At the 68th Cannes Film Festival held this year, a small film made by a first-time director made waves, winning two awards, including the Promising Future prize in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section. Watching Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan at its first screening in India, one could sense why it has reached where others haven't. Set for release later this month, the film is rich in both content and form, and has an assured confidence about telling its story its own way. It is set in Banaras, but feels like it could be the story of any other place in contemporary India, and not just of a small town. The flux its protagonists go through reflects the ongoing flux around us, with socially expected roles of caste and gender acting as barriers.
Written by Varun Grover, Masaan mainly traces the story of two people, both of whom have desires that challenge society's expectations of them. For Richa Chadha's Devi Pathak, gender is a constraint which makes her need to explore her sexuality, an issue that can be exploited by the outside world. Vicky Kaushal's Deepak Choudhary, on the other hand, might be privileged when it comes to gender, but not when it comes to caste - he belongs to the Dom community which cremates bodies at the Banaras ghats. Devi and Deepak's lives are separate, but are about the same struggle. The connections between their stories never seem forced because they are united thematically - aspirations in a constrained society.
Many of these constraints come from caste and one of Masaan's strengths is that unlike most Hindi cinema, it actually talks about caste, and understands the ways in which it shapes people's interactions. Caste here is not static, it is a lived reality. More importantly it is not invisible and modernity has not meant that it has become redundant, a truth that mainstream Hindi cinema finds difficult to portray. This understanding reflects not just in the scenes in which it is obvious - Deepak's fear about confessing his caste to his upper caste girlfriend Shaalu, for instance, or his father's anguish about the structural injustice in how the ghats' labour is distributed. It is there also in smaller moments which in another film may not have been about caste: when his friends first track down Shaalu on Facebook, what they notice admiringly is her surname, the key to her caste. Interactions such as these reflect a perceptive and well-thought out screenplay by Grover which understands why the characters say what they do. Sitting at a restaurant with Shaalu, the only way Deepak knows how to express his attraction towards her is the protective - "Tell me if anyone bothers you".
While this quality is its strength, in some scenes the thought behind it shows, rather than it being a seamless part of their story. Perhaps we needed more time to get to know its characters. Still, it is to director Neeraj Ghaywan and editor Nitin Baid's credit that the film remains taut, and this is helped by Ghaywan's focus on telling the story without distraction. You are never made aware of the craft of his filmmaking technique, even when beautifully shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware.
The actors effortlessly become a part of this world and therefore also help create it - Richa Chadha in an understated performance as the determined Devi, Bhagwan Tiwari as a corrupt police officer, child actor Nikhil Sahni as Jhonta, Vineet Kumar as Deepak's father and Shweta Tripathi as the poetry-loving Shaalu.
Sanjay Mishra, especially, plays Devi's father Vidyadhar Pathak with a gentleness that the character requires. Watch him as he gets worried when Jhonta disappears under the ghat waters for too long, or the way he expresses his concern for Devi by holding onto her hand just a minute longer as she boards a train. Playing Deepak, newcomer Vicky Kaushal too shows promise. He is good especially in a pivotal pyre scene as he manages to convey that he is someone for whom handling the dead is a matter of routine and contact with a dead body is not a reason for shock.
The film could have seen people themselves as barriers to the young protagonists' desires. Mishra's Vidyadhar Pathak could easily have been an authoritative and judgemental father, but he is not. He is merely conflicted since he lives in a society which places restrictions on women, and where systems of law are exploitative, even though on his part he has given his daughter freedom. Likewise, Deepak's father too is hopeful about his future and wants him to escape, even as he seems a bit resigned about his own. The young therefore are not the only ones wanting change. These are choices the film has made, which work well in pointing towards a larger structural system which is at play, beyond individual good or bad actions.
The other striking aspect of this characterisation is its acknowledgment of the rise in aspirations across castes in post-liberalisation India. Its protagonists live in a small town India of desires and love, as much as frustration and corrupt law systems. Only Deepak's brother Sikander (Bhupesh Singh) is shown as resentful, but the film does not ponder on him though his actions do guide one part of the story. Despite being titled Masaan (cremation), Ghaywan chooses to see hope in the situation as the film's protagonists learn to move on by relying on the few opportunities they manage to find - a government job where the hiring process is relatively corruption-free, a gentle father, the opportunities that education provides and so on.
At the same time, by not telling us where this process might end, the film passes no grand hopeful judgement on it. This ambiguity underlines its contemporary and ongoing nature, making it reflective of the tussle between individual choices and societal constraints happening around us today. We don't know where its protagonists go from here, but we don't know where they cannot go either. Masaan sees them, like a line from a Bashir Badr poem used in the film, as travellers on a journey.