Director Neeraj Ghaywan and co-writer Varun Grover on their film Masaan, which is selected for the Un Certain Regard at Cannes film festival and looks at the Dom community of Varanasi
Stuck in a corporate job, Neeraj Ghaywan had often dreamed of making a film. So when he bagged the position of assistant director on Gangs of Wasseypur (GOW), he used the one week-long break between the two jobs to write a script, set in Varanasi. “That version of the text can win the ‘worst script’ award, hands down,” he says. Ghaywan’s feature film directorial debut, Masaan, based on that “badly written” script, will premiere at the prestigious Festival de Cannes under the Un Certain Regard category in the competitive section.
“I had the story with me for many years, but when I first penned it, I was a complete novice, with no idea of how scripts are written,” recounts the self-deprecating 35-year-old. During the Varanasi schedule of Gangs of Wasseypur, he realised that he has an outsider’s perspective to the holy city, and lacks perspective to do justice to his story. That’s when he approached Varun Grover, his colleague from GOW and an alumnus of the Benaras Hindu University (BHU). Grover’s inclusion turned out to be a masterstroke. The reworked script was selected for Mumbai Mantra-Sundance Institute Screenwriters’ Lab and later bagged the coveted Global Filmmaking Award by
The story revolves around the shamshan ghats in Varanasi. Under the charge of the Dom community, which carries out the cremations, the ghats are run on a rotational basis. Male members of Dom are paid according to their hierarchy in their community. “So there may be someone who is allowed to conduct business just five days in a year, and upon his death, these days will be further divided among his sons,” explains the director. It is these livelihoods around death that intrigued the director and has lent drama to Ghaywan’s story of a Dom boy who falls for a girl from an upper caste.
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While this was the main track of the story, a lot changed after Grover came on board. “We developed several parallel characters and now, the film has three story threads that intersect,” explains Grover, who is also a stand-up comic and a lyricist. Devi, the character played by Richa Chadha, who finds herself stuck in a sex scandal, forms the second track. The third is of an orphan boy, who survives by collecting coins found on the riverbed of the Ganga. “The film centres on characters who are loners, misfits in the society they inhabit, battling small-town moralities and old world traditions,” says Ghaywan.
Although Grover was familiar with Varanasi, the duo spent nearly two months in the city, researching for the film, staying at the BHU hostel. Their chief concern, however, was to understand the ‘morality’ and choices of the present generation, and as they began their research, they were taken by surprise with the findings. “Teenage girls on the campus, some from small cities such as Indore and Patna, non-chalantly confessed to consuming porn, however some boys were apologetic about it,” says Ghaywan. This and other similar findings helped them dispel their preconceived notions about women from cities who are perceived as being conservative.
Ghaywan and Grover also roped in local journalists and a scholar to understand the customs of the Dom community better. Minute details such as the different coloured-sacred threads worn by different castes or the fact that the Doms use the fire from the ghats to light up any fire in their house, were incorporated in the film. Apart from Hindi, the duo has made use of Kashika, a dialect of Bhojpuri. “We have used Kashika to demarcate the two different worlds — the upper caste household of Devi’s family who speak chaste Hindi and the community of the Doms. The upper caste switch to Kashika only if they are speaking with people from the lower caste,” says Ghaywan.
Having grown up on Hindi and regional literature, Grover has also included tributes to his favourite authors. So a character of a railway ticket seller derives from Satyajit Ray’s short story Ratan Babu and That Man and Vinod Kumar Shukla’s Deewar Mein Ek Khirkee Rehti Thi. One of Dushyant Kumar’s poems have been incorporated into a song for the film. But Ghaywan says that the film itself has been written like a Hindi novella. “The world we have attempted to create, we hope it can transport the viewers to the old-world charm of Benaras,” he says.
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