Masaan review: This Cannes winner is a beautiful, poignant portrait of a small-town India

Gayatri Gauri

Jul,24 2015 07:53 58 IST

There are two locations that serve as powerful backdrops for a quintessentially Indian story. One is Kashmir, the other is the river Ganga.

Masaan (meaning “crematorium”) might just have been as forgettable as any average story, had it not been for the Ganga and the river banks of the holy city of Varanasi that witness life and death. For India, the Ganga is no ordinary river. It has beauty, mystique and sacred significance. If used well, it can also be a most powerful character.

Neeraj Ghaywan, debut director of Masaan, understands this and has woven it intimately into Varun Grover’s tight screenplay. Several crucial moments swirl around the Ganga, beautifully shot without succumbing to visual exotica, and after you leave the cinema, they linger in your memory, like the flames dying slowly in the cremation grounds where so much of Masaan unfurls.

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Richa Chadha in Masaan. Image from IBN Live.

The film opens with Devi (Richa Chadda) watching porn on her computer during the day. Soon, she leaves her dowdy room, dressed in salwar kameez and carrying a backpack. She changes into a sari at a public toilet (Sulabh Shauchalay, no less) and meets Piyush (Saurabh Chadhary). They’re obviously posing as a young couple when they rent a cheap hotel room.

Inside, with curtains drawn, the two stand, shy and awkward. Within seconds, they are in bed, in the throes of what is obviously their first passionate, sexual encounter. And then, the cops start banging on the door.

Why would two lovers be threatened by the cops, as if caught in a prostitution racket? Because the police is part of the moral brigade and more than willing to take advantage of the public shame and ignominy that surrounds premarital sex.

Devi’s father, Vidyadhar Pathak (Sanjay Misra), a respected former Sanskrit teacher who sells religious wares on the banks of Ganga, is summoned to the police station and told his daughter was caught having sex and that her reason for her shameful act is “jigyasa” (curiosity or questioning).

Ghaywan and Grover do not justify Devi’s behaviour with an emotional love story, which makes Masaan an honest statement about the dilemma of youth trapped in small-town, moral hypocrisy. While Devi and her father are blackmailed by Inspector Misra (Bhagwan Tiwari), Devi is racked with personal guilt and largely unconcerned by her reputation. Chadda, who made an impressive mark in Gangs of Wasseypur, falters at times, in her challenging portrayal of Devi who is written as a fascinating combination of vulnerability, rebelliousness and strength.

A parallel romantic track provides relief from Devi’s tense life. We meet engineering student Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), from a low caste Dom family of corpse burners. He falls in love with Shaalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi), who is chirpy, feisty and from a high caste. Caste is pushed aside as an immensely sweet romance – flavoured with Facebook and long phone conversations – follows. Both Kaushal and Tiwari deliver wonderfully realistic portrayals of two small-town kids. Watch out for the simple exchange when she says hurriedly “bye-bye” and he says, equally fast, “hello-hello” in a bid to take their budding relationship to the next level.

What follows is not entirely unexpected, given Deepak’s family background. It’s the treatment after a significant turning point that actually makes Masaan stand out as a mature tale that weaves in the idea of Varanasi as a city of pilgrims, with the constant rush and flow of the Ganges and the real pilgrimage of life.

While the lead cast of Kaushal, Chadda and Mishra are commendable, the gems of Masaan are in the supporting cast. Shweta Tripathi with her perfect UP accent and naughty smile. Bhagwan Tiwari as the blackmailing cop who can scowl and smirk with equal intensity. Pankaj Tripathi as the colleague who is equally in love with his father’s home-made kheer and Devi. Nikhil Sahni as the kid who can abuse and rescue the elderly Sanskrit teacher like a pro. Adding the final touch of magic to the film are the soundtrack and Grover’s poignant, poetic lyrics.

While the narrative gets contrived in its effort to tie the parallel plots together, there are moments by the Ganges that lift the film a couple of notches. Watch out for Deepak and his friends, getting drunk on the river bank, while a train with lit compartments is seen at a distance. Deepak, who has been introduced to poetry by Shaalu, recites, “Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main pull sa thartharata hoon…”.

That sweet moment when Deepak and Shweta exchange their first kiss by the Ganga will bring out the romantic in the hardest of hearts. You’ll remember it later when Deepak throws a ring into the river. There’s a pathetic moment when a little boy dives into the Ganga, risking his life in a competition to retrieve coins from the riverbed, and Pathak gives up his morals and bets on the boy, hoping to make the money he needs to save his daughter’s life.

And finally, the moment when the film ends with a lovely, light piece of uplifting conversation at the river Sangam in Allahabad — when life, it turns out, is a memorable journey.

Go on, take a dip in Masaan’s waters.

Published Date: Jul 24, 2015 07:53 AM | Updated Date: Jul 24, 2015 07:54 AM