As human beings, I find it impossible for us to not seek closure. In every aspect of our life, there is a desire to connect all the dots and conclude. Without conclusions, we hang free, unable to move forward or finish a part of our life, a relationship or even a simple task. The greatest of closures is death which guarantees flight from every open problem. Masaan or crematorium is the home for the ultimate closure. Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut feature, deals with life in a small town – Benares; through two tales. It is about love, heartbreak, morality, casteism, small town modernity and also about closure.
Ghaywan and screenwriter Varun Grover have the two tales running side by side, interrupted by one another and intersecting only twice in the film. It is comfortably handled – one dealing with the aftermath of death and the other leading until death and the immediate heartbreak and loss it brings. The final scene where the two stories intersect is the start of a journey to Sangam. The “Sangam” of these two stories is poetic; it is the start of something new for two characters after grieving and closure.
This review contains Spoilers.
Masaan opens with a stunning prologue where two people are meeting in secrecy for sex in a hotel. It is their first time. Before leaving her house, the woman, Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda) watches porn. Like in some porn films, the woman leads the man when the couple kisses awkwardly and touches each other. They are hesitant to begin and before they can finish, they are interrupted by the police. A life ends before it is embroiled in scandal, a romance wilts. The tale becomes one about morality as corrupt cops talk about protecting morals. It becomes a tale about small town aspersions, where gossip spreads like wildfire through pliant ears and parting lips. It becomes about Devi finding closure after the death of her boyfriend. She has to find closure with her dad, Vidyadhar(Sanjay Mishra) who isn’t able to understand how she could shame him even when he has brought her up like a boy. He has given her freedom – to work, to study and be herself. He asks her why she is taking revenge on him. She replies “maa ka” – For her mother. Mishra is wonderful as the dad expressing helplessness and incomprehension in equal measure. He loves her; the love even makes a gambler out of him. We see him plead with the police, trying to negotiate and being put in his place when Inspector Mishra (Bhagwan Tiwari) tells him not to negotiate, he isn’t selling soaps but trying to save his “izzat” (honor). There’s a dark look at the small town which leaves a sad, lurid taste.
The second tale is about Deepak Chaudhary (Vicky Kaushal) and Shalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi). Deepak is a final year Civil Engineering student, whose brother and father work the Ghats, cremating the dead. He sometimes helps them, breaking skulls, assisting them with the pyres. It is difficult breaking heads. Grief hardens the skull even more than usual as we see a dead man’s father unable to break the skull. Deepak steps in. His dad though would have him step out of the Dom business, forever and so would he. It’s a typical parent-son relationship centred on aspirations. The older brother and the father have a tenuous relationship. He is still stuck in the family business. There’s jealousy that the younger brother is leaving it being but Ghaywan doesn’t explore this angle. It is one of the few open questions in this script filled with closures.
Shalu loves poetry, typically Hindi-Urdu ghazals and poetry. Deepak doesn’t know poetry but he is so in love with her, he doesn’t mind accepting that he is ignorant. She falls for the ignorance, the honesty. She is playful about it, she teases him about his ignorance, recites Dushyant Kumar and asks him if he knows of Nida Fazli knowing full well he wouldn’t. He tells he doesn’t. She loves the candour. He loves her unrestrained ways. It’s a small town love that starts with sending Facebook friend requests and is reciprocated by sending balloons in the air. It is about the sweetness of first love, beautiful and unfussy.
It is in this tale that Ghaywan and Varun Grover’s talents come out in full. While the first tale is murky and hackneyed, the second tale is buoyed by the manner in which the couple falls in love. When the couple meets at a restaurant, he tells her to let him know if any men make her cry and she replies what if he is the one who makes her cry. He replies that she still come to him. In Shalu, we find hope of something beautiful, better and it takes away any sadness that otherwise fills Deepak’s existence. On her birthday, he makes her a tape of them speaking and mixes and song unlike his friend who gives his lover a teddy bear. It’s the kind of things we do as lovers. It tugs at our strings. And when she realises that he belongs to a lower caste, she tells him that her parents are old fashioned, meaning caste matters to them but he needn’t worry, they’ll elope if it comes to that.
There’s a sub-plot with a kid, Johnta (Nikhil Sahni) who is taken care of by Vidyadhar, who likes to dive into the river and pick up coins as a sport. When father and daughter are alienated, it is through this relationship at Vidyadhar’s workplace that we see his fatherly side. It is also here that he starts to gamble, leaving his principles behind which also tells us the extent of his love for his daughter.
There’s a naturalistic look and sound to the film, shot exquisitely by Avinash Arun (who directed the stellar Marathi film Killa) and songs composed by Indian Ocean. The whole movie feels internalised. Richa Chadda is so soaked in this internalisation that the few times she is called upon to shout/cry it looks forced. At the same time, when Kaushal grieves there is no need for a dirge; he thrives in this space.
Masaan has its problems, especially with how predictable the tale is but Ghaywan directs like there hasn’t been a movie with similar themes or a predictable story. A Railway employee played by Pankaj Tripathi tells that 28 trains stop at the station and there are 68 that don’t meaning it is easy to get to the place but difficult to get out. In one scene, among many others, we realise the setting in which the story is based, how small it is. It is scenes like this that make Masaan a fantastic film filled with poetry, providing closure at many levels.