Some stories are so embedded in their geography that they become the spine of the narrative. Masaan (2015) and Mukti Bhawan (2016) are two films that are rooted in Varanasi. The socio-cultural elements of the city cannot be separated from the narrative of either film. Yet interestingly, the portrayal of the same city happens to have a contradictory face and guise.
Mukti Bhawan opens with the scary ambiguous dream of Daya (Lalit Behl), an elderly person in his 80s. He is convinced that his days are about to end, and hence shares his adamance about spending his last days in Varanasi. The purpose of Daya’s visit is to breathe his last on the holy banks of the Ganga and attain salvation. He is accompanied by his dutiful son, Rajiv (Adil Hussain), who is overwhelmed by work. The film, directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani, portrays a father-son relationship that mends with time.
Masaan, Neeraj Ghaywan’s directorial debut, is a poignant ode to the loss of loved ones. In its hyper-linked narrative, Masaan switches between the lives of two unrelated central characters, Devi (Richa Chadha), and Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), residing in Varanasi. Both of them are victims of grief. Beyond the resemblance in setting and emotion, there is a contradiction in the depiction of Varanasi in both films, which reveals much about socio-economic disparities.
The father-son duo in Mukti Bhawan are visitors to the city. On their spiritual getaway, they see Varanasi in its holy attire. For Masaan’s protagonists, the city is home. They don’t douse Varanasi in piety, instead, their conflicts shed light on harrowing social realities. Devi is in pain after the death of her lover, who committed suicide after they were caught during a police raid in a hotel room. She gets harassed by a world that uses her love against her. For Masaan’s Deepak, who belongs to the Dom community and is thus traditionally expected to cremate bodies, the ghats never brought relief.
While Daya has the privilege to think of salvation, of a life after life, Deepak is occupied in salvaging a future out of his present. After Daya’s passing in Mukti Bhawan, there is an acceptance of death as part of the life cycle. Contrastingly, in Masaan, the characters are imprisoned by their grief. They might be familiar to death, but loss hits them like a ton of bricks. It appears unexpectedly and stays put on arrival.