Death looms large in first-time director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. The film, whose title means ‘crematorium’, unfolds in the holy city of Varanasi by the banks of the Ganges, on whose ghats dozens of cremations take place side by side every day, the flaming pyres barely separated from each other by a few feet. Featuring two parallel stories, each quietly devastating, Masaan is as lyrical as it is heartbreaking, concerned as much with love as it is with loss.
The first story features Richa Chadha as Devi, whose sexual encounter with a lover in a seedy hotel room is busted by cops. The senior officer on the case proceeds to extort money from her father (Sanjay Mishra) for burying the scandal. The old man, a former teacher who now runs a small shop selling odds and ends at the ghats, finds his moral compass wavering faced with the pressure to meet the policeman’s demands.
In the second story, Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), a low-caste Dom whose family cremates dead bodies by the ghats, falls in love with Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), a girl from an upper caste family. Their innocent, awkward romance unfolds over long bike rides, and an appreciation for poetry.
The protagonists of both stories represent a younger, technologically savvy generation that’s unwilling to be constricted by societal barriers of gender and caste in their pursuit of happiness. Chadha plays Devi as a strong-willed young woman, neither afraid nor apologetic for her actions, only wracked by guilt over the way things turn out for her lover. Shaalu, while revealing that her parents will never allow her to marry Deepak, reassures him that she’ll elope with him if pushed against the wall. An engineering student, Deepak himself is searching for a way to escape his lineage…a life shoveling corpses.
Varun Grover’s nuanced script and Ghaywan’s assured filmmaking offers us a real insider’s look at the city, much more textured and authentic than the typical ‘touristy’ portrayal of Varanasi that most Hindi films tend to offer. Avinash Arun’s evocative camerawork, and stirring tracks by Indian Ocean (exquisitely worded by Grover) draw you into this compelling world where modernity and tradition are in constant clash.
Masaan puts its characters through the wringer, and yet, admirably, melodrama is at its minimal. Raising pressing questions about sexual repression, gender and caste inequalities, repentance and redemption, the film leaves you pondering its many themes. I was a tad disappointed by the contrived final scene – a neat tying-up of loose ends – that belies the very larger truth of the film, that not all stories have happy, hopeful endings.
But those are minor quibbles in an otherwise deeply affecting film that is brought to life by its remarkable cast, particularly Sanjay Mishra, Richa Chadha and terrific new-find Vicky Kaushal.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Masaan. There are multiple layers to this well-observed drama; kudos to the filmmakers for putting it on screen.