and everyone was happy. We see, then, that a few women (or men dressed as women) start dancing on the stage. It is another depiction of irony. The villagers revere and celebrate Savitri, but when a girl of their own village chooses to marry someone, she is killed. Those familiar with Savitri would know she is the same Savitri whose story is told during every Karva Chauth. The tale goes such that king Asvapati had a daugther named Savitri. She was so beautiful that she intimidated all the men. When she reached the age of marriage, no man asks for her hand, so her father tells her to find a husband on her own. She sets out on a pilgrimage for this purpose and finds Satyavan, the son of a blind king, who, after he lost everything including his sight, lives in exile as a forest-dweller. Savitri returns to tell her father that she will marry Satyavan. However, Narada tells Savitri and her father that she has made a bad choice as Satyavan is destined to die one year from that day. Her father pleads her to choose a more suitable husband; however, Savitri insists on marrying Satyavan. They get married and stay together for a year. When the day of his death arrives, Yama comes to take Satyavan, but seeing Savitri's devotion, he grants her wishes. She, cleverly, asks for Satyavan's life. Her full story can be read here. There are clear echoes in the story of Pinky and Savitri. Both the girls wanted to marry a man of their own choice, despite their family's opposition. In addition, the stories of Meera and Savitri, too, have many similarities. Both the women do all they can to save their dying husband. In fact, in one of the interviews, Navdeep Singh has hinted at this angle, but he did not elaborate. The story of Savitri that the film depicts on the stage subtly points to this angle. It is another hypocrisy that we celebrate and revere mythical Savitri, but when Pinky and Meera do the same, they are not revered as goddesses, but the society calls them a whore.
The films also shows a certain circularity. At one point in the film, Meera goes to the toilet for a smoke. She sees that randi is written on the door. She is disturbed and agitated on seeing it, and washes it off. It was as if it touched some raw nerve in her. Later, the same thing comes back. When she goes back to find Arjun dead, the killers had written raand saali on the wall. At another instance, we see that Satbir is injured in the leg the same way her husband Arjun was injured. Satbir is battered to death by Meera the same way he killed his sister's paramour.
At many times, the film feels like a horror film with its spooky symbols. When Meera drives back to her office after the party, the radio jockey asks what wishes would you like to fulfill as if something is about to happen. There is repeated focus on the black thing that is hanging in her car as if it is pointing to some supernatural activity. The way the camera pans to her Puma logo on her shoe hints about the wild cats she has to fight. When Meera and Arjun drive to their private resort, an accident has taken place on the toll road (full points for showing that scene where toll operator gives back Mango Bite). A few minutes later, the weather changes from sunny to cloudy, and the road sign reads 'Have A Safe Journey', as if again hinting at the sign of things to come. There is a shot of 'objects in the mirror are closer than they appear' after an unkempt man tries to talk to Meera. There is another prolonged shot of malai on a cup of tea. Whenever Meera is nervous, she repeatedly tics her pen, again hinting that something is about to happen. All these bring a chilling effect to the film's narrative. Everything in the film is well thought about. Even the car colors have a meaning; like both Arjun and Satbir have the same type of car, but Arjun's is white, and Satbir's is black. Though I am not able to come up with a meaning of the repeated use of cigarette by Meera.
Earlier in the film, Meera's colleague comments that women employees tend to have easy with their bosses. The film points to the sexism that not only the women from lower castes and classes have to face, but something that is prevalent in upper classes as well. Last year's Dil Dhadakne Do explored this sexism in the rich and the famous. If a woman in an educated upper class society faces this, then, the predicament of the likes of other women characters in the film can be imagined. The way Satbir's uncle eyes the migrant's wife has a certain evil quality. As soon as she sees him, she hides behind the veil of clothes.Or Satbir's wife, Manju, who is also trapped and wants to escape. When Amma Ji hits her for trying to protect Meera, Manju's own son laughs. It was so unsettling. Killing Pinky for honor does not bring any tear from her own mother. On the other hand, even a threat of throwing her grandson in the well makes all of them feel concerned. I wonder what if it was granddaughter instead of grandson that Meera caught hold of, assuming that they don't kill the granddaughter in the first place at her birth. Amma Ji cannot hear anything clearly, and needs a hearing machine, but she needs a heart to hear and see the state of her daughters.
There is another reference on caste by cop in the same earlier scene. The cop talks about Ambedkar and Manu. He asks Meera's caste and she tells her surname, instead of caste. He casually chides her that if she does not know her caste, then, she would not know her gotra (sub-caste). It all seems so foreign to Meera that it would be the first time she would hear someone telling her that her marriage is inter-caste. When she first visits the police station, the first cop calls her English type as if she belongs to a place different from theirs. The metropolises have a completely different world from that of the villages, and when these two worlds collide, conflict is likely to happen. Gurgaon is a befitting place where these conflicts exist. I recall Delhi-6, a story of another foreigner/English type (American Desi) coming to India with his grandmother and having his first brush with caste. Even after years of living in a different country, his grandmother is not able to recondition her views on caste. She is horrified when her grandson helps a low caste cleaning lady, while the grandson is confused as to what sin did he commit. Immediately after that, they go to watch Ram Leela where a low caste Shabari gives her ber to Rama to eat, and a character justifies that a god can do anything, while humans cannot. Like the way people in NH10 revere Savitri but justify killing of a daughter in the name of caste.
In another terrific scene, after her jeep overturns, Meera tries to hide herself on a wall. Eventually, she is seen, but she manages to climb the wall. I found it to be a fascinating scene telling so much about class and caste hierarchy itself. Meera is able to climb the wall, while the men below are stuck there. They don't even attempt to climb the wall, but keep throwing stones at her. In many ways, this reflects Meera's position vis-à-vis the men of the village. Perhaps, it is a depiction of the subterranean thinking of the men, while the wall represents the upward mobility, as it is often called, and that people have to cross this wall to escape the shackles of caste.
As I have a habit of recalling films, I remember Luck By Chance that ends by a lovely dialogue by Sona Mishra, where she says that she ran from her home in Kanpur, without telling anyone, because she wanted to be an actress. Her parents wanted her to get married to someone, whose only qualification was that he belonged to the same same caste as hers. "Woh to pata nahi kiske saath meri shaadi kar dena chahte the. Uska gun yeh tha ki woh hamari caste ka tha. Yahan koi caste vaaste nahi puchhta, aapko agar apna kaam aata ho, toh raaste ban hi jaate hai. Haan, aasani se kuch nahi milta." Sona was able to cross the barrier and escape to a place of her dreams. But for millions of people like Pinky and Bunty, crossing this barrier is often associated with consequences, that are as violent as death. If only, it was as easy for everyone to climb the mobility wall and escape. Till then, accidents of birth are their only hope.
Dialogue of the Day:
"Yeh sheher badhta bacha hai ji. Kud toh lagayaga hi."