Masaan: The Sacred, the Profane and Everything in Between
Masaan, Neeraj Ghyawan’s debut film, is an exploration of age-old contrasts and, therefore, of change
Sonali Ghosh Sen Delhi
According to Hindu tradition, cremation is the final rite of passage of life. The ghats of Varanasi are considered among the most auspicious locations for this ritual. They are the final resting place for the dead.
In Masaan, director Neeraj Ghyawan’s debut film set in Varanasi, the cycle of birth, life and death is played out through its characters and its plot.
A character in the movie says about Varanasi: “Yahan 28 train rukti hai or 68 jo nahin…. Matlab yahaan aana aasan hai, par yahan se jaana mushkil hai.” That translates to: “Here, only 28 trains halt but as many as 68 don’t; that means, it’s easy to get here but difficult to get out of here.” People from far and wide go to Varanasi to cremate their dead, but what of the people of Varanasi itself? In a city that offers liberation from this life to those who’ve passed away, the living are imprisoned in the whirlpools of their own moribund traditions. They struggle to live lives that are filled with contrasts, as all our lives are. Even as the pyres burn on the river, the town’s inhabitants are living their lives of love, loss, repression, rebellion, guilt and redemption.
Devi’s (Richa Chaddha) romantic tryst with Piyush ends tragically, when the police burst into their seedy hotel room and videotape the couple. An ashamed Piyush kills himself. It’s this death that will weigh on Devi and on her father, Vidyadhar Pathak (Sanjay Mishra). The threats of blackmail and ‘dishonour’ shadow them through the film.
In another part of town, Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) wants to escape his circumstances. He is born into the lower caste ‘Dom’ community and hopes that his engineering degree will be a way out of society’s oppression. He falls in love with Shalu (Shweta Tripathi), a girl from a higher caste. “Ho hum,” a viewer might say, because this is a plot line that viewers have seen played out in films countless times. But that’s where Masaan springs a surprise and refuses to fall prey to Bollywood’s favourite trope. The film has created protagonists who, with a quiet dignity, challenge norms and conventions.
Masaan’s world is one on the cusp of change, in which the younger generation is waiting to embrace a sort of casteless and classless modernity, while the older one is baffled by the need for change. For example, Devi’s father can’t understand why she is not ashamed of her romantic tryst. Masaan gently guides viewers through the changes in its characters’ graphs. The film skillfully shows the breaching of social and gender barriers and the manner in which people like Pathak redefine ‘morals’. This film’s world is one of stark contrasts; the past and the present, the innocent and the corrupt, and the holy and the unholy. The river may be sacred, but for the oppressed people from the Dom community, it’s just a means of livelihood. Even as they smash the skulls of dead bodies – as is their job – on the banks of the river, their children dive into the waters to fish out money thrown in by pilgrims. In this world, technology is a double-edged sword. It plays hero but it also plays villain. For example, technology is an escape – a window into a freer world – for Devi, but the same technology becomes a tool to blackmail and humiliate her and her father.
In a character-driven plot, Kaushal shines as Deepak. A mere smile from him conveys whole emotions. Silences speak volumes. Shalu’s and Deepak’s romance is so palpable that it brings back memories of viewers’ long-forgotten first loves. You empathise with Devi’s journey even though her character – from the start – is far from endearing. In the beginning, she internalises all her anger but her façade cracks once in a while and you see the hurt yet determined woman behind the indifference. Mishra’s nuanced portrayal of a traditional father has you rooting for him even if you might have initially despised everything he stood for.
The film’s music, composed by Indian rock band Indian Ocean, and Swanand Kirkire’s mellifluous voice seamlessly contribute to the narrative.
This is a story that could be set in any small town, but by setting it in Varanasi, Varun Grover’s screenplay gains heft, because the Varanasi of real life is exactly the film’s Varanasi. Allusions to the town’s forgotten poets, the use of small town colloquialisms and scenes shot on the river itself give the film an authenticity that’s hard to manufacture.
Masaan’s promo promised viewers “life, death….and everything in between” and the film lives up to that promise. There is joy in the small moments, hope in the city of the dead and a celebration of life. And the film resolves its plots gently, just like the serene confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati.