Neeraj Ghaywan’s directorial debut brought together the best talent in the industry to weave a tale as timeless as the city it is based in.
Banaras – one of the holiest cities in the world – was a mere hundred kilometers from my hometown. All you had to do was cross the Ganga river and get on to NH31 which ran alongside the meandering course of India’s longest river, and within three hours you would reach the city of ghats. Growing up in a quaint, little town along the UP-Bihar border, I made countless trips to the city.
It wasn’t just the physical proximity that made us visit Banaras ever so often. Practically half of my extended paternal relatives lived in the city. My grandfather’s sister was married to a man who stayed in Banaras. My own bua’s (father’s sister) in-laws too lived somewhere between Banaras and Sarnath, as did multiple other relatives who were by fluke or by design based in either Banaras or neighbouring Mughalsarai.
We attended weddings of all five of my grandfather’s sister’s daughters in the city. We visited my Bua every year on her brief annual visit to her in-laws. We went to meet my father’s uncle when he underwent a major surgery. We visited again a couple of years later to meet a prospective groom for my father’s cousin. We went once to cremate a family-member. We also went there to settle a dispute over a piece of land bought three generations before mine.
The film also has another silent actor – the city of Banaras itself.
Despite having frequented the city so often, I hardly knew it. Banaras for me, was one giant mess with never-ending construction work, snarling traffic, narrow by-passes, loud people and crowded markets. Neither the ghats could calm me down, nor the piping hot launglatas (a local sweet) comfort me. Every trip was a nightmare, every visit anxiety-inducing.
The first few minutes of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan induced similar dread when I saw Devi (played by Richa Chadha) falling prey to a police ‘raid’. Cops barge into a room where Devi and her lover are making love and that is how the story of harassment, threat and extortion by police begins.
Numerous watches later, I still clench my jaw at the grimacing portrayal of the police and policing system in the film. How an act of consensual sex becomes a weapon against a young girl by a thoroughly corrupt system, who doesn’t even flinch from using her lover’s death as a noose to strangulate her with.
But Devi faces the loss, humiliation and harassment with strength and dignity – almost like a goddess that her name literally translates into. She is fearless. She is gritty. She is steely. Devi doesn’t flinch when her father rains blows on her. She doesn’t cower down to threats by her employer. She quits her job when a colleague demands sexual favours from her. She is a modern woman in a society that hasn’t moved with the time. She embodies desire, consent, individuality. She doesn’t feel the need to justify her actions to anyone – not even her father.
While Devi finds herself paying the price of her gender, Deepak (played by Vicky Kaushal) struggles with the disadvantage of his caste. He belongs to the ‘Dom’ community, a section that traditionally made a living by burning funeral pyres. His father, brother and he himself light chitas (pyres), guard the corpses through the night as they are slowly consumed by flames, and clear the ashen remains in the morning to make way for more cremations.
Deepak falls in love with Shaalu, played by Shweta Tripathi. Theirs is the kind of a love that is blind to the ways of the world. Shalu is born into an upper caste family. She is exposed to poetry of Basheer Badr and Mirza Ghalib. She wears gold rings and goes on family trips to Badrinath as Deepak toils at the cremation ground by the night and college in the day, just to be able to escape his father’s fate. But this unlikely romance blossoms with a facebook friend request and two balloons wafting above the crowds at a mela, as Dushyant Kumar’s poetry, deftly adapted into a song by Varun Grover, plays in the background.
‘Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main kisi pul sa thartharata hoon’
(Your mere presence makes me quiver like a bridge trembling under a crossing train)
Theirs is an ideal romance, till death does them apart. While helping his father at the cremation ghat one day, Deepak chances on a corpse wearing a ring like Shalu’s. When he removes the stained white cloth draping the dead body, he finds her – lifeless and still – having perished in a road accident on her way back from a pilgrimage.
And that’s how another love story in the film comes to an end. Masaan is a film about unfinished love, but not the usual kinds that leaves you with a sense of remorse. The pain of the characters is unfathomable, but it’s their reconciliation by the end of the film that leaves you with a sense of relief. Devi visits her lover’s family to find closure for her love that society could hardly understand, let alone appreciate. Deepak too pieces himself together after Shaalu’s death to get on his feet.
It would be a criminal on my part if I did not mention the sheer brilliance of Sanjay Mishra who plays Devi’s father. He is a patriarch unlike any seen in Hindi films. He might come across as unforgiving in the beginning, but he is a man who also lets his vulnerable side out when he breaks down and sobs in his daughter’s lap. He might have difficulty comprehending Devi’s actions but he understands her need for independence. His fatherly instincts come to the fore not just for his daughter, but also his underage associate Jhonta played by the extremely talented child artist – Nikhil Sahni.
The film also has another silent actor – the city of Banaras itself. It forces its morality on Devi. It lets Jhonta dip into its waters to help Vidyadhar Pathak stay afloat. Its ghats pull Deepak out of his misery; its banks become the resting ground for Shalu. Most of all it becomes a poignant meditation on those who live in its lanes and those who die on its masaans.
The film, for me, is a modern-day classic. Its simplicity, honesty and brilliance make me go back to it every once in a while. As for Banaras, the city feels closer to my heart now, more than ever before.
Directed by: Neeraj Ghaywan
Produced by: Drishyam Films, Phantom Films, Macassar Productions, Sikhya Entertainment
Written by: Varun Grover
Starring: Richa Chadda, Vicky Kaushal, Shweta Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra
Music by: Indian Ocean
Release date: 19 May 2015 (Cannes), 24 June 2015 (France), 24 July 2015 (India)
Art: Nandita Kothari
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