By the end, Masaan (“Cremation Ground”) was very different from the film I thought I was watching after the first fifteen minutes: the opening sequence, involving a sexual encounter violated and sullied by policemen intent on cruelty and extortion, is one of the most riveting, and nauseating, representations of the police in years (only the sequence in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly (2014), where the father of a missing girl tries to register a missing person-complaint, comes close). I was filled with loathing, and wanted to hurt someone. That feeling stayed with me – Bhagwan Tiwari as Inspector Mishra has an important and continuing role over the course of the film – but Masaan turned out to be about something other than misogyny or the workings of a corrupt and oppressive state machine. What that something is I’m not quite sure, but in its moodiness, its air of mystery, its poetry, I am confident Masaan heralds the arrival of an exciting, reflective new directorial talent in Neeraj Ghaywan. To the extent Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) may be said to have spawned successors, Masaan is among the worthies.
At one level, the film is a coming-of-age story, a genre that relies on assumptions that the protagonists will be typical in some way (the Lover; the Student; the Prince; even with Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, a category – the Artist – is immediately and explicitly invoked). But Masaan, like Udaan, wraps the bildungsroman into a narrative of exception: Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) seems like a typical Polytechnic student in Varanasi, until you appreciate that he is from the Dom caste, traditionally associated with cremating dead bodies on the Varanasi ghats – as caste hierarchies go, it’s hard to think of anyone lower down the totem pole. But Deepak’s father has ensured an education for him, one that estranges him from the family’s traditional profession (the estrangement personified by his sullen brother Sikandar, who hasn’t been able to do what Deepak has done) – it’s not an impossible story, merely a remarkable one. Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda), the young Brahmin woman who, along with her father, is ensnared by the police in a manufactured sex scandal and resulting extortion, is remarkable for her inner strength and poise: her conviction that she has done nothing wrong seems unshakeable, not only in the face of sexual predators who want to sleep with her because, well, she’s done it once before with someone else, but also in private, before her father.
A story about the coming of age of two people who are self-consciously atypical is not a problem per se (Ghaywan and writer Varun Grover are surely entitled to tell any tale of their choosing), but does raise wider questions of meaning. That the stakes are higher than those involved in the story of two remarkable young people is not in doubt, given the metaphysics of death and re-birth self-consciously deployed by the film. And there is Varanasi itself, loaded with meaning (and its ghats wonderfully shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun), sought by both the pilgrims and tourists who visit (the former are obligated to go in some sense, out of religious duty, but even the latter – of whom I was one for five memorable days in 2009 at a small guesthouse near the Kashi Vishwanath temple – are convinced that they are visiting a special place, one like no other: the city’s proximity to death has by now become a cliché, although no less true for it).
Perhaps that is the place to begin: is the cremation ground of the film’s title Harishchandra Ghat, where Deepak’s family lives and where it plies its trade? It might be the city itself, where dying can sometimes seem easier than living (recall the opening sequence, at the end of which Piyush kills himself; Devi is stronger, and it’s clear that option has never occurred to her). The parallels between the two leads might offer some clues: the fathers of both, albeit at opposite ends of the caste spectrum, make their living from death and the rituals associated with it, on the banks of the Ganges (Devi’s father is a pandit and former professor of Sanskrit who now advises people on post-death rituals; Deepak’s family cremates corpses); both Devi and Deepak have had lovers from Bania backgrounds (Aggarwal for her; Gupta for him); both work for Indian Railways at some point (indeed the rail as metaphor for arrivals and departures is a recurring motif in the film); both are born into families at the end of a long tradition, but one that doesn’t sustain them any longer, and is instead something to get away from, its weight felt like that of a carcass. On this reading the Masaan of the film’s title might be the milieu itself: life, if it is to be, must be elsewhere.
Away from the two leads, Masaan gets plenty other things right: a host of other characters populate the film, and just about every one – ranging from Deepak’s friends to the man who baldly and offensively propositions Devi to Deepak’s lover Shaalu to the foul-mouthed boy Jhonta who works with Devi’s father, to Piyush’s mother, and the two leads’ fathers– is well-etched and aptly cast. They seem like people who might be real, and are very far from types. Deepak’s friends are a case in point: in most other films (especially multiplex films, where middle-class men have increasingly been stereotyped as little better than swine – the charming Queen offers a great example in Raj Kumar Rao’s character, who is not just awful but awful in a way that suggests he is meant to stand in for a whole class of Indian male) they might be stereotypical louts or lechers; here they are awkward but well-meaning, and surprise us with their sensitivity. (Don’t get me wrong, Masaan isn’t short of assholes, it’s just that the film represents many more hues than one.) Nor is the caste angle one-dimensional, with privileged upper-castes on the one hand and the Doms on the other: the latter’s lot is grim, but in Devi’s father and his pathetic feebleness before Inspector Mishra, we also encounter how wretched upper-caste poverty can be as well (indeed at one point Vidyadhar Pathak naively mumbles that he thought he could rely on the Inspector’s sympathy – “Mishra” is also a Brahmin last name – only to be met with derision). No position atop the Hindu caste hierarchy will save the Pathaks: only money will.
Vicky Kaushal makes the role of Deepak his own, in a winning performance that brought more than one smile to my face: his shyness is irresistible, and his wooing of Shaalu more disarmingly natural than any number of representations of boys from the “Hindi heartland” over the last decade (compare this to Vivek Oberoi crooning Lionel Richie songs in Omkara and you’ll appreciate what a condescending representation is all about). But the most arresting acting in the film comes from Richa Chadda, who uses inscrutability as both woman’s shield and weapon in this film: her tightly impassive face conveys in precisely the proportion that it conceals (indeed, one might even criticize the film for making too much of this: Devi’s motivations are all but opaque, not only to her father but also to us, and perhaps even to the director), and compels attention. Not to mention that she is insanely hot; the combination means great screen presence (oddly enough not showcased as well in Gangs of Wasseypur as here, or in Fukrey or in a blink-and-miss role in the Indian TV version of 24) that anchors Masaan. Someone get her more roles!
Masaan only features three tracks, but each is memorable: Indian Ocean’s soulful music works very well here, not least because each song serves primarily as vehicle for very fresh lyrics. Varun Grover’s adaptation of Dushyant Kumar’s poem is unforgettable and jarring – I don’t think I’ve gotten over these most odd of romantic lyrics, in “Tu kisi rail si guzartee hai / Mein kisi pul sa thartharaata hoon”; Grover does even better with the simple “Mann kasturi re / Jag dastoori re / Baat hui na pooree re”, and Sanjeev Sharma’s lyrics in “Bhor” are also very good. Perhaps what I enjoyed was also the feeling that here were writers who like the rhythms of spoken Hindi in Eastern U.P., who are able to make poetry from a very popular and unpretentious idiom (another quality that links Masaan to Udaan).
In Masaan, leaving is no clean break (and not just because, as Devi’s Railways colleague Sadhya (Pankaj Tripathi) tells her, 26 trains stop at Benares, but 64 don’t, showing that it is easy to get to the city, but hard to leave): the Ganges is the site not just of death but of rebirth, and the films closing sequences make that explicit: Devi and Deepak achieve some kind of closure by casting the last physical objects tying them to their dead lovers into the water, and then meet each other and embark on a journey that signifies a beginning on the same river. (The connection has already been foreshadowed: the ring Deepak casts away, then tries to find but cannot, ends up, unknown to Devi, playing a crucial role in her liberation.) Kashi must be fled, but only with what Kashi gave you, with traces of what Kashi took away.