Masaan (2015): Neeraj Ghaywan's reading of small town Indian life and love

Politics of the everyday life and death in contemporary India.

By Anirban Lahiri

Masaan, Movie Poster, Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan

Lot has been written on Masaan, especially after it bagged two awards in the Cannes film festival this year. Critics eulogized the film for its close observation of reality. A few critics lamented the contrivances in the plot and the ‘obvious/odious’ ending. These days, critics deconstruct films as texts inter-textually, contextually, and historico-socially. A film scholar lamented the film’s use of music. Another debased the film on its cinematic value. The audience, however, enjoyed the experience. The boredom of existence, time and patience managed to involve the spectator.
There are allegations against Masaan. It is not cinematic; it has a weak plot structure. The critical reactions reflect that Masaan has affected the audience. Saying that Masaan works and yet it is flawed amount to saying that rasgulla works, yet it is not namkin-sour like papri chaat. When a film tries to observe and not interpret societal positions then it may use a naïve approach. People criticized Ritwik Ghatak for his repeated use of coincidences in the plot. The rationality of European history dominates our everyday life. Yet there is a huge gap between what happens and what we observe happening.

Richa Chadda in Masaan
Richa Chadda in Masaan
Indian societies are grounded in the non-linearity of life. In small towns, fixed social orders dominate life. Dreams and reality are mythopoeic in those numerous pockets bound by the Indian tradition of fixity and honour. Adult couples have to run away to sleep together. Inter-caste marriages are unthinkable. Police can break in, arrest and harass adult, unmarried couples anytime, with a promise of lifelong extortion. In a single phrase, life is feudal.

People learn to accept that life. People do not protest. It is pointless to protest. There is no alternative.

Film scholars object to such naïveté. The plot points are not properly placed. The first conflict comes within the first twenty-five minutes, but the rest of the film dangles without a strong backbone, they say. The protagonists, Devi (Richa Chadda) and Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) do not have sufficiently contrasting character graphs—they do not grow believably. Some critics found faults with too many coincidences beginning from the death of Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi) just when the inter-caste relationship is given mutual consent to Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni) drowning in the Ganga. 
A Still from Masaan, boat scene, on the banks of river Ganga, in Varanasi
A Still from Masaan
There are also objections regarding insufficient characterization and background details regarding Piyush (Saurabh Chaudhary), his family, the vulturous cop (Bhagwan Tiwari) and Jhonta, the kid who works for Vidyadhar Pathak (Sanjay Mishra).

Critics and laymen similarly enjoyed the depiction of Benaras, its ghats, the Ganga, fiery illuminations of the temple at night, the mixed population and the crematorium. Masaan means the burning ghat in most North Indian languages. Its presence is overbearing in the film, as snapshots, as the haunting presence. But, the fetishism of death melts down to the whole city. The characters are gross sometimes. But, so is the case in the immediate reality. There is no escape from the Masaan of life.

Sanjay Mishra (left) and Richa Chadda in Masaan
Sanjay Mishra (left) and Richa Chadda in Masaan
The external structure of the film is classical. Avinash Arun’s camera plays, most of the time, as the disinterested picker of the fluidity of consciousness. Nitin Baid’s debut as editor sparks off a similar nonchalance. Short takes, coupled with long ones, create a classicism of documentary mode. Consider the last long take wherein the camera stands still outside the deceased Piyush Agarwal’s home waiting for the offscreen wailing voice cursing Devi.

There is no pretension in the film, and in its making. Perhaps, there lies its strength. The overall impact feels like a slap on the middle-class hypocrisy and fear. Sixty-eight years after independence, India is still caught in timeless futility of fixity, honour and ambition. It is pointless to write about such a film. This is meant to be watched, not reviewed. 
A Still from Masaan
A Still from Masaan
Masaan is not for the urban, educated audience who enjoyed Labour of Love—another brilliant piece of expressions. Masaan is not eclectic. It is to be seen how this film connects to Indian people across economic classes, education or locality.

In a very interesting turn of events, Masaan is promoted tax-free in the UP. Arvind Kejriwal liked it so much that he tweet-congratulated the film and filmmakers immediately after coming out of PVR. We would like to know how many cops have watched it. We would love to know how the conservative households of North India appreciated the film.

About Author - 

Anirban is a Cinematographer and film teacher. After a marathon teaching of filmmaking for five years in Digital Academy, Mumbai, he is busy writing his own film now. He was with DearCinema during its first phase. Steeped in cultural theory, observation and history, he sees all his work as part of a continuum – critique. Anirban consciously plays the role of a critic while shooting films, teaching, writing stories, and of course while critiquing. His favourite filmmakers are Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyaji Ray, Luis Buñuel, Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami and Nagisa Oshima, to name a few.

Readers, please feel free to share your views/opinions in the comment box below. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

Masaan (2015) Trailer (YouTube)

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  1. Undoubtedly, it's one of the best creations of Ray! And, it is said that the essence of the film, the way Ray showed the hero leading his life was actually based on Uttam Kumar.

  2. Uttam Kumar's performance forms the very soul of the movie. It's my second favorite performance in a Satyajit Ray film following Chhabi Biswas' remarkable turn in Jalsaghar.


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