Masaan : Movie Review
4 stars out of 5 (Excellent)
Director : Neeraj Ghaywan
Producers : Mundra, Kashyap, Bahl, Motwane et a host of Indo-French collaborators.
Hindi (English subtitles available) , 2015
WARNING : It is not possible to discuss the merits of this film without revealing some spoilers. If you would rather watch this picture without knowing certain crucial plot points, please do so while just getting the tip-off that this is essential viewing for followers of Indian cinema - a vital socio-pathologic document coolly delivered with blunt force, and captured by world-class cinematography.
Banaras doesn't really stand a chance when it comes the nation's top film-makers , does it? From Ray's 'Aparajito' to Mehta's 'Water', this holy cradle of Hinduism has been imbrued with a decidedly unholy miasma. Employing two tracks , one a story of police corruption and victims' cowardice, and another of a young funeral-pyre attendant aspiring to be a civil engineer, Masaan will not inspire you, either, to instantly book a train to this sacred town but holy cow! it does chart a riveting story of loss and hope that mirrors the rebirthing ethos of those stony steps and waters. It neatly slices open its own layers of social milieu to reveal that while the larger whole still seems hopeless, its young rebels calmly persevere to buck the trend. Produced by Manish Mundra and the Phantom Films triumvirate of Bahl, Motwane and Kashyap, 'Masaan' marks the auspicious directorial debut of Neeraj Ghaywan. Most of India will not hear of this film, despite its international accolades and inherent caliber, but the picture will stand as an emblematic triumph of cinema neatly filtering the modern reality of an ancient epicenter.
One of the pic's strongest assets is the airy light that pleasantly suffuses its wide canvas - some such movies do work equally well even on a "small" screen but I appreciated Masaan distincty better on a 60 inch TV than on a large laptop. Cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware frames Banaras in clean composed frames that dignify its actual shabby sprawl. There's a superb night-time shot of a boat motoring through dark waters while yellow light silhouettes hives of activity along the town's shores - what's more the on-board narrative continues with similar understated beauty. A terrific medium-length static capture stands tall later in the story when a person enters a house and an uproar ensues inside but the shot maintains the visual hygiene of remaining unmoved outside the gate , gazing at the house exterior. And there's a completely soothing canvas of a boat nearing the survivors of this tale, as it traverses a beautifully sepia mirror-like surface of the Ganga.
The film kick-starts as scandalously as possible - a young lady watches porn to tutor and spur her on before she sets out, changes clothes in a public restroom hellhole and then checks into a hotel room where she is in the throes of lovemaking with another youngster - both are likely virgins whose retirement we witness - when the door is rattled and smashed open by a police inspector and his equally despicable team complete with a lady constable. The girl's hair is grabbed and pulled, a smartphone camera is shoved into her shocked face as a blackmail threat, while the half-naked bullied boy locks himself in the bathroom and commits suicide.
The cop - a shining example of moral leprosy to use a Nabokovian term, goes onto to call the girl's small-figured weak-minded father ( a retired Sanskrit professor and scholar) and demands Rs.3 lakh ($7000) in 3 months flat to silence all the authorities and media, or else he threatens he will use social media to expose the girl's embarrassing photos. The other story revolves around a youngster - Deepak - from a small-town underprivileged background and the arc of his dalliance with his sweetheart. Deepak hails from a poor family which has from centuries been in the inherited infernal job of being funeral-pyre attendants. But cracking skulls and clearing burnt debris is clearly not what he intends to do for long, as he becomes determined to be a civil engineer , apart from his sincerity in wooing a comely upper-caste maiden.
The undeclared just-below-the -surface script here narrates how the new gen calmly fights the sclerotic demeaning mores which have robbed the spirit and happiness of their ancestors. Attending to and tidying up funeral pyres his whole life only affords Deepak a meager salary and a depressing hellish job day after day year after year, and his supposedly low-caste birth and position means that he can't carry out the the luxury of courting just about any pretty girl he sees but this does not stop Deepak. On the other track, the traumatized girl Devi Pathak is initially shell-shocked as any girl would be , but steadily we see her true spine (in response to a savage blaming her in public, she retorts "Whatever we did, we BOTH did it!"). Her father persuades her to accept a measly Rs.5000 per month ($100) job from an employer who was his student ,but when she stares at him in cold anger at the recruitment table, the father says in defence - 'But look how much respect he gives us!' (obviously his daughter has moved on from the peanuts gleaned from such token respect).
I know it is easy to say that the father should have return-bullied and counter-blackmailed the inspector (any father will have sleepless nights and full-on fears of compromizing his daughter's honour in such a situation) but when push comes to shove , the real human rises above his mortal pusillanimity to blast away all stakes while cowardly men give in to littleness and say that they can't possibly risk such bravado. Others may still argue that the father - Vidhydar Pathak - does right by caving in to protect his daughter but I posit that pundits like him have laid India low down the centuries apart from allowing British and Mughal dominance (cf. Shashi Tharoor : "India contrary to popular belief is not a underdeveloped country , rather it is a highly developed nation in an advanced state of decay").
Shweta Tripathi delivers the pic's brightest ray of thespian sunshine. With a sweet, sly and wonderfully endearing physiognomy , she essays a young lady who responds to Deepak's courtship with delightful smiles ( the likes of which have few equals amongst her coevals in Indian cinema) and sporting banter. Her suitor is portrayed by Vicky Kaushal : a Punjabi in real life who did not impress the film-makers initially as the best choice for the role but in the film he's utterly convincing as a Benarasi low-born aspirant.
It may not seem most gentlemanly , especially in the context of the lecherous wolves roaming this film, when I say that I wanted to reach out and comfort the buffeted young lady - Devi - who becomes the story's biggest martyr and gutsy survivor. As Devi, Richa Chaddha is superb, delivering another first-class act after her mordant turn in 'Gangs of Wasseypur' - it's a shame that Mumbai's producers only consider her a tier-two box-office investment.
The roles of bully and victim couldn't be better embodied by Bhagwan Tiwari and Sanjay Mishra. Tiwari nails the persona of the malignant cop - I had to remind myself that this is a performance, not a recording of a real-life bad-cop . The minute Tiwari's villainous inspector would have laid eyes on the timid frowsy father, he would have swiftly known and been comfited by the realization of finding a weak target to take further advantage of, and wringing out a profitable end to this whole morbid affair. The way Tiwari stares at his wilted victim with deep annoyance, silent anger and arched eyebrows (like a piqued money-lender, a peeved school-teacher), you'd think that it is him rather than the father who deserves to be profoundly irked.
The film's several producers notwithstanding , I find Anurag Kashyap to be the true moral guardian of this film (cf. his 'Dev D' where the scandalized girl looks back and says "if my father had just comfortingly told me to forget the past and look towards the future, I would have endured"). Even before Kashyap handled direction and production, he contributed crucially to great films - an example is his script for 'Shool' : a socio-pathologic scorcher that unearths great clods of the real India. And now with his associates in Phantom Films, he somehow cobbles together the funds for worthy cinema - 'Masaan' is an Indo-French production. Debutante director Neeraj Ghaywan deserves rich accolades for the way he has utilized this chance . He shows an European aesthetic and reserve in depicting his canvas , and a fine temperament in telling a tough story without melodrama. With a producer-director team like this, it is no surprise that 'Masaan', steeped in boondocks bedrocks opaque waters malignant lawkeepers failed fathers ruptured lovers and eternally burning hells , emerges beautifully from the ashes.
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