Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
Cast: Richa Chadha, Sanjay Mishra, Vicky Kaushal, Shweta Tripathi
Rating: 4 stars
There are 28 trains that stop at Varanasi and 68 that don’t, points out one Sadhyaji (played by the brilliant Pankaj Tripathi) in Masaan. “Matlab yahaan aana aasan hai, par yahan se jaana mushkil,” he says. First time director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan is a film just like that, a journey that takes you to a place you cannot completely return from. Set in Varanasi, this film shows you the town not from touristy eyes that fall on the historic ghats, the temples, the chillam smoking saadhus or the thousand diyas that float on an inky Ganges in the night. We see the place through the eyes of rebellious youngsters who are trying to change their reality in a society that doesn’t allow them to. And a hapless elderly man who is struggling to strike a fine balance between sticking to his principles and compromising on them.
The world they live in is confused too. On the one hand it is trying to embrace modern living through Facebook and smart phones among other things, but there is no escaping the caste system, the patriarchy, sexual morality, and a corruption that almost suffocates you. The issues that Masaan addresses are heavy-duty but such is the director and writer Varun Grover’s craft, that the seriousness of it all does not weigh down this movie watching experience. Even though there are moments that tear you apart, the taut storytelling and the pitch perfect acting makes it a soulful, lilting watch.
The strength of Masaan lies in its characters. A lower middle class girl in her 20s watches porn on the Internet, just before leaving for a sexual rendezvous with a boy she has only recently known. Devi, played by Richa Chaddha, is surprisingly brave for the world she belongs to. Even as her adventure has a tragic end, she has no qualms admitting to the police, read blackmailer, that the reason behind her sexual encounter was “jigyasa” (curiosity). Richa plays Devi with a dignity and strength very few actors are capable of. From body language to expressions, she grabs every bit of her character — an independent, strong willed woman, crippled only by one guilt. And when she crumbles, you crumble too.
Her relationship with her father, played by Sanjay Mishra, could well be one of the most real father-daughter equations ever captured on screen. Mishra plays a retired Sanskrit professor, who now sells trinkets on one of Varanasi’s many ghats. Their relationship is not expressed with affection, not even with a complete understanding of one another, but an eventual acceptance of what the other person is. And respecting the difference. They struggle to get there, which is what makes their relationship so tender and so real. As he battles to save family honour, Mishra’s moralities are dwindling too, which we see in the way he places bets on his little assistant Jhundwa, a boy of six or seven, who takes part in diving competitions where they excavate coins from the depths of the Ganges. Mishra elevates his character in a way only he can. There is no matching this actor’s talent.
At the film’s most tender core is the story of Deepak and Shalu played by Vicky Kaushal --- what a find! --- and a spontaneous Shweta Tripathi. Their romance is a picture of simplicity, awkwardness and candor that only a small town romance can have. Deepak, who belongs to the Dom community that cremates corpses on Harishchandra Ghat, is pursuing a degree in engineering. He takes a printout of her Facebook profile page only so he can stare at her picture. His way of expressing his attraction is telling his girl to inform him if anyone bothers her. His charm lies in his innocence. At the same time he is also conscious of his low caste, a reality he struggles to make peace with. The actor Vicky Kaushal does justice to every layer of his character, and is ably supported by Shweta.
All these lives living on the banks of the Ganges intertwine, the river gives some and the river takes away too. Things can be devastating, but there’s life after death and a life after near death. Masaan, in the end, is a picture of a fine balance. And Avinash Arun’s painterly cinematography makes it a very beautiful picture indeed. Also, among Neeraj Ghaywan’s many masterstrokes, is roping in Indian Ocean to make the film’s music. Swanand Kirkire’s stirring baritone in Tu Kisi Rail Si Guzarti Hai, Main Kisi Pull Sa Thartharata Hoon stays with you, as does Mann Kasturi Re.
Many films, mainstream and not so mainstream touch upon issues, but seldom do we see a film that is so tender and yet so overpowering. While Baahubali and Bajrangi Bhaijaan continue to be a big lure and with good reason, do make time for this quiet little gem. You won’t regret it.