Thanks to Just Me Mike for lending me his DVD copy of Masaan! Check out Mike’s film and TV reviews here.
Two young people struggle to grow within the confining social norms of modern-day Banaras in Masaan (international title: “Fly Away Solo“). The film is thought-provoking and full of moving performances.
Computer coach Devi (Richa Chadda) and her university student boyfriend Piyush check into a motel to finally consummate their relationship. “Curbing curiosities,” as Devi describes it. Their lovemaking is interrupted by the police, who storm into the room hoping to nab a couple engaging in premarital sex.
Police Inspector Mishra (Bhagwan Tiwari) revels in busting these two criminals. He tells Devi, “Your life is now ruined,” as he uses his phone to film her in a state of partial undress. He demands a bribe from Devi’s father, Mr. Pathak (Sanjay Mishra), in order to keep Devi out of jail. Mishra threatens to tarnish Pathak’s honor — not Devi’s, which is apparently already forfeit — by posting the video on YouTube if the impoverished bookseller doesn’t pay.
As Devi’s world falls apart, elsewhere in the city a young man falls in love. Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is about to graduate from engineering school, the first member of his low-caste family to do so. He meets Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), an opinionated young woman with a passion for poetry. As their feelings build through phone calls and clandestine meetings, Deepak chooses to ignore the fact that Shaalu’s higher caste status likely rules him out as a potential marriage partner.
Because the film opens with Devi’s tragedy, it’s impossible to enjoy Deepak’s romance with Shaalu. Watching them sneak glances at one another during a carnival feels like watching a horror movie, with the monster lurking around the corner clad in a police uniform.
Despite being a city of over a million people, the “small town” mentality in Banaras limits Devi’s options. As she switches jobs to avoid people familiar with her scandal, the expression in her eyes indicates that she has already checked out. Once she pays the bribe, Devi is moving away. Chadda gives Devi quiet fortitude coupled with an attitude that is beyond annoyed.
One minor subplot feels out-of-place in Masaan. During an argument, Pathak demands to know why Devi wants to punish him (as though her getting busted by the cops was directed at him). Instead of citing grievances such as Pathak’s eagerness to assume she’s at fault and his lack of compassion, Devi accuses him of having killed her mother by waiting to take her to the hospital.
It doesn’t make sense that Devi would have been a dutiful daughter her whole life, waiting until now to unload on him for something that happened when she was six. She has every right to be upset that he didn’t support her as an adult. The dead mother angle doesn’t fit.
Director Neeraj Ghaywan — who co-wrote Masaan with Varun Grover — takes advantage of Banaras’ most famous landmark: the city’s burning ghats where bodies are cremated. Deepak’s family business is burning corpses, and his engineering degree is his only hope of escape.
Americans are generally removed from the specific details of what happens to a body after death, so Ghaywan’s depiction of the pyres is eye-opening. Deepak’s father instructs one worker to tuck a corpse’s leg back under the burning logs. He yells at Deepak to smash open another corpse’s skull to “release the soul” (and help it burn more completely, no doubt).
Kaushal is terrific as Deepak, and Mishra and Tripathi are wonderful as well. Tiwari is callous and opportunistic as the corrupt inspector.
Two other performances stand out. Pankaj Tripathi — who normally plays villains or bumbling sidekicks — is sweet as an awkward ticket vendor with a crush on Devi. Little Nikhil Sahni is feisty and charming as Jhonta, a skinny orphan boy who drums up business for Pathak. Jhonta gradually comes to fill the void Pathak feels as his adult daughter pulls away from him.
Masaan is a really wonderful work from a first-time director with a bright future ahead of him. If it leads to quality, high-profile roles for the talented cast members, even better.