Friday, July 24, 2015


Release date:
July 24, 2015
Neeraj Ghaywan

Richa Chadha, Vicky Kaushal, Sanjay Mishra, Shweta Tripathi, Pankaj Tripathi

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 enduring 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 


  1. Your comment in the CBFC rating column is the reason I come back to read this blog every time... it's so refreshing to see films like masaan and bajrangi bhaijaan, which show that love can and should be respectful and dignified. The filmmakers passing off stalking and molestation as courtship are thrid grade filmmakers who try to hide their own inexperience by saying these things happen in real life...

  2. Ah...(" I confess to having watched them and felt an ache for a youth now gone and an innocence lost forever")....I love how you romance with words, Anna...I look forward to watching this movie...