An Uncomfortable Intersection of the Past and the Present: A Review of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan

The Triveni Sangam—a confluence of three rivers—at Allahabad, features prominently in two scenes of Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut, Masaan. Courtesy Loudspeaker Media
26 July, 2015

It seems more than a mere coincidence that the Triveni Sangam—a confluence of three rivers—at Allahabad, features prominently in two scenes of Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut, Masaan. The film is an intersection of three stories and the central tension in each of these stories is informed by an intersection too: that of two distinct Indian lifestyles—old and new, regressive and progressive—coexisting with one another. In Masaan’s Varanasi, fragments of modernity arrive unannounced and feel unwelcomed, like a sombre teetotaler gatecrashing a party of unintelligible drunkards.

During one of the initial scenes in the film, a cop intimidates the retired college professor Vidyadhar Pathak (Sanjay Mishra), into coughing up Rs 3 lakhs. Failure to do so, the policeman informs Pathak, would result in the release of a video clip featuring his daughter—that wrongly frames her as a prostitute—on YouTube. “You do understand smartphone and YouTube,” the cop asks Vidyadhar, “don’t you?” A visibly shaken Pathak replies, “I do.”

A little later in the film, Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) visits a cyber café with three friends to look up the Facebook profile of Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), a girl he has fallen in love with at first sight. “Gupta-jihain (She’s a Gupta),” exclaims a friend, referring to the girl’s upper caste. “Kya baat hai (Fantastic).” Deepak, who belongs to Dom—a scheduled caste—doesn’t reply, simply smiles. The banter moves on merrily, interjected by Deepak’s bashful approval as his friend coaxes him into creating an account on Facebook—a new, strange world oblivious to this caste system—that will allow him to message Shaalu and momentarily abandon the restrictive social barriers he has grown up with. The film uses these easy and accessible markers of modernity—smartphones, Facebook and YouTube—to explore how identities can be reinvented, dwarfing notions of caste and class. It’s this world that is knocking on the doors of Deepak, Vidyadhar and Devi (Richa Chaddha). It’s this world that promises to both liberate and obliterate them.

The most fascinating aspect of Masaan’s central characters, Devi and Deepak in particular, is not their yearning to escape, but the indifference they display to their destinations. Deepak aspires to settle in a place where he’s employed, casteless, and not crushing charred skulls. Devi has a more specific destination in mind; she wants to move to Allahabad. However, her choice of city is incidental, it is a place she decides upon by searching for a particular college course. Like Deepak, Devi is more interested in leaving, less in arriving. So Masaan’s other pressing question, one also posited, in parts, by Ghaywan’s mentor Vikramaditya Motwane in Udaan that was released in 2010, is this: What is it about an Indian small town that drives some of its people over the edge, compels them to leave?

It’s not because their ambitions outsize their town, Masaan seems to suggest, but because it doesn’t offer anonymity, doesn’t soothe shame, doesn’t allow the future to override the past. None of the characters in Masaan are driven by conventionally high-reaching goals, but they aspire for a life in which they are not constantly questioning themselves or being questioned, where their past doesn’t always eat into their present. Devi’s audacity, of being an independent woman trying to figure out lust and love, demands a huge price—both literally and otherwise—and hounds her at places of work. Vidyadhar assuages his guilt of having—the film seems to hint but not really state—failed as a husband by becoming both a liberal father and a caring father figure to a preteen boy named Jhonta (Nikhil Saini). Meanwhile Deepak is intent on ensuring that one version of his present, in which he is bound to the restrictions of his caste and his profession as a cremator, doesn’t meet the other, where he goes on dates and dares to fall in love with a girl who belongs to a higher caste.

Masaan follows three stories and four characters, and one part smoothly cuts to the next, without impinging upon the film’s mood or rhythm. It’s an impressive achievement, considering the layers within each story. However, there are a few important transitions in the film that feel hurried. When Deepak and Shaalu meet for the first time, their conversation is marked by visible hesitation and playful tension. In this world, where Deepak has taken a daring leap by falling in love, you expect such moments of indecision between the two to live for a little longer.

Instead, during Deepak and Shaalu’s second encounter, which takes place amid the festivities of Durga Puja, the quasi-awkwardness of their first meeting seems to have been smoothened over against the backdrop of the song Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai. The song is beautiful and of considerable emotional heft, but the admission of longing it strives to represent in the film feels hasty. The sequence, nevertheless, makes for interesting viewing as Deepak sidles up to Shaalu through measured glances and Facebook messages over the course of a few days.

Even later in the film, when Deepak is coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, a spate of meditative scenes underscores his sorrow and despair. But his character’s most defining transition—shaking off the unending loop of agony and internalising that being less unhappy is also a conscious choice—materialises with unexpected ease and leaves you slightly dissatisfied.

Having said that, Masaan does not compromise on its ambition and takes its chances. The film’s storytelling is rarely uni-dimensional, and if horror exists in this world, then so does humour. For some time now, several offbeat Hindi films such as Ugly, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and Lootera—brimming with interesting conceits and well-written acts in the beginning—have often floundered in their final moments, failing to realise their true power. So you hope a film like Masaan, which gets many difficult directorial choices spot on and seldom takes the easy route, doesn’t turn clueless in its last few minutes. And it doesn’t. Masaan ties its stories together with consummate ease: these bits are seamlessly interlinked in terms of both narrative consistency and emotional resonancewhere characters hand out second chances to not only themselves but, inadvertently, also to others.

Hyperlink films—those that involve multiple stories that come together in the climax of a film—are typically known for their heightened climactic flourishes, but Masaan finds its own method in this commotion, both inventive and Indian. Ghaywan and Varun Grover, Masaan’s screenwriter, do not abandon the nuances of their two main characters, Deepak and Devi, as they are still evolving and waking up to their present, by the time the film gets over. The movie’s final scene, which unfolds at Triveni Sangam, signals careful optimism, and tells us, through its leads, that losing hope once, is not a convincing reason to stop hoping altogether.

Tanul Thakur is a Mumbai-based film critic and independent journalist. He has written reviews, features and opinion pieces for, among other publications, GQFountain InkMan's World, Yahoo! India, the Wire, Firstpost, and OZY. In 2015, he received the National Film Award for Best Film Critic and the Mumbai Press Club Award for Best Lifestyle and Entertainment Story. He's on Twitter as @Plebeian42.