Masaan, the directorial debut of Neeraj Ghaywan, who assisted Anurag Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur, comes to mainstream theatres with great pedigree including two honours at Cannes.
Masaan, naturally, isn’t a ‘Bollywood’ film. It is Indian film, the dwindling cache that you normally get to watch at film festivals or on DVDs.
And Masaan doesn’t disappoint. Set (as with most indie films) in small-town India, it pans right into lives of its characters without any frills.
Masaan is also a disturbing movie. With the cremation grounds of Benares as its backdrop, it has a palpable tension all through its narrative about two disjointed protagonists.
One is Devi (Richa Chadda), the daughter of Vidyadhar Pathak (Sanjay Mishra), a Sanskrit professor and now translator-turned-shopkeeper. The other is Deepak Chaudhary (Vicky Kaushal), the son of an undertaker, and an engineering student, who helps out his dad and brother in managing the pyres.
A moment of indiscretion by Devi leads her into big trouble (that is how the film starts, taking you straight into its emotional vortex). Her dad’s honour is challenged and to get over it, they need to pacify a corrupt cop. Through all this, Masaan scores in its lack of melodrama and underplay of emotions.
The silent rage of Vidyadhar and how their father-daughter relationship plays out, including a subtext on Devi’s anguish about the death of her mother who was left unattended by her dad, are masterly told.
On a parallel track goes the life of Deepak, who falls in love with an ‘upper caste’ girl – the poetry loving and angelic Shaalu (Swheta Tripathi). Their blossoming romance, perhaps, is a high point of the film, if only for its honest-to-core depiction.
One moment will particularly linger on: the visual of two helium balloons, bought by these star-crossed lovers in their first meeting, soaring over a festive town. It is sheer cinematic brilliance.
While Neeraj and writer Varun Grover weave a splendid setting for the film, the going gets laboured when they attempt to wrap it up. As they say, the biggest killer of any film that is ‘non-filmy’ is ‘coincidence.’
Big life-turning moments that we can effortlessly swallow in commercial masala films become unpalatable and abrupt in indie films. So it is that a key plot point arrives in Masaan. You can also almost predict it happening – taking away a good chunk of the film’s soul. Suddenly the film’s time-line too becomes questionable.
Set aside such plot compromises and what you have in Masaan is a multilayered film that derives its life from its setting. The pain and anguish of the characters (especially the side-bar story of Deepak’s brother who is condemned to live his life as an undertaker), the persistent hung-over of death, the catharsis of Deepak and Devi, the moral dilemma of Vidyadhar, the sub-text on casteism –they are all are woven in incredibly well.
Of the cast, Vicky Kaushal makes the most definitive impression. His nuanced portrayal, especially the moment he breaks down before his friends, shows such promising talent that must not go waste. Richa Chadda is impressive in an author-backed role, while Sanjay Mishra proves that great theatre talent thrives in India.
Another ‘living’ character of the movie is its music by Indian Ocean that takes you along the emotional contours of the characters.
Masaan makes Indian cinema proud. But does it traverse into the territory of Indian greats is questionable because it succumbs to the offence of coincidence and a false need to tie all loose ends.
Starring: Richa Chadda, Sanjay Mishra & Vicky Kaushal
Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan