People’s orbits around each other constantly evolve, change, and then catch other tracks, even as their paths cross, sometimes just as shadows on each other, in a universe where darkness and light are in a constant tussle, where both defy conventional definitions – dark needn’t imply bad, light might just not be the source of purity that it seemingly epitomizes. In this finely threaded, overpopulated, confused, and struggling world of human beings, how does one zoom into just a couple of people and observe them? And not observe them with the nonchalance of someone who’s passing by, but observe them with the keenness of someone who begins to care for these people, who is drawn into their world step by step, who can nod at their foibles knowingly, laugh at the small jokes that don’t seem laughable to them yet, crinkle eyes at situations where the only salvation and solution seems pain?
That person could be you, as you watch “Masaan”. And the person who does the zooming in for you would be director Neeraj Ghaywan, assisted in his writing by Varun Grover. And the people you would be looking at would be Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda), her father Vidyadhar Pathak (Sanjay Mishra), a very young, spirited, mischievous child called Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni), Inspector Mishra (Bhagwan Tiwari), Deepak Chaudhary (Vicky Kaushal), the love of his life Shaalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi), and Sadhya Ji (Pankaj Tripathy).
As you step into their world in Banaras, you watch with growing horror at Devi getting caught in a seedy hotel with her boyfriend, giving in to what was “curiosity” (as she tells her equally horrified father in a later scene). You watch as Inspector Mishra, who conducts the raid, puts Devi and her boyfriend to shame and he attempts to end his life. Then, you watch helplessly as he begins hounding Devi and Vidyadhar, and they have no choice but to succumb to his blackmail. You nod in sympathy as Vidyadhar struggles with his internal moral compass, and employs young Jhonta’s swimming skills to a hopeless ly swimming game of gamble.
You look out the other balcony and see love is in the air – between the unlikely pair of Deepak, son of a corpse burner, low in caste, but high on ambition and sincerity, and Shaalu, a darling of a girl from a higher caste. You smile as love blossoms, and think life is beautiful, but gasp in horror, yet again, as their story steps into stygian darkness.
The director and the cast take you into this world with such ease and beauty that you don’t realize you’re actually watching life’s layers weaving interminably and unceasingly. Richa Chadda coruscates with determination and defiance, her owning up her desire and curiosity doing nothing to comfort her father. She’s understated, yet powerful, a winner all the way, even as she wages a lonely battle to seek redemption and closure from her boyfriend’s family. Sanjay Mishra is a class-act, his world-weary Vidyadhar oscillating beautifully between parental anger, angst, fear, and worry. When he breaks down in his daughter’s lap, he takes you down with you. When he yells in terror at Jhonta missing in the waters, you want to yell with him, when he pleads with Inspector Mishra for grace, for a waiver, you beseech too. Bhagwan Tiwari as the inspector is brilliant – cold, ruthlessly usurious, and pitch perfect.
And then there’s the debutante pair – Shweta Tripathi is absolutely adorable as the higher caste girl who ribs and smiles into love with Deepak Chaudhary. Vicky Kaushal is a mesmerizing find, effortlessly likeable and endearing. As he falls for Shalu, his shy, introverted demeanor wins you over even before it does her. And later, in a painfully beautiful drunken scene, when he wails “Why doesn’t this pain end?” , he tears your heart out.
Director Ghaywan handles his matter with beautifully nuanced scenes and turns, using Indian Ocean’s music to spike your watching experience just that much more. He’s sure of what he wants to show, and how much. The rest, he leaves to you mull upon, like life itself. Note the scene where Inspector Mishra comes to Vidhyadar’s shop to demand money. Until that point, he seems a deep shade of black. But when another character just peeps into the movie and the shop, your perspective does a volte-face. Ghaywan doesn’t offer any explanation – but you wonder, how can Tiwari be this way? Or, is he this way because? Or, the scene where Richa Chadda goes to her boyfriend’s house to meet his parents. You know she’s seeking closure, but the director doesn’t let you inside the house. In a beautifully crafted scene, he keeps the camera outside the gate, while you stare at the main door, the outsider listening to the upheaval inside the house.
You realize how deeply Ghaywan’s involved you with the characters when Devi walks into her new job at the railway station ticketing office and is greeted by Sadhya Ji – the ever brilliant Pankaj Tripathy. Your first instinct is to be distrustful of this man – after all, that’s what Devi’s experienced all the time you’ve been with her.
“Masaan” is a multi-layered experience of what life offers, and how life, love, death, and redemption can all converge at a confluence that’s not of any one person’s making, but a series of choices and events that may or may not be in anybody’s control. And that is the enigma called life, that’s given to us with strings attached – known, unknown, visible, invisible, some tied by others, others of our own weaving machine. As Sadhya Ji tells Devi, “It’s easy to arrive at this station, but very difficult to get out.” Much like the movie itself, whose embers will continue to warm you from within, long after you’ve walked out of the cinema hall.
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Watch the trailer of Masaan here: