By Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel
At its heart, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan is a film about space. It is a film about the literal spaces the characters inhabit and the metaphoric ones they leave empty. Set on the banks of Varanasi, the film begins with Devi (Richa Chaddha) heading into a public toilet to change into a saree. She is dolling up to meet her lover (Saurabh Chaudry) in a hotel room trying to hide from the many prying eyes in a small town.
‘Jitna chota sheher, utni choti soch’
A city as narrow as its thinking, Devi laments later in the film.
The separation between the private and public lives of the characters makes up the conflict and the tension in the film. Alongside Devi, Masaan introduces us to Deepak (Vicky Kaushal). Deepak is the son of a crematorium worker, thus belonging to a lower caste, who is trying to escape his inherited fate by pursuing civil engineering. He places hope in education and meritocracy, dreaming of the placement interviews that will take him away from burning bodies and abject suffering.
Both Devi and Deepak cross society’s lines - claiming space they are not allowed - and so they suffer for it. Devi and her lover are caught in a police raid. Her lover kills himself in shame, and Devi is caught in a cycle of blackmail. The cop swings from threatening to book her for abetment of suicide to releasing her barely clad images. Her father (Sanjay Mishra), a frail Sanskrit professor turned bookseller on the banks of the Ganga scrambles to pull together funds to bribe the cop - and make the stain go away.
Deepak falls in love with Shalu (Shweta Tiwari), an upper-caste girl and allows himself to dream of escape. The two make a trip to ‘Sangam’, the sacred spot where the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati river find confluence. The lore goes that a bath here sets one free from cycles of reincarnation and washes away sins. When Shalu asks him where he lives, Deepak is initially tongue-tied and then furious. While the Ganga can wash away sins of a previous life, it cannot distance him from the reality his caste location forces upon him.
He yells at Shalu, telling her she couldn’t bear to come where he lives, painting a morbid picture of death and disorientation. Shalu leaves for a pilgrimage with her family and over the distance they reconcile. She is willing to run away with him - yet tragedy claims the space of hope. Shalu does find herself where Deepak lives, only as a dead body.
The shot of Deepak cremating the girl he loves is a particularly poignant one, capturing the beauty of Neeraj Ghaywan’s storytelling. It is his grief that sets Devi, an absolute stranger at this point, free towards the end. Masaan is a fairy tale, a cruel, dark fairy tale, but Grimms-eque nonetheless. It leans heavily into the symbolism of crisscrossing fates and the small town's desperation for escape.
This strikes a chord with the world outside of the screen. Only 5% of marriages in India are inter-caste, according to the India Human Development Survey. Within that 5%, there is no statistic on how many of those relationships end in success or how many meet the violence that comes with defying the caste norms. But in the study Honour Killings in India: A Study of the Punjab State (2014), inter-caste relationships compromised 44% of the alleged causes of honour killings in Punjab between 2005 and 2012. Whilst a larger proportion of victims were female, often burdened with dishonour, shame or losing their “purity”, lower-caste men were also killed in many cases for involvement with an upper-caste woman. The study also highlighted that in 28% of cases, the honour killings are committed as “crimes of passion aroused by the sudden psychological provocation where the girls are found in compromising conditions with their paramours by their family member/s”.
And with that reflection, it’s pertinent in Masaan as Devi and Deepak’s relationships end with tragedy. The tragedy that can come with trying to escape the space you are in. At two different times, Devi and Deepak are faced with the word ‘jigyasa’ – curiosity. When Devi’s father asks her why she indulged in pre-marital sex, she responds curtly but honestly. To satiate her curiosity. When Shalu badgers Deepak about where he lives, he demands to know why is her curiosity so relentless?
The interplay of privilege - of curiosity and the intersecting oppressions at play in India- of caste, religion and class are made visible in these short exchanges.
The city of Varanasi is both a character and backdrop in the film, and the cinematography does justice to the brutal beauty of a place known for cremations- death and salvation. The bluntness of skulls being cracked and the playfulness of coins being tossed into the Ganga are dealt with equal attention. The music of the film is haunting, poetic and plain beautiful. It gives the jagged tapestry of the broken lives some hope, a sense of solace and gives the narrative its needed transition.
The film’s conclusion is cautious. It does not leave the viewers grim and desolate, but it does not give us an easy ending either. The ends of the story are in many ways tied, and the knot of fate seems firm - both Devi and Deepak have let the grief go into the river. But beyond the symbolism, we are left to wonder, what happens when they return to the land?
Masaan is an honest, intelligent film and makes its viewers ponder. It gives a glimpse into the meso-networks that shape Indian lives- and how it is never possible to truly transcend them. The English title of the film is ‘Fly Away Solo’, however, I’d say the film is about anything but a solo journey. Rather, it is a film about the butterfly effect, where small decisions and moments of jigyasa cause ripples across the river.
About the author
Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel is a Rhodes Scholar in Residence at the University of Oxford. She researches ghosts, haunted houses (literal and metaphoric) and falls in love with cities and words too often. She is currently pursuing a Master's in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and moonlights as a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction and long form journalism. Her Instagram is: @azania_patel