Do you remember ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’? Bollywood’s adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. There’s love and there’s blood in it. And rebellion too. Lots of it.
So when you watch ‘Masaan’ (meaning crematorium), a song from ‘Qayamat Se’ plays in the background as Deepak and Shaalu indulge in romance. With “Ghazab ka hai din socho zara” as the background score, the rebellion in ‘Masaan’ finds a subtle reinforcement.
Residents of the ancient city of Benaras, star-crossed lovers Deepak and Shaalu belong to different social castes. The boy, a student of civil engineering, is a member of a family that has been giving ‘mukti’ to the dead for generations. They cremate the dead, smash skulls of corpses, which are then washed in the river Ganga for the final rites. They have a community of their own but in the larger social circle they are outcasts, who spend their days and nights among burning pyres.
His girl friend is a Gupta, of higher caste. So, they can never go far in their relationship, the boy’s friends insist.
One night, working in the crematorium by the river, the boy has to cremate the body of his girl friend. Yes, his family profession – if not family members themselves in this case – spells doom for his life. She was travelling with her family to Uttarakhand on a pilgrimage when the bus met with an accident.
In the eyes of the world, it was an illicit relationship. And yet, debut director Neeraj Ghaywan uses his intelligence and departs from what could have been a done-to-death Bollywood storyline. The parents of the lovers would have come to know of their children’s relationship. Tragedy would have anyway befallen or they would have eloped only to be traced back home to more misery, and in an extreme situation murder.
Even as the film-maker bypasses the familiar story route, tragedy does exist in the film. But in Shaalu’s death and in not allowing their marriage to materialise, the rebellion is nipped in the bud.
Devi (played by Richa Chadda) is caught by the police having sex with a man in a hotel room. The man commits suicide in the room’s toilet. Devi and her widower father, a professor, deal with the scandal as a rapacious cop blackmails them for a ransom of three lakh rupees.
The police had no business to gatecrash someone’s private life when they didn’t have a tip off about a suspected “prostitution case”. They don’t investigate the case either, given their intimidating presence in the hotel room.
From Kashi, Devi moves on, to Allahabad, to pursue higher studies – that’s what she tells her father. She visits the dead man’s family in Allahabad, whose father breaks down when she walks into the house.
Disappointed by life, Devi and Deepak are by themselves. He is sitting at a ghat in Allahabad. She’s crying close by. [They don’t know each other, yet.] His family is in Benaras as he has moved to this city on a temporary posting at the railways.
In the final scene, they are on a boat that’s going towards the Allahabad sangam, the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati.
“They say, you go to the sangam alone and then again with someone,” Deepak tells Devi as the sun sets on the river.
The climax is open-ended. We don’t know whether Deepak goes back to seeing other women and whether Devi finally meets a man to start a normal life.
But it’s an illicit life, isn’t it? You must obey. You must conform. You must not “think” too much. Otherwise, rendered a criminal – whether by law or family norms – you must seek refuge in your loneliness.
In isolation, and in anonymity, away from the obtrusive gaze of family or society, Devi and Deepak find peace, if not happiness, to be themselves.
Scandal and death aside, ‘Masaan’ is everyone’s story.