I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan since I saw it a few nights ago. For one, it’s astoundingly good – dreamy and textured and with powerfully understated images that refuse to fade away. Reciprocated love is shown through two red balloons rising into the night. Boys dive into a river and retrieve not just coins but also life-altering lotteries. An unmarried young woman takes care to affix a bindi on her forehead so that she appears… not so young, not so unmarried. But it’s more than that. It’s the nagging question of – or perhaps the inability to pinpoint precisely – what this film is really about. At some level, Masaan is about the kind of topics that fill our op-ed pages. The evils of the caste system. Upward mobility. The fate of women under an unrelenting patriarchy. Urban migration. And yet, the film isn’t about any of this. All of this is in there somewhere, but the film operates at a more elevated, more abstract level. At one point, I thought this is what Masaan is about: Man. Woman. Death. Salvation. And (metaphorical) rebirth. Sort of the Hindu cycle of life, which may not be too far a reach given the setting: Kashi.
The Man is Deepak (Vicky Kaushal). His life, as his name suggests, is bound to fire – he belongs to the lower-caste Dom community that tends to funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. The Woman is Devi (Richa Chadda) – only, she’s no pristine goddess. She’s refreshingly human. Masaan narrates their stories in parallel, but they’re linked throughout. Both are seen in a fumbling sexual act. Both end up doing things that usually bring shame to conservative families – he, by falling for an upper-caste girl (Shaalu, played by the lovely Shweta Tripathi), and she by exploring premarital sex. Both stories throw up the word jigyasa, the desire to know. Both Deepak and Devi offer a loved one’s memento – a ring, a gift-wrapped box – to the river. (In a Buñuelian touch, we never find out what’s inside that box.) Both come from somewhat dysfunctional families – she has issues with her father Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra, who’s terrific but seems to be getting typecast in a certain kind of befuddled-old-man role), he has a strained relationship with his unambitious brother. Both are constrained – he by the profession of his ancestors, she by her gender (even if her father raised her like a boy). Both strive to break free – he’s studying to be a civil engineer, she teaches at a computer coaching centre. And trains feature prominently in both stories, which begin in Kashi and end in Allahabad, home of the sangam. Finally, the parallel tracks end up in confluence.
It’s not just Deepak and Devi – the people around them are linked by circumstances too. Devi lives with her father, like her colleague does (a smashingly effective Pankaj Tripathi) – a kheer moment sweetens both lives. And like Vidyadhar, the cop who blackmails him (Bhagwan Tiwari) has a daughter. At first, all these echoes seem programmatic, but gradually we see there may be a point – the sameness of it all. Some people are content with this sameness. Devi’s colleague points out that many trains pass through Kashi, but only a few stop here – it’s not easy to leave. Others like Devi and Deepak long to be on one of those outbound trains. You could say Masaan is about these lives, caught between stagnation and forward motion.
You could also say the film is about Old India and New India. Vidyadhar is a Sanskrit professor. His daughter speaks C or Java. Vidyadhar says that these ghats were once a jungle, and we see that, in some ways, the place today is still a long way from civilisation. Women are hounded for acting on their desires. Cops are corrupt. Children are made to hold their breath and dive into the river and locate coins tossed in – all for the amusement of adults. But on the other hand, there’s the very forward-thinking Shaalu, who doesn’t seem to care about caste. Find a job, she tells Deepak – things will be okay. She speaks the language of youth: It’s not who you are; it’s what you make of yourself. The technology is new too – smartphones, YouTube, Facebook – as is the mode of romantic expression: not hand-holding or chaste embraces but a straight-on mouth-on-mouth kiss, like they do in “English movies.” But look at the song Deepak chooses to record for Shaalu – the achingly innocent Ghazab ka hai din, from a film that was released a few years before we began to hear of this thing called “liberalisation.”
Masaan is all of these things. What it isn’t – despite the mystical “smash the skull and release the soul” utterances, despite the (wholly deserved) Cannes citations – is Indian exotica for a Western audience. The superb cinematography (Avinash Arun Dhaware) doesn’t prettify things. The images of burning bodies may not be as graphic and disconcerting as those in Rajesh S. Jala’s documentary Children of the Pyre, but they made me queasy. You sense the filth all around. Like Udaan, which it recalls in both look and small-town feel, Masaan is a very Indian movie. The trains, the poetry, the poetry about trains – it’s all very rooted. Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai / Main kisi pul sa thartharaata hoon (I rattle like a bridge when you glide by like a train) – that’s Deepak when faced with Shaalu. Theirs isn’t just a caste thing but a class thing too. On their first date, over pizza, as she’s reeling off the names of her favourite poets, he casually tells the waiter he wants chutney… and then he freezes… he realises she’s there too… and he asks if she’d like Szechwan sauce… that instant change from what he’d usually have to what he thinks someone like her would have is its own kind of poetry. Vicky Kaushal is excellent throughout, but I keep thinking about the careful calibrations of his hesitation here, and the animalistic depths of his breakdown much later.
Even the narrative loop-de-loops are very Indian, in the sense that they seem to obey emotional (rather than rational) logic. (Some may call these contrivances far-fetched.) Among the many marvellous flourishes in the screenplay (by Ghaywan and Varun Grover) is the scene in a hospital involving a child named Jhonta (the impish Nikhil Sahni) – it’s magic, literally and otherwise. There’s just one shot that struck me as showy, when Devi enters a house and the camera remains outside – there’s a studied formalism to these frames that stands out in the midst of the fluid filmmaking elsewhere. But this is easily brushed aside, given the richness of the enigmatic storytelling, the powerful performances. Richa Chadda pulls off something very difficult. At first I was unmoved, but she gradually grew on me. She plays a woman who’s been burnt once and is now forever counting to ten whenever she feels an emotion – it’s a brittle kind of catatonia. The film doesn’t judge her. It doesn’t judge anyone, not even the corrupt cop, who, in this holiest of places, remains unpunished for his sins. There’s so much drama in these lives, but so little on screen – it’s like the river itself, whose calm surface belies untold depths.
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