If life hath a sense of humour, it be twisted, dark and deeply tragic.
No famous person said this. I did. After watching Masaan. Writer-director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan is that kind of film. It makes you want to say things. Things that sound profound to you. Things about life.
It also makes you see beauty and meaning in incomplete stories. And it makes you want to sit down, stare at the horizon while its song, by Indian Ocean, plays in your head:
Maan kasturi re…
Jag dasturi re…
Baat hui na poori re…
Its words, by Varun Grover, make you want to cry quietly. And then smile.
Set in the crammed, old town of Benaras that sits by Gangaji, Masaan, meaning crematorium, is about life, death, and the twists in between.
Written by Grover and Ghaywan, Masaan is a drama with a gentle story arch. It’s about small but incredibly appealing people, and their small but heartbreaking attempts at grabbing some happiness.
Masaan is about Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and his Domar family who live off cremation on Harishchandra Ghat. Deepak, who is studying civil engineering, is in love with upper-caste Shaalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi) who likes Nida Fazli’sshayari.
It’s about Devi Pathak (Richa Chadha) who works at a coaching centre, earning Rs 12,000. She wears dark coloured kurtas, all with lining, so that even the faint contours of her body are not visible. But she’s bold and wilful.
Devi won’t apologise for seeking pleasure, or for the cost of quenching herjigyasa. She’ll live with guilt, but she won’t let a taunt pass.
Masaan is also about her father, Vidyasagar Pathak (Sanjay Mishra). A formeradhyapak, he now runs a small puja samagri shop on one of the many disputed ghats and does translation work.
Linked to him is little Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni). We know where he works, but we don’t know where he stays. We see him dressed up just once, when he goes to the railway station to see off his Didi. Vidyasagar and Jhonta’s relationship is of father-son, of employer-employee. It’s both, and it’s more.
Masaan is also about Piyush Agarwal, a student from Allahabad, and how a single, consensual, rather exciting encounter, much planned and practiced in two heads, can change lives. Forever.
Masaan is also about that other masaan, the other crematorium and the real Dom Raja — Inspector Mishra (Bhagwan Tiwari). A corrupt and exploitative cop, he thrives on threat and fear, and lives off the dead and the living.
The film is also about the gentle, sweet Safhya Ji (Pankaj Tripathi), Devi’s colleague, who heals her and helps her embrace herself again.
Masaan is about two love stories. How each one ends. Cruelly. And how new ones may begin, inexplicably. It’s also about how all these lives are tied together — by fire, water, rail, and Gangaji.
Masaan is beautifully written in all its aspects — story, characters, dialogue, songs. While using silence brilliantly, its words give us a pulsating snapshot of life.
Shot mostly on location in the small town of Benaras, cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware very intelligently uses Gangaji, the film’s protagonist, to lend the film and the people it’s about an expansiveness — of life, and its possibilities.
Its characters, defined and illuminated by little gestures, are not bursting to grab life. In fact, their fates seem sealed. But they are all gently coaxing life, one sweep of an oar at a time, to let them go, to set them free.
Superb writing is complimented by fantastic performances and Indian Ocean’s music that’s both haunting and rousing.
Richa Chadha is almost frugal in her expressions. Precise, controlled and powerful, she creates a character with very little. We don’t know her Devi very well, but we can feel her in every single scene — her seething and bristling seeps into our bones.
Sanjay Mishra has finally found his groove. It probably began with Rajat Kapoor’sAnkhon Dekhi. He’s now in the zone and it’s a pleasure to watch him.
Vicky Kaushal and Shweta Tripathi are the sparklers of Masaan. They light up the often bleak film with their small talk and give it a lovely, poignant rhythm.
Though I liked them all, my favourite was Nikhil Sahni’s Jhonta. He’s a boy to watch out for.
Masaan has won some big awards. All very well deserved. But it’d like to propose a toast to Indian Ocean, Varun Grover and Swanand Kirkire for their song Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main kisi pul sa thar-tha-rata hoon… Inspired by a Dushyant Kumar poem, it’s been playing in my head on a loop since I watched the film.