QUEEN’S ROAD: Director Navdeep Singh’s journey through the Hindi filmscape has been a bit like the perilous road trip in his latest film NH10. He uses words like ‘crash’ and ‘burn’ to describe the years that followed his first film Manorama Six Feet Under (2007). This moody and atmospheric interpretation of Polanski’s Chinatown won critical acclaim but did not make much money.
He then made a zombie comedy, Rock the Shaadi, which yes, ‘crashed and burnt’ and never saw the light of the day. He wanted to bring together a gangster drama set in Canada with two male stars but realised the futile naivete of trying to segue egos with commercial considerations into a film that made sense only to him and gave up.
Then the idea of making a film with a strong, female protagonist came, as did a one-line premise, ‘A couple witnesses an honour killing and...’
Singh studied filmmaking at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, graduating in 1997. And the stint he says, gave him an academic and practical understanding of the processes of filming a story. The storytelling, however, is uniquely his own as his passion for cinema dates back to the VHS years when renting films for the night and watching them back to back was middle-class India’s idea of a perfect weekend. Though exposed to international films as a student of cinema, his understanding of the Indian particularities and narratives is visible both in Manorama...and NH10.
He says, “My father was in the armed forces and I got to watch random films in English and Hindi in the cantonment and once in a while in theatres. I remember being greatly impressed by a few films in the alternate genre though. Shyam Benegal’s Kaliyug for instance. I remember watching it again and again and Pradeep Kishan’s Massey Saheb too.”
Two of his other favourites are Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a neo-noir dystopian classic and Brazil, a 1985 British film directed by Terry Gilliam. He also likes Fellini’s early work and in the lull that followed his debut, there were plenty of films to watch and commercials to shoot.
He remembers coming to Bengaluru for a few meetings but did not know then that the city would give him the female protagonist and producer of his second film, Anushka Sharma. And for a change, the film did not become a vanity project for a star who was throwing her weight behind the story of a gender war with no end in sight.
He remembers coming to Bengaluru for ad shoots but had no idea that city girl Anushka Sharma would one day produce his second film and star in it.
Says Singh, “Yes, she really threw herself into the part and as I discovered during the course of the tough shoot, she is very hard working. She wasn’t worried about how she’d look or come across. She let herself be vulnerable as an actor and sometimes, that’s the space the most honest performances come from. And she has more muscle than I do!”
She was also an empathetic producer, he adds, and did not cave into the pressure of making the project more ‘compromised’ in a commercial sense.
Anushka, who started her career as a model in Bengaluru and is now one of the most successful young actors, also workshopped for a few weeks to get into the skin of a young wife and professional. “We created for her and Neil Bhoopalam, a shared history. We discussed the characters and their detailing,” recalls Singh.
But as the brief about the honour killing was developed by him and writer Sudeep Sharma, intensive research threw up stories that were hard to stomach and harder to film.
The raw brutality in the film, especially in the scene where a young couple is being killed, stems from the horror Singh and Sharma experienced during the course of fleshing the story out.
The nuances of gender wars being fought across India are subtle though. The cuss words scribbled in dingy toilets.
The menacing roads in a burgeoning town where a woman driver can be randomly attacked. The board room where her gender can be held against her. And a village where a woman Sarpanch thinks that the honour killing of her own daughter is a, “private matter.”
Says Singh, “With more research, the couple’s personal story got tied with gender and social issues, questions of patriarchy and power. There was no escaping it. It is always important for me to offer my own world-view that renders itself to multiple readings regardless of the genre. It is exciting that the general public is liking the film. A lot of people have described the film as a thriller but one always hopes that the layering will connect with an audience that looks deeper and beyond the surface.”
About the demanding shoot, he says, “We shot the film with a tight budget over 44 days and we originally wanted to shoot in Haryana, but crowd control and other factors took us to Rajasthan, where most of the night scenes were shot.”
Though as he wanted, the film is being read and reread for its multiple contexts, Singh was taken aback by a few harsh reviews based on the misconception that the film was showing a class-centric conflict. That the urban characters were good while the villagers were bad.
He responds, “The villagers who commit the crime in the film are more privileged than most city dwellers. They have power and money. The film was not at all about the urban and rural divide but I did not think it was important to show one urban crime to balance out every rural crime.”
He points out how the film does not endorse the view that sexism is a uniquely rural issue. “The film opens with a street crime on the roads of Gurgaon. There is a city cop who talks down to Anushka’s character and basically addresses her husband, ignoring her totally. She is also derided in the board room,” he adds.
The roots of patriarchy, he says, run deep. “Women are teachers of culture. If they endorse and support patriarchy, if they define gender roles, keep their daughters in the kitchen and think it is okay for sons to stay out late and come home drunk, the same values will get disseminated down the generations.”
As for his own cinematic future, you sense a hint of relief in his voice as he says, “Nothing succeeds like success and there are many scripts I have been working on. This is a better time for independent cinema because a small film can come from nowhere and shake things up.”
NH10 has joined the list of the highest grossing films of the year and Navdeep Singh can now truly take credit for a success that did not come easy but is going to pave the way for other independent directors who want to tell disconcerting stories and shake audiences and the industry out of the stupor of sameness.