Review: What makes Masaan unmissable
Neeraj Ghaywan's powerful debut is as good as the flood of tweets promise
The praise for Masaan – emphatic, celebrity-led, slightly drawn-out – had me worried. Frequent timeline appearances (we’ve also covered the film here, here and here), the critics’ award at Cannes, the oddly-long standing ovation and the grievance-ridden plot-line hinted at a socially relevant feature you were arm-twisted into liking. The peculiarities of small-town morality and the still-looming shadow of caste structures stuffed into a meaty plot with death, desire and destiny seemed an easy story to tell. Building an engaging, noise-free narrative, as achieved by Chaitanya Tamhane with Court, I was certain, would still be the more difficult (and rarer) accomplishment of the year.
But first-time director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan pulls the plug on any cynicism fairly quickly. His telling of the parallel stories running across Benaras, a city at once hidebound and marching forward, sets in motion a wild tug of emotions that begins with Devi (Richa Chadda), a self-possessed computer instructor, making her way to a simply-dressed hotel to lose her virginity. The moments after, bring sudden, brutal change, as life often does with its special deliveries, and she, along with her pandit father (played by Sanjay Mishra with the usual ease), is thrust into quicksand of grief, shame and unachievable debt. Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), a young crematorium worker from the lower-caste Dom community, encounters first love when he meets Shalu (Shweta Tripathi), and hopes to graduate to a more level field with an engineering degree.
If you find none of this intriguing, that’s still good reason to watch. Masaan allows no arm-distance viewing, and you’re helplessly locked in place for joy, sorrow and plain devastation. Possible sores, like the gooeyness of young love, the histrionics of Indian-breed sorrow, and occasionally, the neat alignment of stars, cause no damage. The well-paced narrative benefits greatly from a winning ensemble – Richa Chadda, saying close to nothing, makes it perfectly easy to understand why all the shame collecting at her doorstep never causes her shoulders to droop, Shweta Tripathi is full of promise, bringing much-needed breaks of lightness, and Vicky Kaushal sinks right into his surroundings, and shows no glimpses of tenderfeet in his first performance. Benaras itself comes into focus with unusual clarity, possibly from co-writer Varun Grover’s many years spent in the city, and Ghaywan’s annoyance at stories being told from an “outsider’s perspective”.
A firm addition to the swiftly growing list of bright young film-makers, Ghaywan lends new urgency to plain facts: everything is temporary, guilt is hard to carry or cast away, parent-child relationships grow tougher with time, and death is always waiting in the wings. He does what any good storyteller has the power to do – granting you more life than you were allocated, without any guarantee of it being pleasant. You might feel a little shaky after.
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