QUEEN’S ROAD: Debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan grasped that both life and death can co-exist in the same river when, during a recce around the Ganges, he saw loss interwoven with the infinitude of existence and hope. A man sitting still in a boat holding a shrouded baby, looking at a distance... unable to let go. And a corpse and a crow floating together in the same current.
He says, “When I saw that, I was reminded of, ‘Kaga sab tan khaaiyo chun chun khaiyo maas...Do naina mat khaaiyo mohe piya milan ki aas (O crow! You may peck all the flesh on this skeletal frame of mine, spare the eyes though...for they await the arrival of my beloved).’”
These oft translated Baba Farid lines in a way sum up the story of Masaan. A film that began with the thoughts, “What if you have dealt with death all your life and are confronted by the loss of a loved one? Can love outlive life? Can death be more than just about loss?”
One day, during a boat ride across the Ganges, Neeraj also saw, magically, a few dolphins. ‘’It is a rare occurrence,’’ he says with habitual restraint. But the sense of wonder he felt that day possibly extended to the moment when, after a long struggle that included giving up a corporate job in his thirties to work with Anurag Kashyap, he found himself standing in an auditorium at Cannes, his hands lifted in gratitude, his eyes moist as wave upon wave of applause hit him after the first screening. The film also won two awards, FIPRESCI, International Jury of Film Critics prize and Promising Future prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
The film was released last week in India and though the film was stymied by multi-crore vehicles like Bahubali-The Beginning and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, it is still hoping for more screens... Neeraj says the journey has been everything he hoped it would be.
In a chat with City Express, he talks about his love for cinema and his story so far.
Masaan’s search for selfhood
I never thought of it that way but maybe it is. The characters in the film are straining against the confines of a small town to break free and though Hyderabad, where I grew up, wasn’t a small town, the part I lived in was. I had a middle-class upbringing and giving up a life in cubicles for cinema was perhaps my way of breaking free. Maybe, all of us are aspiring... hungering for that moment of freedom.
The diverse influences
I grew up watching Ray and Benegal on Doordarshan with my sisters. I really admire Shekhar Kapur’s work, especially Bandit Queen. And there is Gulzar whose films never forced the socio-political context on the audience but it ran like a thread in the moral and existential universe of his characters. I like the work of the Dardenne brothers, and also the Austrian director Michael Haneke. Deepak’s (a character played by Vicky Kaushal) cathartic swim in the Ganges was a tribute to that scene in Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, where Guevara swims across the river to the other side. And even films like Nadiya Ke Paar and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak found their way into my informal learning of cinema.
On the prejudice towards
Yes, the story tries to explore what societal changes do to people. A person’s humiliation is someone else’s tamaasha, so you see Devi (Richa Chaddha) being escorted out of a hotel by the police and a woman filming the scene on her mobile. And it tries to show how the moral compass of different people in different circumstances gets skewed. The cop in the film and the father he is blackmailing are not that different.
The young actors
I told Vicky (Kaushal) in a key scene that he had to surrender to pain and even before we started, that he was not to ‘model’ himself on a lower-middle-class boy in Banaras. That he had to be that boy. He spent time at the ghats where pyres burn constantly. Varun Grover and I did not walk around with dictaphones, speaking In English. We spoke Bhojpuri. Even Shweta Tripathi’s character was the embodiment of this pristine, innocent girl who is very sure of herself. The actors had to break their mould to become these characters and they did.
What pain teaches
I always wondered how the world-view of someone who works in a crematorium is affected by his work. And how the loss of a loved one can make us question life. Death has such a negative connotation even though it leaves in its wake profound wisdom like all pain does. Even the first heartbreak is like a little death but it leaves us wiser. Makes us grow up. Look at life differently.
* Masaan is now showing at all PVRs, 10 pm.