Masaan (2015 Hindi film, an Indian/French co-production, a directed by Neeraj Ghaywan)

This film bathes a little in the reflected glory of Anugar Kashyap’s 2012 Hindi film Gangs of Wasseypur. The director was also involved with that film as were two of the main actors (female star Richa Chadda and Pankaj Tripathi) and it is also shot in Varanasi. Masaan, however, is also a very worthwhile film. Two seemingly separate stories, an inter-caste romance on the one hand and a story, on the other, of a mild sexual adventure that results, after a police raid, in the suicide of the boy and the victimization of the girl and her family. Both stories are centred on the Varanasi ghats and the two strands eventually converge in an elegant, if rather artificial, manner. Varanasi is an irresistible venue (at least in films) and, while the cinematography is for the most part rather ordinary, the night-filming of the cremation-ghat is very impressive.

Although there are some honourable exceptions, the subject of caste has very largely been taboo in Hindi films. The tendency has always been to represent all conflicts as those of class. Evidently “caste” and “class” have much in common; one might even argue that caste has its origin in the attempt to perpetuate class-difference by making it hereditary. Nevertheless the two remain distinct and the importance of both to Indian identity seems to me undeniable.  This is in some ways perhaps even clearer to a foreigner.  When a foreigner is new to India, Indians avoid talking about caste (just like Hindi films) and it is only over time that one learns how important caste is and how foolish it is not to accept that fact openly. Caste does not go away when people cease to talk about it and the pretence simply makes it more difficult to confront and resolve the problems associated with it.

The “caste” situation presented in this film is a particularly interesting one because it focuses not only on the “doms”, an ethnic group, partly nomadic, partly settled, that is widespread throughout the subcontinent, but on a very specific “dom” community in Varanasi who are traditionally responsible for the cremation of the dead. Doms as a whole in fact traditionally exercised many professions (including that, as the name implies, of “drummer”) but this particular community has seemingly become “trapped” – this at least is the message of the film – in a way of life that is almost by definition marginal both in terms of caste and of class.  Moreover, if the characters in the film are to be believed, the degree of oppression faced by the community has become worse rather than better in the modern context of a modern economy with the erosion of whatever privileges they did once enjoy that has rendered their quasi-sacral status something of an empty joke.

The boy from this community seeks in time-honoured fashion to escape from his fate by means of education; his romance with the girl follows conventional lines (plans to elope) until disaster strikes in the form of a road-accident that horrifyingly serves up the corpse of the beloved as a customer for her lover, the cremator’s son. In the parallel plot, as in the Marathi film reviewed last week, Court, the notorious (but soon to be deleted) section 309 of the Indian Penal Code on “abetment to suicide” raises its ugly head but this time it is not central to the film. It is simply one of the means used by a crooked police officer to blackmail his victims. Here again the continuation is much as expected (blackmail by the policeman, misery for her father, harassment at work, the obligation to take a relatively dull and ill-paid job).

Unlike Court, this film does not take an outsider’s view of the stories it relates, nor does it overdramatize them or descend into. There is no stereotypical conflict between generations. The father of the boy has no illusions about the situation of their caste (it is he in fact who describes their plight in a particularly fine scene) and he gives his son every encouragement to get away. The father of the girl, although devastated by the misfortune her behavior brings upon them, is basically both liberal and kindly in his attitudes.  Even the police officer is quite a humdrum, matter-of-fact villain.  The corruption in this film is quite clearly in the society, not in the people themselves.

The film is a co-production and, when I saw that the music-arranger was French and that the songs were provided by a Delhi “fusion” rock band, I rather feared the worst. I was quite wrong.  The background score is delicate and very unobtrusive while Indian Ocean produce music that is entirely respectful of Indian tradition. This is important in a film where the music plays an integral role and where it is closely associated with classical poetry, a taste for which imparts a certain originality to an otherwise typical boy-girl romance.  The music constitutes one of the notable strengths of the film. The acting is generally excellent, particularly, to my mind, the senior members, Sanjay Mishra as the father of the girl and Bhupesh Singh as the father of the boy, while Pankaj Tripathi is also very good as the desperately dull but well-meaning railway official who importantly provides some light relief in what is otherwise a very bleak film.

I have some reserves about the writing although, as with Court, the international critics supposedly singled it out for praise.  There are elements of originality in Varun Grover’s script but they only surprise in a Hindi film; a film dealing frankly with caste problems and caste conflict would not be in the least remarkable if it were Tamil. And there is an artificiality in the writing that marks it, like Court, as a “well-written” film that gives more importance to elegance of structure than to the dynamics of story-telling.  The joining of the two strands, structurally necessary but of no real interest to the viewer, involves improbable coincidences (the tragic end to the romance in one case and the lucky find that solves the financial problems in the other) and the ending, though it thankfully avoids any overtly “happy end”, is a shade too neat to be true.  The unashamedly commercial 2004 Tamil film. Kadhal, which remains a personal favourite of mine, covered in many ways similar sociological ground.  It made no attempt at elegance but it had a good deal more oomph in its narrative.