Souls are said to be liberated in Kashi; and ‘masaan’ (the colloquial local word for ‘shamshaan’) perfectly captures the unique character of a town which has been wrestling with life and death for centuries. Neeraj Ghaywan’s strikingly assured, powerful debut feature conjures up a place which we rarely see in our movies: a place not limned or air-brushed, but presented as it is, its beauty and ugliness for us to savour in equal measure.
‘Masaan’s Varanasi is not your Lonely Planet’s touristy, tripping-on-stuffed-chillums, come-hang-it-all-out ‘holy Indian town’, which continues to lure penniless backpackers and ‘gora’ salvation-seekers. This is a town lived in by its residents, a ‘chota sheher’ trembling on the cusp of many conflicting elements: the mendacity of the ‘pandas’ who feed off the dead, the hard, hard lifework of the ‘doms’—the men and the boys—who pile up and burn the bodies, and the younger generation trying to stumble past age-old constrictions of caste and class and gender and sex.
Is there ever an escape? Or is life itself an eternal trap?
The characters we meet exemplify this push-pull of the old and new, the ancient and the modern, and how technology has brought about cataclysmic changes. Motherless Devi Pathak (Richa Chadha) is poised in flight mode, whether through a liaison with a boy she’s attracted to, or via a temporary stop-over at a ‘railways ki naukri’. Her father (Sanjay Mishra) who operates a little kiosk at the ‘ghats’, is a Sanskrit ‘vidwaan’ and wise to the ways of his ‘sangi-saathis’, but is clueless how to act when Devi is ensnared in a scandal, and threatened by a greedy cop (Tiwari).
Engineering student Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is also searching for a way out of his Dom lineage, and is also in the throes of first love. Pretty-perky Shaalu (Tripathi) loves Hindi-Urdu poetry, and recites lines which speak to him even if he is unaware of their history. You fear that the discrepancy in their station could act as a deal-breaker to their winsome romance. ‘Ladki upper caste hai dost, jyaada sentiyaayie mat’: this line, delivered in perfect Banarasi ‘leheja’ by Deepak’s friend, says it all. Or will they both learn to adjust?
The film, playing off Varun Grover’s sharply-observed script, gives us astute vignettes of what it can be like to love and long in these Facebook-friends-request-mediated times. Deepak and Shaalu come together with the help of an online social network; a computer coaching center connects Devi and her boyfriend. They would never be able to meet otherwise, their spheres being so apart.
At the heart of the film is the tussle between what has always been, and what can be. No one can see the future, but it is there, stretching right in front of the conflicted Devi and the dealing-with-heartbreak-and-loss Deepak. Which makes ‘Masaan’, for all its underlying grimness, a film about hope and redemption, underlined by the fine writing, both in the departments of script and lyrics: ‘tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main kisi pul sa thartharata hoon’ is deeply philosophical, sensuous and spiritual at the same time. And an apt metaphor for the film: a river runs through it, so does a bridge, and both bring people in, and take them away. “Aadmi aata hai, jaata hai. Shareer nashwar hai, aatma amar hai” (the body dies, but the soul lives forever): this is the lesson that Deepak internalises, and again it is apt that it comes to Vicky Kaushal, the boy who becomes man so movingly, and who is the find of the film.
A couple of minor quibbles. Chadha channels the feeling-suffocated-in-a-small-town-and-thinking really well, but you wish she was given a tad more variation in her playing of the character. She breaks out in a few moments with the terrific Tripathi, who, in a cameo, brings to sparkling life a rooted-in-his-milieu, stuck-in-the-groove ‘railway employee’. Mishra comes off too familiar. And there are a couple of plot contrivances that you can see coming from afar.
But these do not take away from the strength of ‘Masaan’, which makes the connection between the constant cycles of life and death, and the pain of moving away and moving on, so effectively. The last time I saw the heart-breaking ‘taandav’ of the last rites– the ‘kriya-karam’– at the Banaras ghats, was in Rajesh S Jhala’s ‘The Children Of The Pyre’. Ghaywan catches it with empathy.
The film also brings back many fading influences from a time when Hindi cinema knew how to do its job effectively. ‘Masaan’ is imbued with a sense of place and time, poetry and lyricism, and it captures the essence of Banaras, constant-yet-changeable, with felicity and feeling. It also announces the arrival of new talents in its writer and director: Grover’s story is eminently worth telling, and Ghaywan tells it beautifully.
Cast: Richa Chadha, Vicky Kaushal, Sanjay Mishra, Shweta Tripathi, Pankaj Tripathi, Bhagwaan Tiwari
Director : Neeraj Ghaywan