Varanasi (formerly Benares) and its burning ghats furnish the unsettling backdrop to interlocked love stories, showing young Indians bucking sexual, moral and caste traditions. MASAAN, the Hindi word for crematorium, is part of the new generation of indie films whose clear intent is to set ablaze a hidebound society’s constrictions on personal liberty.
In the opening scenes, a young couple is shyly trysting for the first time in a cheap hotel room when a squad of angry, muscular police break in. Insulted, brutally beaten and threatened with ruin, this scene ends in tragedy, as the young woman is whisked off to jail. This is Devi (played by an understated, very self-possessed Richa Chadda), an educated and surprisingly independent young woman who tells the police she went to the rendezvous in the hotel “out of curiosity." To save his family’s honor, Devi’s father, a former Sanskrit teacher who now sells trinkets on the ghats, is forced to pay off an impossible bribe to the police captain to keep her shame under wraps.
In the second tale, the tall, romantically good-looking Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is a follower of social media. When he takes up a bet with his pals and asks the pretty Shaalu Gipta (Shweta Tripathi) to be his Facebook friend, it all seems harmless – until they meet and fall in love. The problem is that Shaalu is a middle-class girl from a way higher caste than Deepak, who comes from a long line of corpse-burners on the ghats, miserable souls with faces darkened from the fire, who sift through ashes for bits of gold and valuables.
All the young actors turn in strongly delineated performances that sharpen an understanding of their characters. The brightly blazing bonfires on the river banks at night are among the film’s most eerie and memorable scenes, lensed with an eye to the spectacular by cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware.
MASAAN won a special jury prize for a film debut in Cannes’ Certain Regard as well as a Fipresci mention, boding well for the directorial debut for director Neeraj Ghaywan.
The Asian Cinerama is co-organized by the Asian Film Awards Academy and the Hawaii International Film Festival and is financially supported by Create Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Film Development Fund of the Hong Kong SAR Government.