‘Masaan’: Cannes Review

Neeraj Ghaywan's well-crafted directing bow carries a strong message 

India’s modern and traditional sides face off in two interlocking love stories

Varanasi (formerly Benares) and its burning ghats furnish the unsettling backdrop to interlocked love stories, showing young Indians bucking sexual, moral and caste traditions. Masaan, the Hindi word for crematorium, is part of the new generation of indie films whose clear intent is to set ablaze a hidebound society’s constrictions on personal liberty. Although the film’s two loving couples are hideously punished for breaking conventions, just like in classic melodramas, here the uplifting ending paves the way for change and modernity. It won a special jury prize for a film debut in Cannes’ Certain Regard as well as a Fipresci mention, boding well for art house sales and for hearing more from first-time director Neeraj Ghaywan.

Like several of his actors, Ghaywan got his start on Anurag Kashyap’s cult gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur as an assistant director. (Kashyap is among the film’s coproducers.) Putting aside those exhilarating excesses, Varun Grover’s screenplay more modestly frames the rebellion of India’s Internet generation in a classically poignant drama of star-crossed love. The choice to shoot in Varanasi, India’s holy city on the Ganges and veritable symbol of traditions stretching back thousands of years, makes the drama even starker.

In the opening scenes, a young couple is shyly trysting for the first time in a cheap hotel room when a squad of angry, muscular police break in. Insulted, brutally beaten and threatened with ruin, the boy takes his life in the bathroom, while the girl is hauled off to jail.

This is Devi (played by an understated, very self-possessed Richa Chadda), an educated and surprisingly independent young woman who tells the police she went to the rendezvous in the hotel “out of curiosity." While Devi internalizes the traumatic loss of her lover, her father (Sanjay Mishra), a former Sanskrit teacher who now sells trinkets on the ghats, is forced to pay off an impossible bribe to the police captain to keep her shame under wraps. To save his family’s honor, he sets aside his own moral principles vis-a-vis the little boy who works for him (Nikhil Sahni).

It's curious that while the film waves a big flag for personal liberty, it takes the corruption of public officials completely for granted. The end of the bribery story is morally jaw-dropping, especially on account of the lack of directorial comment.

As for society's attitude toward love and sexual mores, there is clearly a sea change going on among young people growing up in a global world that seems to triumph over the strict rules. In the second tale, the tall, romantically good-looking Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is a follower of social media. When he takes up a bet with his pals and asks the pretty Shaalu Gipta (Shweta Tripathi) to be his Facebook friend, it all seems harmless  until they meet and fall in love. The problem is that Shaalu is a middle-class girl from a way higher caste than Deepak, who comes from a long line of corpse-burners on the ghats, miserable souls with faces darkened from the fire, who sift through ashes for bits of gold and valuables.  Kaushal is perfectly cast to embody Deepak's double life as a corpse-shoveler for his father, but also a top engineering student whose horizons seem about to open up. The story ends with an improbable series of events that bring all the characters together in a Deus-ex-machina wrap-up.

All the young actors (and the older Mishra) turn in strongly delineated performances that sharpen an understanding of their characters. The brightly blazing bonfires on the river banks at night are among the film’s most eerie and memorable scenes, lensed with an eye to the spectacular by cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware.

Production companies: Drishyam Films, Macassar Productions, Phantom Films, Sikhya Entertainment in association with Pathe, Arte

Cast: Richa Chadda, Vicky Kaushal, Sanjay Mishra, Nikhil Sahni, Shweta Tripathi
Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
Screenwriter: Varun Grover

Producers: Vikas Bahl, Melita Toscan du Plantier, Anurag Kashyap, Guneet Monga, Vikramaditya Motwane, Manish Mundra, Marie-Jeanne Pascal, Shaan Vyas
Director of photography: Avinash Arun Dhaware
Production designer: Ranjit Singh
Costume designer: Shruti Kapoor
Editor: Nitin Baid

Music: Bruno Coulais
Casting: Mukesh Chhabra
Sales: Pathé International
No rating, 103 minutes