In one of the best films this year, Shoojit Sircar’s Piku, Bashkor (Amitabh Bachchan) has a few health issues (he is a hypochondriac) during a road trip which makes Irrfan’s character quip, tapak gaye to Banaras se koi achchi jagah nahin hai. That would have been a quip — an honest quip nonetheless — but in Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan it has serious undertones. While Piku is from the hierarchical zenith of Bollywood — a pretty big production with the biggest stars and its story passes from Delhi to Calcutta with only a momentary break in Banaras — Masaan comes from a different stable with a first time filmmaker working with almost no stars and set very much in Banaras. But the point is it is just as memorable a film to come out this year.
Masaan is a great example of the show-do-not-tell kind of filmmaking. The lives of people in Masaan are uneven with one leg in the past and one trying to find a way into the future. Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) comes from a family (and caste) of people who perform the last rites and help manage the funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganga. At the same time he is a mechanical engineer, trying to get out of this life that deals with death and the past. It’s the same with Devi who has aspirations that according to her father belong in another world. The imbalance in development is brought up in different ways. They are forward enough to court through Facebook but to have a constant glimpse of Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), Deepak has to get a print out of her Facebook profile. It’s the same with Devi’s (Richa Chadda) story who is forced to take up a government job she has no interest in because the judgmental eyes won’t stop following her. Having said that Masaan focuses the same lens on everyone, not judging even the cop who blackmails Devi’s father (Sanjay Mishra as Vidyadhar Pathak) to clean up the case. We are shown in an offhand shot, even as he threatens Pathak, that he too is a father to a daughter and from the same town. The caste divide in the love story is also underlined when Deepak takes a needlessly aggressive tone towards Shaalu to hide his own inferiority complex due to his roots.
Masaan opens with lines from Brij Narayan Chakbast’s work about life and death. A probable influence on the film’s writer Varun Grover, who seems to have become some sort of an authority on small town sensibilities lyrics in Gangs of Wasseypur, this year’s Moh Moh Ke Dhaage from Dum Laga Ke Haisha and now Masaan, all equally exceptional. Poetry is an integral part of the writing in Masaan. Shaalu Gupta loves poetry and often quotes her favourite lines to Deepak. But in a non-literal sense, the writing and direction in Masaan moves like poetry. There are no overlong scenes, lengthy dialogues or lectures given by any of the characters. Masaan comments on a lot of things by saying as little as possible, much like poetry. In fact, in the other parallel story, Devi doesn’t have a word to say well into her fourth or fifth scene. This does make Chadda’s performance a little awkward especially considering how brilliant people around her are — Sanjay Mishra’s calculative performance and the chatter box Pankaj Tripathi playing Sadhya Ji. And credit to this economy of storytelling also goes to Avinash Arun’s cinematography that captures everything in its way with equal panache — be it the elegiac settings of Banaras and how normal it is for Deepak and his family or his charming love story with Shaalu. Kaushal gives a superb debut performance as Deepak, a character that has its high peaks and deepest valleys, be his beatific expressions on the way his love story progresses or his bond with his friends as things fall apart for him. It also helps that his is the stronger story of the two.
There are a few missteps in the way the stories converge. It’s noteworthy that Deepak gets a job inspecting railway tracks and Devi works in the railway station at the ticket counter. But the tying of the ends is not as lyrical. It is forced but one could also argue that this is a film that is quite deep into Hindu philosophy. While we have all the musings on life and death, Masaan ends with a hope for rebirth and that is indeed the logical conclusion to the story. Also why regret when the journey is so good.