On the banks of the Ganges, a pyre burns.
Flames, fattened by wood, dance manically around a dark shape that you can barely make out, so bright is the firelight. A young man stands at the pyre with a long wooden pole in his hand. He watches it with a casual, unperturbed expression. At one point, he stabs at the pyre with the pole. There’s the sound of bone crunching. The man is unmoved. He keeps watching, waiting for the dead body to burn down its unflammable bits and the flames to tire. Beyond the circle of light in which he stands, the Ganges flows, invisible but present.
The man at the pyre is Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and he looks calm because there’s nothing unsettling about dead bodies or burning pyres for him. He belongs to a caste of corpse burners, the dom. By day, he studies engineering and when he isn’t a student, he joins his father and brother at Varanasi’s burning ghat.
The confident, comfortable ease that marks Deepak’s posture at cremations disappears when he’s walking around Varanasi hoping to catch Shaalu’s (Shweta Tripathi) eye. Even when she accepts his Facebook request, goes out to a restaurant with him and has long conversations with him on the phone, Deepak doesn’t lose that prickle of nervous hesitancy. It isn’t just love that keeps him on edge. Shaalu is “high caste”, as one of Deepak’s friends points out, and she doesn’t know Deepak belongs to the dom community. What’s the likelihood that she’ll have anything to do with him once she knows he’s so far below her in the caste pyramid?
To many, it may seem surreal that in a world that has the internet and mobile phones, a young couple would be concerned with something as old-fashioned as caste. This, however, is the complex terrain in which director Neeraj Ghaywan and screenwriter Varun Grover have set Masaan. Here, old and new are constantly sparking against each other, like flint and steel. Nothing gives way, nothing seems to move, and yet time and life pass by.
Masaan is about five unremarkable residents of Varanasi. In stark contrast to Deepak and Shaalu’s endearing romance is Devi (Richa Chadda), who decides to have sex with her boyfriend because she’s curious to know what it’s like. That plan, as the film’s trailer shows, goes horrifically wrong when the police interrupt the couple. Inspector Mishra (Bhagwan Tiwari) takes a video of a barely-dressed Devi and threatens to put it up on YouTube if Devi and her father Vidyadhar don’t cough up Rs 3 lakhs in three months.
Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra) is a retired Sanskrit teacher who now sells religious bric-a-brac to make a living. This is a staggering amount for him, but what choice does he have? His only way of earning that money appears to be the little boy Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni), who offers to win Vidyadhar some cash by entering a dubious diving competition.
These five lives don’t intersect, but they’re connected by the shared feeling of being trapped in Varanasi. This is poignantly ironic when you keep in mind that Hindus believe death in this pilgrimage centre promises the soul liberation from the karmic cycle. In life though, freedom comes at a steep cost in Varanasi.
Winner of two prestigious prizes at Cannes Film Festival, Masaan belongs to the growing tribe of Indian independent films that have garnered praise and accolades in the foreign film festival circuit. Like Court and Titli, it presents viewers with a view of India that is solidly rooted in reality and feeds the current curiosity that the rest of the world has about contemporary Indian society. From the dialect in which Deepak speaks with his family to Shaalu’s pristine Hindi accent, Devi’s desire and Inspector Mishra’s guiltless corruption, Masaan presents a snapshot of everyday India. Depending on where you live and your social circle, it’s both familiar and exotic in its normalcy.
The only difference? Few of us have cinematographer Avinash Arun’s gifted eye with which to see our world.
Arun’s camera is a silent but powerful storyteller in Masaan. The restraint and elegance of his camerawork is one of the reasons that the film’s flaws aren’t as glaring as they could have been. Arun, who directed Killa, lends intimacy to every frame. He uses reflections, blurs and contrasts to show Varanasi’s charm without prettifying it. In one scene, we’re shown Varanasi at night, lit up brilliantly for Durga Puja. The sky is inky and the city looks almost as though it’s burning like a pyre because of those frenzied lights. Two red balloons, so delicate and so hopeful, float up. They don’t quite get away from the city, but they rise and your heart soars for them even though you know that sooner rather than later, the balloons will burst.
The other reason to watch Masaan is debutant Vicky Kaushal, who delivers an outstanding performance as Deepak. You’ll never believe he’s not a small-town kid (he’s a Mumbaikar). Whether it’s in his solo scenes or those he shares with other actors, Kaushal is a delight. He has fantastic rapport with the extras who play his friends. His chemistry with Shweta Tripathi, who is also charming as Shaalu, will melt the hardest of hearts. There isn’t a moment when Kaushal appears to be acting, which not only makes you care about his character, but also leaves you wanting more of the Deepak-Shaalu story.
Unfortunately, in terms of the screenplay, Masaan‘s pivot isn’t Deepak but Devi, and Chadda flounders in her portrayal of this feisty but broken woman who puts up a brave face when the world seems to be closing in on her. Chadda is the one person in Masaan’s smartly-chosen cast who, with her perfectly-executed hair and make-up, looks like an actress. Especially when she has to share the frame with the fantastic Pankaj Tripathi, Chadda is woefully outplayed. Most of the time that she’s on screen, Chadda seems distant rather than stoic, which doesn’t help establish any empathy.
Chadda isn’t Masaan‘s only weakness. The plot is predictable, the screenplay has a number of contrivances, the end is laboured, and a number of the important but supporting characters (like Jhonta) lack detailing. Wonderful as the soundtrack and background score may be, the film needed silences, particularly in the emotional scenes. Yet, while it may not be flawless, Masaan is moving and for the duration of the film, it makes you forget everything but the world in which it is set.
This isn’t a film that will make you want to book a ticket to Varanasi, but it will probably make you look up the poet Dushyant Kumar and wish you’d made someone feel like a bridge that’s got a train running over it.