NH10 is set in the backward backwoods through which countless men and woman have already fled, with axe-wielding lunatics and malevolent spirits in delirious pursuit.

Navdeep Singh’s movie, which he also wrote along with Sudip Sharma, relocates the backwoods to the bits of Haryana that border Gurgaon. The jungle baddies are now grim-faced rural folk who live by medieval-era codes of justice and believe in the equilibrium-restoring powers of honour killing. NH10 is a genre piece that follows the formula of similarly themed films from the first frame to the last, but which also layers its predictability with social commentary. The 115-minute movie pits two Indias against each other: one that is staring blindly into an uncertain future and another whose head is turned towards an idealised past. In NH10’s telling, it’s best that these worlds never meet.

East or west, Gurgaon is the best

The movie opens in Gurgaon, depicted in a striking opening sequence by cinematographer Arvind Kannabiran as an endless steel-and-glass illusion. Meera (Anushka Sharma), who works for a consumer goods company, can easily combat casual workplace sexism, but she has no defence against a pair of leery bikers. Her influential husband Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) procures a gun for her safety. Since the screenplay plays it by the book, it follows that the weapon displayed in an early sequence will be discharged soon after.

Other narrative staple falls into place as Meera and Arjun set out for a weekend getaway that is intended to be dirty but only ends up as messy as it possibly could. The couple witness an honour killing. As Satbir (Darshan Kumar) drags his sister, Pinky, and her husband away to their deaths, Arjun decides, in a moment of misguided machismo, to pursue the matter. Meera bears the consequences of his actions over a night that seemingly has no end.

Meera’s discovery of previously unknown reserves of bravery isn’t new to followers of such films, but the economical and crisp writing ensures that her reactions are organic to the situations in which she finds herself. Whether she is pleading for help from a reluctant cop or facing her attackers in their backyard, Meera behaves like the urbane and intelligent woman she is – which is why the movie’s closing moments feel borrowed from elsewhere. The proceedings are drenched in grim realism, but Meera’s fate belongs strictly to the reel world.

The horrors of rural India

NH10 joins a growing category of films and books that examine the contradictions between cities and the small towns and villages that are not as far away as one wishes. Siddharth Srinivasan’s 2010 indie Pairon Talle explores brutality, misogyny and lawlessness on the outskirts of Delhi, while Imtiaz Ali’s Highway yanks together two brutalised souls, one urban and the other rural.

Of all its stated references, NH10 is closest to the 2008 British thriller Eden Lake, in which a middle-class British couple are attacked by a nasty and resentful group of working-class boys. The conflict that Eden Lake sets up between two classes is faithfully translated as a battle between opposing value systems in NH10. Meera is the kind of city-bred Indian who mutters endearments in Tamil to her husband and who doesn’t know the details of her caste. Her opponents know their social position a bit too well. There is no middle ground between this neat polarisation, just as in Eden Lake, and no acknowledgement of the daily negotiation that characterises this interaction in actual life.

The social commentary can sometimes be a bit too subtle in NH10, and it has been further blunted by the Central Board of Film Certification’s schoolmarmish attitude to profanity despite the movie’s Adults only certification. The coarse language exchanged by Satbir and his community members, which reveals their derogatory attitude to women, has been mostly bleeped out, as has the use of the word randi (prostitute) that is used here not for the purposes of titillation but as evidence of the widespread misogyny that women encounter on the walls of toilets and everywhere else.

NH10 never glorifies its ample violence, and its moral compass is unerringly fixed. The filmmakers see no difference between the backwoods lunatics who have harassed hapless campers and adolescents in previous movies and the deeply hateful men and women who will go to extreme lengths to defend their social standing in this film. By dragging the character and audiences to rural Haryana and all too effectively marshalling support in Meera’s favour, the movie misses the chance to confront the true horrors of the issue at stake. Did Meera need to leave Gurgaon to discover the sometimes brutal consequences of patriarchy and become a reluctant symbol of feminism? NH10 is not curious enough.

Navdeep Singh might not care too much for the motivations of his perpetrators, but he has a firm handle on the movie’s technical aspects. NH10 delivers its shocks and twists with impeccable timing. Jabeen Merchant’s sharp editing and Karan Gour’s moody background score create several heart-stopping moments, and only the use of redundant songs interrupt an otherwise unrelenting mood of tension and fear that unfolds in harsh and unforgiving terrain. Anushka Sharma superbly combines resourcefulness with vulnerability to depict a character whose own class dynamics are never fully explored. Sharma’s performances gains strides as she races through a take-no-prisoners zone, probably wishing she never left the illusory comforts of her glass palace.