Masaan

A young couple decide to defy custom and tradition. They decide to check into a hotel and take their relationship to the next level. We know only that they work at the same company. The check-in goes smoothly.

So they retire to the room upstairs. But they’ve picked the wrong hotel. The desk clerk is in cahoots with the local police constabulary. He notifies the police and within a half hour, the police raid the hotel room. They burst in and charge the couple with ‘indecent behavior’.

Apparently an old law, and only selectively enforced. But maybe the ‘crime’ isn’t just about an unmarried couple occupying a hotel room. Briefly we saw the girl Devi, change her attire from a kameez and salwaar combo to a sari. Possibly the man and the woman come from different communities meaning different faiths. As I said, an old law.

The man is so nervous and upset that he asks the police if he may go to the bathroom. When he hasn’t come out promptly, the police go in looking for him. He’s on the floor, having slashed his wrists. So while the man is taken away in an ambulance, the police take the woman to the police station and now charge her with not only indecent behavior, but also abetting a suicide.

Her father is called to come down to the police station. It is a very uncomfortable situation between father and daughter, and it will get worse on the next day. The boy has died and now the police who videoed the interview in the hotel room with the girl is now threatening to upload the video to YouTube, if an exorbitant amount of cash is not paid to the police.

The policeman demands payment in three installments. The amount is considerable. The father has no choice. It is a matter of public dishonor or paying up.

The time is the present. The place is Varanasi (Benares) in Uttar Pradesh, India. The film is called Masaan. and what I have described above is the opening of the film, but only one of the interwoven stories.

The second story is about another couple. He is a college student studying engineering. She is an arts student with a major in poetry. She is an upper caste woman. He is of a low-caste, in fact, he’s a member of the caste whose work is to operate the burning ghats where the dead are burned on the banks of the Ganges.

Masaan means ‘cremation’, and as he (Deepak) describes it – it is has been his father’s whole life, managing a small number of burning ghats, and his father’s father before him.

Deepak is locked into this life and hopes to escape it by earning a degree in engineering and then going to work in the Indian Railway system.

There’s another story in play as well – Devi’s father, Vidyadhar, is a former college professor who is now running a riverfront stall. He sells books, and other trinkets. He is located just steps above the river. There’s a small boy, Jhonta, undoubtedly an orphan who works at this stall or kiosk. He runs errands, sweeps and cleans, and basically watches the store when the older man is away.

As described on IMDB – the story of Masaan is about the intersection of four lives along the banks of the Ganges River – Devi is the young woman ridden with guilt over a sexual encounter that ended in tragedy, Deepak is the low-caste boy hopeless in love, Vidyadhar, played by Sanjay Mishra, is the father saddled with an enormous debt because of his daughter’s transgression, and Jhonta is the small child who wants nothing more to be a part of a family.

Masaan is a French/Indian production and was made by the same outfit that made Lunchbox. It is a brave film that is willing to tackle a number of issues head on. While we do not watch much of the funeral fires burning through out the night and every night – what we do see leads us to think of this as a hellish place. But sending the dead on their final journey is a universal thing done throughout the world. What varies is only the method – not the intent.

So the film is surrounded by death, and tragic events are never to go unexpected. Yet the film has warmth, and strength, and courage. Above all it also has bravery.

Devi is played by Richa Chadda, who although she portrays a poor woman in this film, she has a regal bearing to her. You can see and feel her resolve. She has been given a nasty break by the corrupt police, and this has landed on her father’s shoulders and back, and might crush him.

But he has his own kind of inner strength as well. And while he has been pushed to the limit, he will bend but not break.

Deepak is played by Vicky Kaushal. Deepak is a party to a doomed relationship. As the girl Shaalu tells Deepak – My father will never approve – and when it becomes evident that her words were true he is shattered.

But these people all are made of sturdy suff. The film’s tag line is simple –

Celebrate Life, and death, and everything in between.

I was most impressed by this film. Apparently so were others. The Film has won awards at Mumbai, South Africa, Hamburg, as well as earning a prize from FIPRESCI – the International Federation of Film Critics.

I will score the film at four point zero, a bit on the generous side. It was a debut feature film for Director Neeraj Ghaywan, and while some have said that the ending is a bit contrived, the film still earns lots of respect from me. As well as a 10 minute standing ovation at Cannes.

Have a look at the English subtitled trailer:

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