27 July 2015

A River Runs Through It

Yesterday's Mirror column:

Masaan brings to life a Banaras of sweetness and power, melding the ache of the old with the shock of the new.

Masaan ticks many of the boxes people might think of when they think of Banaras. There is a retired Sanskrit teacher, and a drunken dom raja. There is the pulsating excitement of Durga Puja, and the quiet tableau of life along the ghats. But this Banaras is neither the sweetened Yash Raj variety that leavened the teariness of Pradip Sarkar's Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), nor the relentlessly dialoguebaaz version that enlivened the first half of Aanand L Rai's Raanjhana (2013). Rai and his scriptwriter Himanshu Sharma might be said to have specialised in a self-referential, sardonic, streetsmart Banaras - opening their film with Kundan (Dhanush) remembering his first sight of Zoya (Sonam) in childhood as "Banaras's first gift to me", or having Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub wistfully declare, "Mohalle ke laundon ka pyaar aksar doctor aur engineer utha ke le jaate hain" only to have our hero Kundan retort with "Murari, yeh Banaras hai. Agar launda sala yahan bhi haar gaya, toh jeetega kahan?" The masculine energy of the city that the film channelled was perhaps best summed up in the song "Banarasiya", in which Irshad Kamil punned on the word for a denizen of Banaras and the fact of becoming a pleasure-seeker, a lover: "bana rasiya". 

For Masaan, director Neeraj Ghaywan and scriptwriter Varun Grover adopt a very different tone. Here Banaras is not a label to be tossed around for pleasure, or invoked for drama. Grover and Ghaywan are talented enough to deposit us smack bang in the middle of everything that makes the city unique, and alternate wordlessly yet powerfully, between the grand narratives that Banaras makes so effortlessly possible and the small-town self it clings to with such tenacity. 

"Chhoti jagah, chhoti soch," mutters Richa Chaddha's Devi in a moment of disgust at the place she must call home, a place where the Banarasiya hero might take his pleasure, but which can only stifle spirited, curious young women like her. For Devi, Banaras holds no romance. It is a North Indian small town like any other, complete with stultifying sexual morality and venal corruption, and even the internet cannot offer freedom from its terrible lack of anonymity. The virtual world opens up a window - but leads down an abyss. 

In the film's second narrative thread, too, the city shackles its inhabitants. It is the internet - Facebook, to be precise - that enables an otherwise unlikely encounter, bringing the son of a corpse-burning dom into contact with the poetry-reciting daughter of a well-off Baniya family. The astoundingly talented Vicky Kaushal plays Deepak with a haunting mixture of passion and resignation. In what is possibly Deepak's most memorable scene (and there are many) with the charming Shalu (Shweta Tripathi, superbly underplayed), she asks him playfully why he hasn't taken her home, and makes several chirpy attempts to guess where he lives. Unable to deal with her light-hearted banter about a geography that for him is laden with unwanted meaning, Deepak explodes into cruelty. 

The motifs of stagnation and escape, of crossing over and staying put, recur through the film in other forms. Grover makes marvellous use of the Hindi poet Dushyant Kumar's lines, "Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai, main pul sa thartharata hoon" ("You pass by like some train, I tremble like a bridge") to produce an all-new love song. The train passing in the distance comes a little closer when our protagonists take jobs in the railways - and yet, as the railway babu (played wonderfully by Pankaj Tripathi) points out, of the trains that come to the station, only 28 stop. 64 just pass by. 

What flows through everything is the Ganga, churning the lives of all the film's characters into a single swirling stream. It is upon its banks, by the raging fires of Manikarnika, that they must embrace death, and from its murky waters that they must draw a renewed desire for life. 

In what is perhaps the film's most underrated thread, a precocious little boy called Jhonta (the winsome Nikhil Sahni) tries to help his blustering Guruji (Sanjay Mishra, in his finest turn since Ankhon Dekhi) by literally diving into the depths. And here, too, the river offers something like resolution. 

It is fitting, then, that when the film does leave Banaras, it is not to go too far away: not London or New York, nor even Delhi or Bombay. It is to the Sangam in Allahabad - the point where the Ganga meets the Yamuna and the hidden, mythical Saraswati. And the Sangam proves worthy of the name. 

Masaan is beautifully conceived, and lyrically shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun (who directed one of the best films of recent years, the Konkan-set Killa. I have two complaints about the film: one about a figure of unrelieved evil, and the second that there is one grand plot twist too many: I felt a bit manipulated. But to have made a film about a city and a river as overdetermined as Banaras and the Ganga, to have taken something so heavily laden with meaning and made it seem fresh, is a huge achievement. To have done so while also making us weep, for our past and our present and our future, is an unmitigated triumph.

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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