For some reason, Neeraj Ghaywan has an uncanny attachment to Varanasi. But it is not the city’s exotic ghats, which adorn its tourism posters, or even the essence that it is revered for — as a Hindu pilgrimage spot, which appeals to Ghaywan. “It is a film about escape. An escape from convention, from socio-cultural shackles of small town India where the characters are trapped in their own existential and moral crisis. I wanted to tell a story about our youth from small towns, in the most honest possible way,” says the filmmaker, over a phone conversation from Mumbai. His debut feature film, Masaan, has just made it to the Official Selection of the 2015 Cannes Film festival in the Un Certain Regard section. This will be his second outing at Cannes. In 2012, he went as an Assistant Director for Gangs of Wasseypur (GOW). Now, he will be going as a director. “It feels surreal,” says Ghaywan, whose film’s narrative is set in the heart of the city and how its characters are connected by the the Ganges. The film’s title is a metaphor for the circle of life.
One of the stories in the film looks at the cremation grounds of the city and the people from the Dom community, whose livelihood depends on someone’s death. Another character (essayed by Richa Chadda) portrays the role of a receptionist at a coaching centre and after a one-night sexual encounter, she is enveloped by a sense of guilt. The third story revolves around Richa’s father (played by Sanjay Mishra) who works as a pandit selling puja material at the ghats. “It is a film about escape from small town India where the characters are trapped in their own existential crisis. I wanted to tell a story about the quality of life in small town India, where the people crave for the luxuries of the big city,” says the 35-year-old Mumbai-based filmmaker. His first short story, Shor, which was part of the 2013 short film collective produced by Anurag Kashyap and Guneet Monga, titled Shorts, also looked at the lives of two characters from Varanasi, who migrate to Mumbai in search of a better life. “The launching point for Masaan came from a story, which a friend narrated to me years ago, about the Dom community and the business of burials in the city. I wanted to question their understanding of their quality of life,” says Ghaywan, who wrote an “extremely shitty” first draft of the film.
The story is by Ghaywan and it took three years to eventually complete the script, which was written by Varun Grover, who has also written the lyrics and dialogues for the film. “I felt that if I assisted on projects any more, I would end up imbibing the director’s voice and would lose my own thought. When I decided to make this film, I did not want to tell the story as an outsider. Grover studied at the Banaras Hindu University so he had an inner knowledge about the city and our focus was always on the stories of the characters,” adds Ghaywan, whose film is in Hindi and Kashika, a local dialect of Varanasi.
Inspired by filmmakers such as the Dardenne brothers and Austrian-filmmaker Michael Haneke, Ghaywan was drawn to films that touched upon “social realism and the middle-class moralities”. “Maybe that comes from my upbringing in a middle-class family set up. At university lectures during my MBA in Pune, I was the only student who looked forward to lectures on indie cinema,” says Ghaywan, who counts Pyaasa, Bandit Queen, Black Friday and Satyajit Ray’s works as his inspiration.