Trains, both metaphorical and literal, are at the heart of Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan. They are a surprising metaphor for the stirrings of first love. As two young people fall in love, a beautiful couplet unfolds on the soundtrack: “Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai/ Main kisi pul sa thartharata hoon”. Like the locomotive that ran past fields of kash in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, train are also symbolic of escape. It’s no coincidence that both Devi (Richa Chadha) and Deepak (Vicky Kaushal)—the central figures of Masaan’s parallel story strands, each looking to escape Banaras and its limitations—find jobs working with the railways.
Trains also contribute to one of the gentler moments of heartbreak in the film, which won two awards in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. We already know that Devi wants to leave her home in Banaras, find a job worthy of her qualifications and escape the moral censure of her father, Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra), a former Sanskrit teacher, now a pandit at the city’s holy ghats. She gets a job as a ticket seller at the railway station, informs her father she might move out. But one day, over lunch, her sweetly plainspoken co-worker explains that of all the trains coming to the station, only 28 stop, while 64 pass through. It’s easy to come here, he says, but it’s difficult to leave.
This is not what Devi—or the audience—wants to hear. The odds have been stacked against her ever since the opening minutes, when her maiden romantic tryst with her boyfriend at a motel is broken in on by the police. The boyfriend panics, locks himself in the bathroom and slits his wrist. Instead of hushing things up, the police officer in charge tells Vidyadhar that he must come up with Rs.3 lakh—a sum way beyond his means—to prevent a video of his daughter turning up online. Vidyadhar—conservative, shattered—takes his frustration out on his daughter, asking her why she brought shame upon him when he “let her free, like a boy”. Devi lashes out at him at well, accusing him of contributing to her mother’s death.
As Vidyadhar scrambles around for money and Devi gathers up the shards of her dignity, another, seemingly lighter story unfolds. Deepak, a young college student in a family of professional cremators, meets Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi). She lives in a nicer part of town, and her surname—Gupta—indicates that her caste is a lot higher than his, in a city that really cares about such things. As the already-fragile relationship between Devi and her father frays, Shaalu and Deepak become close, a progression played with delicate humour by Kaushal and Tripathi.
By the end, you feel like you know these people very well: Vidyadhar, trying, failing, and then trying again to be a good man; Devi, whose mortification gives way to righteous anger; the small-town coquettishness of Shaalu and Deepak’s inability to keep whatever he’s feeling from registering on his face. Even the smaller roles are beautifully etched out—Devi’s railway station colleague (played by Pankaj Tripathi) is as loving a parody of a small-town government official as I’ve ever seen.
Masaan doesn’t strive for effect—it achieves it by degrees. No one stands out, but everyone does an outstanding job. Grover’s screenplay has a depth of observation and a sense of timing that point to his twin careers as lyricist and stand-up comic. Cinematographer Avinash Arun comes up with the same unfussy, simple compositions that marked his own directorial debut, Killa. Indian Ocean contribute three evocative songs (the score, by Bruno Coulais and them, is over-insistent). The performances are near-perfect: Mishra tortured and prickly, Chadha tamping down her natural combativeness until it’s no longer possible, and Kaushal making a supremely confident debut. And in his first film, Ghaywan (who assisted Anurag Kashyap, one of the film’s producers, on Gangs of Wasseyur) sees that everything comes together simply and movingly.
I don’t think there was any great need for the two stories to intersect—it’s one of the few times the film makes a decision that’s a nod to convention and not something that deepens our understanding of the characters. (One could argue, on the other hand, that the idea of sangam (confluence) is teased throughout the film.) Yet, apart from this, hardly anything happens that’s inconsistent with the film’s world or its elegiac tone. This could have been a film about gender rights, caste and small-town corruption, but these issues are only acknowledged to the extent that they affect the characters. We’re wrapped in their lives, and like any great film, we’re anxious for the future well-being in the end. I left the hall thinking not of pandits and funeral pyres, but of sooji ka halwa as atonement, of a young boy desperate to dive for coins, of red balloons loosed into the night-time sky.
This review appeared in Mint.