Friday, July 24, 2015

REVIEW 341: MASAAN

Release date:
July 24, 2015
Director:
Neeraj Ghaywan
Cast:


Language:
Richa Chadha, Vicky Kaushal, Sanjay Mishra, Shweta Tripathi, Pankaj Tripathi
Hindi


Every second, every silence, every word, every glance, there’s not a moment that does not matter in a film – making a difference either for the better or worse.

I’ve watched Masaan twice this month. I would usually not do so before writing a review but in this case, I had no option. Because after the first viewing – at the Jagran festival in early July – the film’s debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan announced that what we had just seen was the Cannes cut which was 9 minutes shorter than the India cut. Damn! No choice but to see it again.

“Damn”, because at the first viewing I found Masaan endearing and perceptive only in parts, the story involving Richa Chadha did not resonate at all with me, and in its entirety I did not find the film memorable. Theek thhi, acchhi thhi, par itni bhi khaas nahin. “This was what won two awards at 2015’s Cannes film festival? Reall­­­y?” I thought to myself with deep disappointment.

As any committed film buff knows though, every second counts. And 9 minutes can make the difference between a kinda sorta nice film and a profoundly moving experience. That indeed is the Masaan I saw the second time – a seemingly simple yet intricate, insightful story about love and loss, grieving and closure, redemption, repentance and ultimately, hope and new beginnings. Set in the north Indian town of Varanasi, Masaan is rich in its interplay of caste, class, gender and faith, and without a doubt one of the most noteworthy Hindi films of the year so far.

The narrative carries with it two parallel strands. One is about a computer programming instructor called Devi Pathak (Richa Chadha) whose attempt at sexual experimentation goes horribly wrong, ruining any chance of a peaceful life for her in her home town and putting a strain on her already troubled relationship with her father, Pandit Vidyadhar Pathak.

The second story is about college student Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), a lower caste boy who falls in love with an upper caste girl called Shaalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi). Along with his family, Deepak works on funeral pyres in this holy city where Hindus come to cremate their dead. That’s where the film gets its title – masaan means cremation ground.

The social dynamics in this small town are fascinating, and Varun Grover’s script is unrelenting in its detailing. So much is revealed with the mere mention of a name or the blink of an eye, so much left unsaid. The fleeting words of a family in conversation float towards a brooding daughter, reminding her of their radical casteist convictions. Lovers in mourning are constrained in their grief because of the clandestine nature of the relationships they shared and lost.

Despite the overt feminism of Devi’s story, the thread I found myself completely immersed in was Deepak and Shaalu’s courtship. When Aanand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa – also set in Varanasi – was released in 2013, all criticism of the violent stalker hero met with responses such as “well, this is the nature of romance in small-town India”. Firstly, a reality is not acceptable merely because it exists. Second, normalising a horrid reality is condemnable. Third, to my mind such views come either from snooty city dwellers with a patronising view of mofussil India or small-town residents who malign their own homes and/or do not question their negatives. In Masaan the wonderfully sensitive Varun reminds us that within the constraints placed on romance in societies with extreme gender segregation, decent men find ways of approaching women they are attracted to without intimidating them or demanding their attention as a matter of right.

Aided by the excellent screenplay, Vicky Kaushal and Shweta Tripathi make Deepak and Shaalu one of the most winning couples ever to appear on the Indian screen. It is a pleasure to see such a tender romance unfold through the delicate performances of two rank newcomers. I confess to having watched them and felt an ache for a youth now gone and an innocence lost forever.

It helps that crucial scenes from this segment – their first meeting, a rendezvous at a gift shop – are in the India cut. In fact, it’s slightly disconcerting that that initial encounter was snipped out for Cannes, because the choice of scene to chop suggests a willingness to succumb to the average Westerner’s likely stereotypical notion of how relationships are conducted in conservative India.

It’s also hard to understand why, without the time restrictions that were probably placed on them in Cannes, the team cut out from the Indian version a sequence involving Deepak’s family which underlines a marginalised community’s desperate circumstances and the desperation of those compelled by caste to stick to socially derided – even if socially essential – professions. There is also a conversation about a picnic between the two leads that seems awkwardly rounded off. These are questions to be taken up with the director at some point. Nothing in this paragraph though should end up downplaying the appeal of Shaalu and Deepak’s soul-wrenching journey.

Devi is less charming yet intriguing, a woman simmering in her own dissatisfaction. Richa Chadha rises above even the contrived, half-baked reason for her resentment towards her father, to deliver a stupendous performance. To watch her stand struggling with humiliation, fear and caged fury next to a corrupt policeman is to witness something special.

Richa is surrounded by a sparkling trio in her segment – the men playing her father (Sanjay Mishra), a colleague and a cop. The little boy in the role of her father’s assistant is inconsistent. He is lovely in his sprightliness but confusingly expressionless while an adult sits weeping next to him. On the other hand, the scintillating Pankaj Tripathi from the Gangs of Wasseypur films elicits smiles while tugging at the heart in his small role as her colleague. A neatly executed scene featuring them in a restaurant (not in the Cannes cut) adds a whole new dimension to the man, transforming him from a satellite player to a primary character.

The stories of these characters are so engrossing that one almost forgets the sanitised visuals of Varanasi presented to us by this film, like most films set here. Varanasi is atmospheric, but it is also filthy. A foreigner would never guess that though from DoP Avinash Arun’s images. If Masaan is about a city and its people, warts and all, why camouflage some of the warts?

Ah well, to distort a cliché, all’s fair in love especially when you’re in love with a film. The lasting memory of this one is of Indian Ocean’s contemplative songs, Varun’s writing, Neeraj’s unobtrusive direction and characters that leave a lasting impression.


For every disciple of kismet in Varanasi, there is also a Deepak and a Devi straining at the straitjacket, and a bright, shining, spirited Shaalu, practical yet poetic, hooked on the shayari of Bashir Badr, confident and completely her own woman.

There can be no greater measure of the effectiveness of a film than that the dreams of its characters become ours, their heartbreaks become our heartbreaks, their joys our very own. That is the kind of film sweet little Masaan is.

Rating (out of five): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):

A (because a couple in Masaan having actual sex, consensual though it is and not graphic at all, could pollute children’s minds according to the Censor Board, but sexist and crudely suggestive ‘item’ numbers, metaphorical depictions of romanticised rape, trivialised molestation and harassment are usually awarded U/A or U ratings, especially when made by established mainstream directors, with major commercial male stars in the lead)
Running time:
109 minutes minutes 



Sunday, July 19, 2015

ROMANTICISING RAPE / FILM FATALE: COLUMN PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU BUSINESSLINE

THE RAPE OF AVANTHIKA

Bahubali features one of the longest scenes of romanticised symbolic violation ever seen on screen. Why are we as a nation not angered by it?

By Anna M.M. Vetticad


She, a brave warrior, lies on the banks of a lake, falling asleep with her slim hand in the water. Unknown to her, he — an absolute stranger — paints a flower on her wrist.
Furious on discovering the drawing, she sets out to find out how it got there. He unleashes a serpent on her from behind, and while she stands frozen, he — still a stranger — etches another bloom on her shoulder before disappearing from the scene.
Enraged at the assault, she takes off in search of the offender. When they finally meet face to face, he grabs her, and then comes a sexual dance as he pushes and pulls her about, unties her hair against her will, strips her of her practical fighter’s clothing and skilfully transforms the rest of her outfit into more ‘feminine’ garb. He forcibly smears natural dye on her lips to redden them and lines her eyes with the essence of crushed berries. At this point, she glimpses her transformed self in a sheet of water, and quivers coyly before their dance continues. She finally falls asleep in his arms.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how a woman is tamed. (Applause)
This scene featuring Prabhas and Tamannaah Bhatia appears in director S.S. Rajamouli’s box-office-busting Bahubali, released in the original Telugu and Tamil, and in multiple dubbed versions last week. It is a visually spectacular film with an engaging story rich in mythological references. Sadly, that’s what makes it dangerous because it has the potential to gain legitimacy among more viewers and to reach a far wider audience than an ugly, unpolished, unintelligent, unimaginative, un-entertaining film.
This aggressive display of ‘love’, in particular, is set against a gorgeous landscape with gentle music playing in the background. The beauty of the scene is designed to lull us into an acceptance of its insidious imagery and message, an acceptance that is bound to attract at least some reactions such as “stop nitpicking”, “have you lost your sense of romance?” and the standard “chill, relax, it’s just a film” to this column.
Actually, we can’t afford to “chill”. Certainly not when human society is still grappling with the meaning of consent in the matter of romantic and sexual relations. Prettified though it has been, the lead couple’s mating dance in Bahubali is unequivocal in its contention that it is okay to fool around with a woman without her knowing, or to force yourself on her when she resists, because that’s what courtship is all about.
If you are among those who are touched by this scene, permit me to plant the seed of a thought in your head. In your mind’s eye, if you replace the handsome Prabhas with Shakti Kapoor (or another actor who usually plays villainous roles), would you still find his actions poignant?
In the Hindi film Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Manu – again a stranger – is smitten when he sees a drunken Tanu lying passed out in her bedroom. So overwhelmed is he by his emotions that he kisses her. It’s unfortunate that many people find it hard to empathise unless they personalise a situation, but that being the reality, if you are moved by this scene, try this exercise: ask yourself whether it would be acceptable if a woman you love — perhaps your daughter — were lying asleep and your son’s friend or the male household help or an unknown man entered her room and kissed her?
If you object to either of the above alternative scenarios, why is it okay to romanticise them in a film?
The question is crucial in a nation as conservative as ours where most parents do not discuss romance with their children and where gender segregation is widespread, as a result of which many youngsters take guidance from cinema. If Salman Khan lifts Jacqueline Fernandez’s skirt without her knowledge in Kick (2014) and she shows anger at first, but soon dances merrily with him, the message to impressionable fans is that women secretly feel flattered by harassment — or what is euphemistically called ‘teasing’.
Impressionable young minds are not the only ones though who shut their eyes to the trivialisation of sexual violence on screen and resist or fail to comprehend non-traditional definitions of consent — and informed consent — off screen.
It’s really quite simple, you know. If she does not know you are doing it, it’s a no. If she does not understand what you are doing, it’s a no. If she says no, it’s a no. If she resists you physically, for god’s sake it’s a no. If she has not said yes, it’s a no. In all the above scenarios, if you replace her with a person of another gender, it’s still a no. And if you don’t have consent but still go ahead, it is rape.
For most people though, the issue of consent arises only at the point of penetrative sex in real life, or on screen with a literal — not metaphorical — depiction or suggestion of forced penetration. Everything up to that instant is considered fair game.
This is why droves of Malayalam film fans defend that scene in Annayum Rasoolum (2013) when Anna is seated on a bus, oblivious to the presence of her stalker Rasool behind her as he quietly passes his hand over her hair.
This is also why the rape of Avanthika by Bahubali is not causing the nationwide outrage that it should.
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on July 18, 2015)

Note: This photograph was not sourced from The Hindu Businessline