Masaan turns 5: How Neeraj Ghaywan-Varun Grover’s film tries to break the cycle of caste, gender discrimination
Watching Masaan for the first time, it’s Vicky Kaushal who instantly impresses. He imbues the film with its narrative momentum, and walks away with all the compelling emotional bits.
The Doms — the custodians of the ghats in Varanasi — continue to burn the bodies of locals to free them from the cycle of rebirth. Despite the fear of coronavirus infection. Despite the UP government refusing to provide them monthly rations. Despite the Indian caste system having reduced their community to corpse-burners for generations. Until five years ago, the Doms were not represented in popular media discourse, Bollywood or otherwise. That changed with Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan, a story which humanised them in a dehumanising system.
In a screenplay written by Varun Grover, Masaan individualised their struggle through the story of Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), an ambitious engineering student like any other. When Deepak falls in love with the upper-caste Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), he initially refuses to tell her about his caste. Shaalu doesn't care of course, and even has the courage to elope: “Bhaag ke jaana hoga na, toh bhaag bhi lenge,” she asserts.
The Varanasi of Masaan presents the unstable co-existence of tradition and modernity, the sacred and the profane: the world where the young who connect on Facebook readily overcome the caste barriers collides with the world of their parents unable to overcome the conditioning of a long-established social hierarchy. This leads to inevitable confrontations and these are key to the film's enduring power.
In Masaan's parallel storyline, Devi (Richa Chadha) and her lover Piyush are caught in a hotel room by police out on a morality raid. While Piyush panics and kills himself in the bathroom, a barely clothed Devi is filmed by a policeman on his phone. Devi's father Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra) is forced to pay hush money to the policeman to prevent his daughter from bringing dishonour to his family. Vidyadhar turns to betting, exploiting the diving skills of an orphaned child Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni). It starts off as a disconnected subplot but soon takes on a distinct meaning and rhythm of its own.
Ghaywan weaves a stunning cinematic tapestry around Varanasi without fetishising the city like a glossy travelogue. He allows us to experience the fractured quality of its modern city life like we were living in it. In the river Ganga, he finds a representation of life in a constant flux and state of permanence at the same time. On its banks are economies of those forced to live their lives on the margins. Like the river, the holy city too surges and swoons in the struggle to dissolve its moral decay.
In Masaan, they say you must visit Sangam twice: once alone and once with someone else. The film itself deserves revisiting a few times too. Watching Masaan for the first time, it’s Vicky Kaushal who instantly impresses. He imbues the film with its narrative momentum, and walks away with all the compelling emotional bits. He is completely unafraid to showcase Deepak's fragility, as he is rendered powerless by Shaalu's untimely death. But on repeated viewings, you come to truly appreciate Richa Chadha's performance. Often in Devi's quiet moments of reflection, the passivity in her face makes you wonder if Chadha is really acting. But her fogged-in demeanour signals she’s thinking a lot more than she’s saying. Turning this sense of withholding into an asset, she makes us wish we knew what it was. By minimising her own voice and presence, Chadha also captures the physical reality of being a woman in a traditional Indian town.
What makes Devi such a compelling character is she is unapologetic about expressing her sexuality. In the opening scene, she passively watches porn for instruction. When the police ask her why she went to a hotel room with a boy, she answers: “jigyasa” (out of curiosity). For Devi, the body becomes a weapon of sexual emancipation from the arbitrary constraints decreed by society. If she must free herself from the corset of “chhotee shahar, chhotee soch”, she must battle three patriarchal bodies: the belief system that strongly discourages, even prohibits, premarital sex; the family unit that shackles women in the name of honour; and the morally corrupt justice system, which enforces tradition like it were the law. In Masaan, the body is beaten, bloodied and burnt to uphold it.
If sex is a curiosity, death is an inevitability. For Devi, Piyush's death is the starting point. For Deepak, death is a family business but he understands its true cost only on Shaalu's death. Coming to terms with death gives them both a new lease on life. Shaluu's unexpected death may feel like it was hot-wired to link Deepak and Devi's fates. But it brings to light a larger tragedy of their shared oppression.
Varanasi is often considered the tirtha that connects heaven and earth. So, being cremated in the city frees the soul from the endless cyclicality of life, death and rebirth. Devi and Deepak are trapped in vicious cycles of their own: be it gender or caste. So, the film ends on a hopeful note, suggesting they can break each other's cycles. Their chance meeting thus becomes a symbolic one. Perhaps there’s a message in it for civil rights movements to embrace intersectionality. The feminist and Dalit rights campaigns should not be mutually exclusive, but a coalition effort for mutual empowerment.
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