Have you ever loved, and eventually felt searing disappointment when life couldn’t deliver all love was meant to be – a loving propitious future, enduring years of blissful harmony? Such is the story of Masaan (translation – crematorium), meticulously interwoven in the narrow lanes of Varanasi – where four strangers come together and are stripped off of everything they know about love.
Spoiler Alert – But Do Read On!
Moral Policing – A Young Indian’s Distress
The first story starts with Devi (played by Richa Chadda) and a young man she has sex with in a questionable hotel. It is unclear if the man is her lover or her client, but Devi is caught by the corrupt police officials who ask for a bribe in exchange for Devi’s graphic video. Her lover commits suicide and Devi is guilt ridden for the rest of the movie. Despite your personal stance on premarital sex or prostitution, your heart will feel for Devi as she tries to navigate the filthy, conservative lanes of Varanasi hoping to find dignity and make peace with the corrupt police system in India.
Devi shares a detached yet loving relationship with her father (played by Sanjay Mishra) who is perplexed with the intensely passionate and independent woman his daughter has turned out to be. He is a compassionate man, trying to understand the relationship Devi shared with the young man in the first scene. He also encourages her to work so the two can pay off the bribe as quickly as possible.
Devi and her lover are victims of the oppressive and conservative value system imposed on the youth of India. There isn’t a single secluded spot where Devi could meet her lover without being labelled as a prostitute. Despite her lover’s passing, Devi is still propositioned by lecherous men, who openly ask her for her price wherever she went.
Ultimately, for an Indian woman who wants to experience intimacy, the rules still work against her!
The Passion of First Love
The second story revolves around Deepak (played by Vicky Kaushal) and Shaalu (played by Shweta Tripathi), young college students experiencing the first passion of love. Their days are plagued with hidden smiles, loving gestures, and endless conversations about Urdu poetry – Mirza Ghalib and Bashir Badr.
The sheer innocence of their relationship stirs the buried passion we all felt when we kissed first – the longing desire for just a little more. It’s like a memory etched on the surface of the heart – each one of us knows how good it felt to be held by our first love.
Here’s the most un-Western reality about a majority of Indian romances, the first experience of love and passion doesn’t just lead to an extended dating period, but mostly to a quick wedding. That’s what Deepak and Shaalu wanted after just a couple of meetings – a quick wedding as soon as Deepak found a good job.
But their passion turns into sorrow, with Shaalu’s untimely accidental death. Her body, hidden in shrouds, lands in the hands of unsuspecting Deepak – who identifies the pretty pink ring she always adorned. Her body lands up at his workplace and residence, he was once so afraid of taking her to.
Harishchandra Ghaat is a small Ganges basin assigned to cremation activities only. A quiet, yet unforgiving place where flames engulf the dead – millions of dead who wish to be cremated by the Ganges for ultimate salvation. I found myself, letting out a sigh of pain watching Deepak grieve for his beloved at the Ghaat, as he says, “Why doesn’t this pain end?”
Harishchandra Ghaat, analogous to Masaan – the crematorium, is a place where many Indians bring their departed kin to be honorably cremated. It is also the place where life or whatever is left of it ends cruelly. The hidden pain and barbarism of the cremation process – the brutality of breaking the skull to ensure the entire body perishes at the banks of the holy Ganges, with only ashes left behind.
Life Goes On…
The movie culminates into Devi and Deepak moving the Allahabad (famous for the Kumbh Mela) to give meaning to their departed lovers. Instead, they find each other in a new city possibly ready to let it all go. And that is the best part about the shared human experience, we all manage to heal.
The Big Cannes Win
The movie has been directed by Neeraj Ghaywan – who once served as the Assistant Director to Anurag Kashyap. The storytelling and the plot is so attuned to Kashyap’s passionate style, you may think Masaan is a sugar coated Kashyap movie. Ghaywan makes no attempt to hide behind difficult subjects of child labor, prostitution, police corruption, and misogyny in India. In fact, he lays the issues naked and forces the characters and his audience to come face-to-face with these difficult issues.
The brilliant part about the movie is characters are far from glamorous, hyper-sexualized and physically exceptional to gaze at – like the usual Bollywood lineups. Yet, each character is captivating, raw and honest, and the characters linger in your mind long after the movie is over.
Masaan was featured as the official film selection at Cannes 2015, won two awards and was widely admired by critics and fans alike.
If you haven’t already seen this movie – you’ve missed out!
Here’s my favorite track from the movie:
“Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main kisi pull sa thartharata hoon” (translation – you pass through my life like passionate train and I ache with eagerness like a bridge you just passed over.)