It is said your first work is always an autobiography of sorts. If this were to be true for Neeraj Ghaywan's debut directorial film, Masaan, it would reflect his idealism in the characters that he has drawn out, characters that make Masaan get under your skin like a familiar feeling. The entire film plays out on the ghats of Benaras that divide the city according to their occupation. You have the ardent lovers, travelling in boats to witness the confluence of two rivers. You have the dead bodies, piled up, charred or half-burnt, waiting for their skulls to be broken. You have the drunk slobbering on the steps, the young boys clad in nothing but thin underwear, their emaciated bodies belying their enthusiasm for life.
As Masaan progresses, the ghats change character from day to night. Ghaywan's ghats perhaps lack the immediacy of Ray's Benaras ghats in the second film of the Apu trilogy, Aparajito, but the characters that dwell Masaan's Benaras leave an imprint, not self-consciously indie (as opposed to aspirational commercial characters, cocky in their ability to entertain ) in their filmic destiny, but honest enough to make such distinctions immaterial.
Avinash Arun's cinematography doesn't stick to a colour tone. As the ghat changes character, so do his skies: The pink and sky-blue quiet riverfront is cut by the burnished orange burning ghat factory, the modern commercialised ghat has a deadpan grey facade, with the provisions for saintliness at Rs 250 a customer at Pathak Ji's provision store adding the only pop of colour to the mundanity. The cinematographer maintains a balance between sweeping romantic shots typical of period films and a roving, documentary style camera to create a world as authentic as it can feel on film. The film's hyper reality is encouraged by the fact that it mostly uses natural locations: looking back at the film, a flurry of images rush past my mind, kitschy paintings in a dingy pastel coloured living room, a torch and sheeshi that sits atop an uncoloured wooden board, dark narrow beds covered with threadbare bedsheets, green fields where lovers pass their time, ramshackle buses full of excited women going for a picnic. Each scene reveals that much more about the film's characters.
Richa Chadda excels at yet another bold woman role, a type of character she has played before, though she does a good job here as Devi Pathak. In disheveled hair put together messily, mismatched printed salwar-kameez and dupatta sets, Chadda's character itches to break free. Her hurried callousness in everyday life masks her inner struggle to escape from a life that she does not want for herself: a respectable life that her old school father insists she live; a working woman, but in the perceived safe fields of education doing an un-ambitious job, domesticated enough to keep house for her father. Sanjai Mishra as Vidyadhar Pathak, former Sanskrit teacher, currently running a pooja provisions shop by the ghat, is uplifting in the film; his character changes from an aggrieved father of an errant daughter whose world he does not understand, to a tongue-tied defenceless man in this new world that is out to cheat him, the proverbial pure lotus in the muck, to a man reduced to desperate measures in desperate times. As Vicky Kaushal's character Deepak Chaudhary grows in the film, it is difficult to tell them apart, a feat noteworthy for both the director and the actor. Chaudhary's shy, unassuming character is lovingly, if partially etched — the conflict in his story arises out of his destiny, and not a character flaw. It is difficult to not feel for Chaudhary, his earnestness is not enough to help him reach the destiny he plans for himelf. Masaan's climax, like its characters, is quiet, and inwards looking, and its effectiveness lies in the fact that the film's narrative is cleaved around its few but strong characters.