Monday, July 27, 2015


On the Riverfront

Neeraj Ghaywan’s remarkable debut film, Masaan, exists in the twilight zone between India’s traditionalism and striving for modernity; set against the backdrop of the burning ghats of Banaras.

In this world, new technology can be liberating in that it can, in its social media form, nurture romance between two disparate people; it can also, in its camera phone incarnation, threaten to ruin the life of a young woman who dared to break old moral codes.

Set anywhere else, the story of the still simmering caste and class divides in small town India, would be almost trite—the constant proximity to death intensifies every emotion. It also makes the film more fascinating for a foreign viewer, though, to his credit, Ghaywan, his writer (Varun Grover) and DOP (Avinash Arun) have not tried to sell the hackneyed, tourist trap image of Banaras—no naga sadhus, hippies or floating corpses.  Still, there is an undercurrent of unease at watching the Doms doing the job that dooms them to a low caste existence.

It is this hell that aspiring engineer Deepak (Vicky Kaushal-- charming) wants to break out of. The son of a corpse-burning Dom, he wants a respectable job and the love of an upper caste girl, the sweet, poetry-loving Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi--pleasant). Facebook knows no caste barriers, and the wooing takes place over computer and cell phone.

Devi (Richa Chadda—too blank-looking), a computer trainer is the daughter of Vidyadhar Pathak (Sanjay Mishra--outstanding), a Sanskrit scholar making a living selling things required for cremation rituals. She willingly goes to a hotel room with a boy she loves—the encounter ends in tragedy. A vile cop (Bhagwan Tiwari) shoots an incriminating video and blackmails Pathak into parting with a large sum. A perky young orphan Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni), who works at Pathak’s shop and also makes money diving into the river for coins, turns out to be a contrived though strong link in the chain of events.

Devi actually deserves a film of her own—the young woman who is sorry for what happened, yet not ashamed of her own “jigyasa” that led her to the hotel room. She has to fend off advances from men who know of the scandal, but at no point is she cowed down. She wants to find her own way out of the situation and get closure.

The Deepak-Shaalu story has youthful exuberance going for it, but the director sidesteps the explosion that could take place in a North Indian town, if a low caste boy actually marries an upper caste girl, even if she is not in the least put off by the caste or class difference.

The film is as much about personal grief as it is about escaping the pitfalls of a hidebound India into a new society that might be just be without age old obstacles. Seen as a reflection of what is happening all over India now, the film may not appear too optimistic, though that does seems to be the intention.


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