Neeraj Ghaywan’s understated and assured Masaan takes its narrative cues from the flow of the Ganga river and the movement of the trains that pass over it. Its characters swirl in eddies of their own making as well as forge forward with determination. The first-time feature filmmaker, working on a minutely observed screenplay by Varun Grover, balances these contradictory currents to create a tender and compelling portrait of young lives on the edge of experiences that are as frightening as they are liberating.
The movie’s themes of entropy, destruction and resurrection are signalled by the title, which means crematorium, and the location. Masaan is set in Varanasi, the ancient seat of spirituality and salvation and depicted here as a repository of old-fashioned values and a cauldron of unfulfilled desires. Two journeys are twinned, one beginning in despair and the other in hope.
Devi (Richa Chadha) has an ill-advised tryst with her boyfriend that invites blackmail and harassment from a police officer (Bhagwan Tiwari) and the silent wrath of her father Pathak (Sanjay Mishra). Even as Devi retreats into a catatonic shell, Pathak takes small and large gambles to save his honour with the help of the spirited Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni), a boy who works for him.
Meanwhile, the journey of Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) out of the depths of caste-ordained hell that are the Varanasi cremation grounds, where his Dom family has been raking coals over bodies for centuries, has begun. Not only is Deepak studying for an engineering diploma, but he is also wooing the upper-caste Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi). She loves modern Hindi poetry and literature, which presumably, but not always convincingly, inures her to Deepak’s position at the bottom of the caste hierarchy and permits their romance to blossom. The scenes between Deepak and Shaalu sparkle with innocence and charm and offset the sadness that overtakes Devi and Pathak, neither of whom is equipped to deal with their changed circumstances.
The 109-minute drama refracts the brutal truths of Indian society – sexual repression, the caste divide, financial hardship, limited mobility – through individual philosophical journeys. The advantage of an ensemble format is that every encounter is judiciously turned over and sent on its way to its rightful conclusion, and there is a satisfying circularity to each of the character’s experiences. But there simply isn’t enough time to scrutinise the ramifications of Devi’s rude brush with the law or the star-crossed Deepak-Shaalu romance.
Ghaywan’s understated observational shooting style does allow individual actors to savour the sharp writing and characterisation. Chadha and Mishra don’t find the right beat with each other, but they discover their rhythms in their individual scenes. Pankaj Tripathi has a delightful role as Devi’s dutiful colleague who seems, like this movie’s overall milieu, from a couple of decades ago. Kaushal’s cautiously ambitious Deepak is the movie’s best-realised character, both in the way it has been written and portrayed.
Ghaywan ties together the various narrative skeins with confidence and sensitivity, but some parts of the screenplay are awkwardly spelt out. The insistence on closure also militates against the larger theme that life springs nasty and unpredictable surprises that do not usually neatly work themselves out.
However, the movie’s emphasis on hope doesn’t blind the filmmakers to the reality of how hard-won this state of mind is. Devi haltingly regains some of her equilibrium, while Deepak, whose flight is interrupted by personal tragedy, doesn’t go as far as he would have liked to. Masaan perfectly catches these souls at the mid-way moment between decay and renewal. It all comes together in the beautiful concluding scene, which suggests that sometimes, redemption can begin at a point that is not too far from one’s doorstep.