To me Masaan (2015) didn’t give the feeling of eternal life flowing by, in its depiction its multifarious stories, set beside the silently flowing Ganges. The river is witness to a love blooming between two young people as also the death of one, it is also the witness to the promise of a new love blossoming in another city – Allahabad. However the feeling I came away with from viewing the film was one of virtual entrapment in the minds of the film’s main characters. In a world that is already connected by the internet and mobile phones, a young couple is concerned with something as old-fashioned as caste, but this is still the truth in India where modernity is but a mistaken one. This, however, is the territory in which director Neeraj Ghaywan and screenwriter Varun Grover have set Masaan, where the old and the new are constantly clashing with each other, with the director coming out of the encounter not looking too good.
Masaan revolves around the lives of five ordinary people living in present day Varanasi, the city considered by many to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Deepak, one of the protagonists, is a bright engineering student from the dom community, living off the dead on the many ghats of the city, who falls in love with Shalu a Hindi-Urdu poetry spewing upper caste girl whom he meets in a chance encounter as one of his friends try to reach out to one of Shalu’s friends. It is liking at first sight for both these young people, if not love at first sight. By employing Facebook, one of the many gifts of modernity, Deepak befriends Shalu and soon a beautiful romance seems to be in the offing. However, standing in striking contrast to Deepak and Shaalu’s pristine and pak romance (if I may use the word) is Devi’s (played by Richa Chadda) lust, when she decides to have sex with her friend Piyush because, as she tells the police later, she’s curious to know what it’s like.
The pristine romance of eye contacts and endearing looks and balloons flying away and but a teeny weeny kiss is set up against the lustful and bold sexual encounter initiated by Devi, the woman, as binaries, through which the film will try and work itself out. Both plans, as the film’s beginning shows, and as the narrative unfolds, goes awry when the police break into the couple’s room, in a raid of the shady and seedy hotel and the director trapped in age old ideas finds himself unable to depict whatever it is that he had set out to do.
The voyeuristic and greedy Inspector Mishra (Bhagwan Tiwari) takes a video of a barely-dressed Devi and threatens to put it up on YouTube as a means of shaming the girl, if Devi and her elderly father Vidyadhar don’t agree to give him a hefty bribe within three months. When Devi’s partner in crime, Piyush Agarwal is threatened with the same, he slashes his wrists open with a razor in a locked bathroom. He is soon dead, while Devi trudges alone the bylanes of her dark life in Varanasi, guilt gnawing away at her insides, as she tries to make it up to the grieving father, and at the same time trying to flee from Varanasi.
Vidyadhar Pathak (played by the excellent Sanjay Mishra), Devi’s father and also one of the five protagonists of the film, is a retired Sanskrit teacher who now sells religious bric-a-brac on the ghats to make a living. His only means of earning that huge sum appears to be the little orphan boy Jhonta, employed by him, who offers to win Vidyadhar some cash by entering a dubious diving competition at which he excels and saves the day for both father and daughter. Vidyadhar, as an initial reaction to the apparently shameful act by his daughter does beat her, but comes across as quite a progressive man, conscientious and affectionate in the latter half of the film. The director could have etched out his character a bit more.
Although the director takes up these bold issues he fails to deliver on the promise which the film makes at the beginning. Halfway through the film, he kills off the upper-caste girl Shalu – who has dared to flout societal norms by falling in love with the lower caste boy from the dom community, whose dreary life is depicted through the images of the continuously burning pyres on the ghats – as well as the boy Piyush (Devi’s sexual partner), perhaps in a bid to show that society is only too fond of blaming its women when it comes to exploring questions of sexuality. But I found it a tad bit too reductionist an approach.
The cinematic woes continue for Ghaywan as Richa Chadda is found wanting in her portrayal of the feisty but broken woman Devi, who puts up a brave front, when the world seems to be closing in on her, as she changes jobs, in a bid to put the past behind her and also to raise the money which the greedy inspector is demanding off them in exchange for a life free of scandals. As an actress, Chadda also fails to deliver when she shares the frame with the talented Pankaj Tripathi. Most of the time that she’s onscreen, Chadda seems distant rather than stoic, which the character calls for. This definitely doesn’t help establish any empathy with the film’s viewers. These five lives depicted onscreen do not intersect, but are connected via the shared feeling of entrapment in Varanasi, that is, till at the very end when Deepak meets Devi and they sail off into the sunset of the sangam at Allahabad.
Varanasi is one of the most picturesque cities in northern India, but not much of it is explored through the lens of Avinash Arun, which is surprising given that most of the action unfolds here. The story isn’t new either. The style of the dialogue delivered has a strange similarity with the ones from the film Gangs of Wasseypur, released in 2012 and already cult classic. For one, in the holy city of Varanasi the kind of language spoken by a lot of characters in the film sounds false to the ear.
The plot is predictable, the screenplay is contrived, the end is laboured – the director unable to give directions to either the plot or his characters. Some of the important but supporting characters (Safhya and Jhonta) lack detailing. Often the soundtrack and background score prove to be the saviour (for instance the poem by Dushyant Kumar, sung so soulfully by Swanand Kirkire). Yet, while it is clearly not flawless, Masaan is moving at times, when you can identify with it. But its storyline, plot, et cetera, are as ancient as the city in which it is set. I for one, did not find much to celebrate in the film.
Devapriya Sanyal is a Ph.D student at the Centre for English Studies, JNU, New Delhi, where she pursues her doctoral work on Satyajit Ray’s films. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List (2011). Her interests include world cinema, as well as Bollywood and Bengali cinema.