Director: Neeraj Ghaywan
Cast: Richa Chadha, Sanjay Mishra, Vicky Kaushal
Masaan means crematorium. The film begins with a woman watching porn. Sex and death follow. The first 15 minutes are so startling and sad that you sit up and wonder, what's coming next?
Debutant director Neeraj Ghaywan and writer Varun Grover construct a tapestry of bruised and broken lives set against a 5,000-year-old backdrop: The city of Varanasi.
A young, spirited woman, Devi (played by Richa Chadha), grapples with tragedy and blackmail. A young boy, Deepak (played by Vicky Kaushal), falls in love but the sweet, giddy encounters between him and his girlfriend are shadowed by his caste. Deepak's father is the Dom Raja of the burning ghats. When Deepak is not in college, he is burning corpses, sweeping ash and helping weeping strangers to split skulls.
There's Devi's father (played by Sanjay Mishra), a former Sanskrit teacher who becomes bent over with helplessness and shame. And a feisty young boy named Jhonta who, like Devi and Deepak, refuses to let his circumstances define him. The fifth character is Varanasi itself — soaked in history and death, caste and corruption. Neeraj and his cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware capture, with equal precision, the beauty and the brutality.
The key to making multiple narratives work is the screenplay. Neeraj and Varun manage to intertwine the four lives largely without strain. Poetic interludes and the haunting soundtrack by Indian Ocean ease the transitions between drama, romance and tragedy.
There are a few awkward patches and the pacing dips in places. Some might also find the ending too pat; the various threads come together a little too neatly. But by then I was so devastated that I needed comfort. Thankfully, Neeraj leaves us with a smidgen of solace and hope.
The assured direction and writing are bolstered by wonderful performances. Even Richa's backbone seems to be acting — her erect posture defies her suffocating surroundings. When a cop asks her why she went to a hotel room with a boy, she replies, "Jigyasa" (Curiosity).
Devi feels guilt but not shame — she won't be cowed down and she won't allow us to judge her. She reminded me of Anurag Kashyap's Paro in Dev.D — a small-town girl who takes a mattress into a field to make love.
Sanjay Mishra's grief is so palpable that it gets under your skin. Even the actors with smaller roles, like Shweta Tripathi and Pankaj Tripathi, make an impression. But the real find is Vicky Kaushal. He inhabits Deepak completely. When he falls in love, his face lights up. His joy is infectious. Which is why when he weeps, you break down with him. This is the debut of the year. At one point in Masaan, a character points out that there are 28 trains that stop at Varanasi but 68 that don't. Matlab yahaan aana aasan hai, par yahan se jaana mushkil.