The idea of India has always been fascinating to me. Because, to me, India is--and always has been--more a utopian idea of what a country can and should be, whereas the reality has gotten rather lost in translation.
Think about it: India is probably the only country in the world where there is not a single thread that unites every man, woman and child. Be it caste, colour, community, religion, language, race, or ideology, the people of India indeed have nothing in common with each other. It's often said that Bollywood and cricket are the only two things that unite the country, but Bollywood stops being relevant beyond the Hindi-speaking regions, and cricket's days of glory effectively retired with Sachin Tendulkar.
This seemingly disjointed modern India may not be easy to classify in any of the traditional ways, but that is because it is an India that is trying to break out of such classifications. The truth is, there is no one idea of India and perhaps no one India either; India is remarkable because there are several Indias within the idea tussling with each other, and within themselves, to stride through the remainder of the 21st century with some core belief system.
In this tussle, this struggle, lies a deep-rooted ambition, within the cities, towns, villages and all of its varied and diverse people and culture, to define themselves and to find meaning, which has been aided largely by the technological revolution that is still seeping in its every nook and corner, possibly not fast enough. YouTube has invigorated the young, Facebook has helped them learn free will, while Google has been their guide in navigating life, love and lust.
This is the complicated backdrop and landscape that Masaan, a film by debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan, is set in, and the layered protagonists of the film traverse through its various complexities. Winner of two Cannes awards, including the FIPRESCI Prize, given by an international federation of film critics, Masaan is a tale of two Benarases, both weighed down by its heritage and both trying to escape it by any means.
There is one story about Devi (Richa Chadda), who, as a liberated young woman, has pre-marital sex with a fellow student, only to be caught by the traditionalist police and blackmailed into shame. The second is a love story of a young couple, Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), belonging to different castes, and hoping to surmount the barriers presented by it.
In both stories, technology is an accomplice in seeking progress, and by sharp contrast, in one, it is a weapon used to threaten conformity, too. Both stories are also driven by the ambitions of the protagonists to not be held prisoner to the milieu, conditions and the masaans (crematorium) they are born into, and that are born out of them. But reducing the stories to themes and metaphors would be doing a disservice to the soul that runs through them and the love, loss and longing that they so beautifully capture in the quiet chaos of the ghaats of Benaras.
Ghaywan, in his very first film, creates a deeply affecting world that devastates and uplifts at the same time, and that becomes a part of your world long after the film is over. The deftness with which he captures emotions of hope and young love (in the romance of Deepak and Shaalu), prejudices and old mores (in the relationship between Devi's father and the inspector that blackmails them), aspiration and rebellion (through Devi) and death (in the stunning scene between Deepak and his friends), deserves much lauding. He has been proficiently supported by a wonderful script and heartfelt dialogues by the inimitable Varun Grover, through the earnest lens of Avinash Arun, who recently debuted as a director himself with the fine Killa, and the moving music by Indian Ocean, whom we cannot get enough of.
But the film's true winner are the fantastic performances that Ghaywan has extracted from its lead cast. From a poignant and memorable Vicky Kaushal and the endearing warmth of Shweta Tripathi (both of whom have huge things ahead of them) to the intricate depth of emotions that Sanjay Mishra (who is clearly on the path of becoming a legend) as Devi's father brings, to the confident, tender and touching performance of Richa Chadda that the film is anchored by, to the striking cameos by Pankaj Tripathi, Bhagwan Tiwari and Nikhil Sahni, Masaan is a masterclass in acting.
This is another winner by Phantom Films and Guneet Monga's Sikhya Entertainment and as good a beginning as any by Manish Mundra's Drishyam Films that, much like the film, is to be watched out for.
An Indo-French production, if Masaan is (deservedly) successful at the box office, it may also help get further international funding to tell more such stories about the heart of what makes modern India. But these are not the reasons you must watch Masaan for.
Masaan deserves to be watched because it is a rare film that holds a mirror to that deep-rooted ambition that runs through the pulse of this modern India: to break out of the boxes it's been holed into, to overcome the circumstances it was born into, to rise above the demarcations that were set in its outdated texts and its archaic traditions, and to have the liberty and choice to be whatever and whoever it needs to be... to not just live, but to truly be alive.