Films like Neeraj Ghaywan’s ‘Masaan’ give one hope for the future of the film industry. It is through their success that a new dawn is possible.
Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
Starring: Richa Chadda, Vicky Kaushal, Sanjay Mishra, Shweta Tripathi
The English title of Neeraj Ghaywan’s directorial debut is key to understanding the central theme of the story, and its ambiguous ending. As titles go, Fly Away Solo is clunky, bereft of the lyricism of Masaan—a local variant of “smashana”, or cremation ground. But it holds the clue for what happens between our two protagonists, two broken individuals trying to pick up the pieces and begin Life 2.0, finally meet on the banks of the Ganges in Allahabad in the final scene of the film. Do they fall in love and get the happily ever after they both deserve?
Something tells me they don’t. Something tells me it doesn’t matter whether they do. The great triumph in both their lives isn’t that they find each other, but that they have got themselves to that point, confronted the trauma of past events, freed themselves from the choking sensation of constant grief, if not entirely rid themselves of sadness. The great triumph in both their lives is that they have pivoted from past to future, endured the darkest hour before dawn. (“Bhor, bhor, bhor, bhor, bhai/Ek udta panchhi,” Indian Ocean sing in the background.)
It’s telling that both of them have to leave the Eternal City in order to do so. Usually the subject (victim?) of reverential exoticism in cinema, Benaras is treated in this film as what it is: a small town with a city’s population, its history and tradition in uneasy equilibrium with technology and aspiration, pockmarked with corruption that is as ubiquitous—and unquestioned—as religion, as claustrophobic as it is captivating. The protagonists’ struggles have to do with their position in the society that inhabits this city, and so many others like it across the country, with its arcane codes of who you are and what you’re allowed to do. Their journeys involve loosening the bindings of these arcane codes, if not quite shedding them altogether.
Benaras is treated in this film as what it is: a small town with a city’s population, its history and tradition in uneasy equilibrium with technology and aspiration, pockmarked with corruption that is as ubiquitous—and unquestioned—as religion, as claustrophobic as it is captivating.
Richa Chadda plays Devi, a young woman living with her father Vidyadhar Pathak (Mishra), a former Sanskrit professor who now runs a shop for religious paraphernalia on a ghat. In one of the greatest opening sequences of recent Indian cinema, she is shown preparing to lose her virginity: watching porn to figure out how everything works, changing from her salwar kameez to a sari in a public toilet so that she and her boyfriend can pretend to be a married couple while checking into a seedy hotel. They close the doors and windows, turn on the news to drown out their cries of passion, and after an adorable moment of awkwardness as they try to figure out their first moves, instincts kick in.
Within a few minutes, however, their experimentation reaches an abrupt end. Their pretence at the front desk hasn’t passed muster, and the cops are at the door. Boyfriend promptly proceeds to off himself, becoming the victim for posterity, leaving her to deal with the fallout: a policeman extorting her father for all he’s got and much more. What laws they have broken—none—is immaterial; the threat of scandal and court-kachehri ke chakkar is enough to ensure compliance.
But it isn’t as if paying off the cop prevents the story from trickling out through the grapevine, and she soon has to fend off self-righteous denunciations of her conduct and, worse, advances from men who have heard about it and assume she is loose. “Seedhe seedhe kehte hain, degi kya?” asks one co-worker. “Us ladke ko bhi to diya tha.”
If Devi’s ordeals emanate from the various oppressions of gender, Deepak Chaudhary (played to near perfection by Vicky Kaushal) has to face the glass ceiling of caste. A son of the dom raja, the custodian of the city’s cremation grounds, he is in the process of completing the engineering degree that will enable him to escape the family profession.
One day, while providing moral support to a friend attempting to woo a girl, he falls for her friend, and thus begins one of the most accurate portrayals of courtship in 21st-century India. Technology provides a workaround to Deepak’s shyness and the prohibitions of a gender-segregated society; a little Facebook stalking, and we have a name: Shaalu Gupta (Tripathi).
A combination of believable, touching performances, meticulous detailing and oh-so-cute moments—him printing out her Facebook timeline; her releasing her helium balloon after he does so in order to indicate reciprocation of feelings—makes this the high point of the film. But the reality check inevitably comes. “Ladki upper caste hai, dost,” a friend warns him. “Zyada sentiya mat jaana.” His interior struggle over whether, and how, to tell her is as compelling as the wooing itself.
The reality check inevitably comes. “Ladki upper caste hai, dost,” a friend warns him. “Zyada sentiya mat jaana.” His interior struggle over whether, and how, to tell her is as compelling as the wooing itself.
Much of Masaan involves interiority, with both Deepak and Devi suffering in silence. This can make the narrative seem to stall in the second half, and Chadda, who unlike Kaushal, isn’t given a moment of cathartic emotion, can seem one-note. But the stunning cinematography by Killa director Avinash Arun, some great music and the poetry of Dushyant Kumar—“Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai/Main kisi pul sa thadthadata hoon”—and a side arc that ties the two main stories together and also allows Sanjay Mishra to display his full emotional spectrum are perfectly acceptable distractions.
It is films like Masaan, simple stories told beautifully without being reductive, incisive examinations of our society without being didactic, universally accessible yet thoroughly Indian, that give one hope for the future of the film industry. It is through their success that a new dawn is possible.