The Simple and Stellar Rise of Modern Indian Cinema
After a four weeks spell in Mauritius, and an indubitable return to the US, I promised myself not to fall apart and break down like a little spoilt child. Like a drowning man, I seemed to be groping mentally for things to hold on to on the flight back…Should I continue reading Eknath Easwaran’s Gandhi, which remains one of the cornerstone books if you want to feel that all your so-called ‘problems’ and ‘issues’ are not really life-threatening? Or, still more, if you want to ‘re-fall’ in love with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi all over again? But no and no, laziness, sheer laxism made me toss all literature aside. No books for this flight, only movies.
What with a feeling of general tiredness in flights and a desire to lure the mind to a lull, I chose instead a movie on the famously always hedonistic movie offering on most Emirates flights. The movie was ‘Masaan’.
Held in great regard by the ever-important international western audience, ‘Masaan’ had won the ‘Promising Future Prize 2015’ in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category at the 2015 Cesar awards. It was Neeraj Ghaywan’s immediate passport to fame and future, after the award by a jury led by Isabella Rosellini. Ghaywan now forms part of the elite list of Indian filmmakers (my eternal favourites being Anurag Kasyap, Kanu Behl, Vishal Bhardwaj, Suman Ghosh, etc) who always seem to be striving hard, against the almost impossible odds of making the next Bollywood commercial blockbusters, to give us an alternative hard look at Indian life outside the usual songs, dances, lollipops of Bollywood. These same lollipops that really do not really last more than a few hours after one leaves the theatre for the drive home.
These filmmakers can make movies that send very powerful messages, and at the same time, raise flags to international audiences with the message: yes, there is indeed an emergence of what we can call serious modern Indian realist movies. As reminder, ‘Un Certain Regard’ category (originally started by Gilles Jacob) coagulates what we all truly love from the French, a genius to pick up nouveau art films from across the world. Think for a second if the superficial US Oscars committee would invent something of any semblance to this. Whilst in the US we continue to banter and are mired in the clear racism of Hollywood (remember with ‘Creed’ black actors were invisible – they in fact did not exist), entretemps the eclectic French are already very busy picking up wonderful artistic gems all over the world, cherishing them, and giving the world a new look at world culture. Je suis a French culture lover.
‘Masaan’, from the root word Shmashaan, by definition, means a crematorium, a place where dead bodies are cremated. Ghaywan’s choice of this title word already gives you a firm idea of what actual aspect of modern life his camera will be indiscrimatively focusing on. In fact ‘masaan’ the subject, is the metaphorical plight of the modern disenfranchised youth of India, and could very well be applicable to Mauritian youth too. I will not spoil the whole movie for my friends, but really wish to touch on a few key points.
The story line is structured in the old realistic lines in the same breath as the great Krzysztof Kieslowsk: to construct stories from two opposite ones and somehow relate them to each other at a specific turning point of the movie. This is done in such a way as to give the audience a ray of hope in what will in fact be a very deep, excruciatingly emotional ride for two hrs. When the two stories meet you almost feel a jolt of joy in your body. All is connected, all youth are in fact humming the same tune, and they just do not know it!
The first story is the seemingly common Delhiites story of girl-meeting-boy and looking for an escape, an adventure from the dreary dead end of their poor lives, but getting caught up with the corrupt and poisonous Kafkaesque super-structure of India’s civil service sector (i.e. police). In a moment of private intimacy (obviously ratted upon by the hotel manager) the boy and girl get caught in a web of blackmail. This deceitful, corrupt system sucks the lives out of ordinary citizens, and like a fish trap, anyone falling in the web is doomed. The girl is recorded on camera by the constable, but the boy feeling shame and deeply hurt takes his own life right on spot. To use the juxtaposition of modern communication methods as both useful tools as well as torture, Ghaywan seems to be showing us how in addition to making communication swift and easy in a the country on the wild road to modernity, it is also very much used for the worst purposes as an oppressive torture tool. Easily accessible Indian phone cameras are the number one weapon to blackmail innocent girls.
The second story is also about youth except that this time the oppression is the dehumanising force of extreme poverty and the illogical silliness of the caste system (still well alive in backward Indian states).
Boy # 2 is brilliant but apparently of the cobbler class. He is an aspiring civil engineer, whose father works hard to make ends meet, by burning bodies at the Harishchandra Ghat in Benaras.
Boy # 2 admirably played by Vicky Kaushal falls in love with an upper caste girl. The construct to the two falling in love is simple, a delight, innocent and wonderfully constructed by Ghaywan because it reeks of the true innocence of the youth. A youth in search of itself whose love of life has no space for caste and class barriers.
The boy makes his way up on the ladder of love and is given more solid chances to seal his tryst with destiny, but a terrible turn of events sees him actually having to help his father one night, to discover that the body he was helping to cremate was his bien-aimée, who in the meantime had perished in a tragic bus accident on her way to a pilgrimage.
It is perfectly fine that I spelt out the story above, because this is where Ghaywan is a clear genius and the movie needs to be watched with love. It is at this very point that Vicky Kaushal emerges as a future star, because without falling into crudeness and overacted pain, he symbolizes the trauma that today’s youth go through on a daily basis. They want union with peace, but in fact what they get is a cremation of all their hopes. A ray of hope does emerge at the end when girl from story #1 meets boy from # 2 both en route to Sangam. In Hindu tradition Triveni Sangam is the ‘confluence’ of three rivers.
Sangama is the Sanskrit word for confluence. The point of confluence is a sacred place for Hindus. So boy and girl will take a symbolic bath here to flush away the past and be ready for rebirth. There is hope then… always.
We end with a few lines of poetry from the movie by poets Chakbast and Dushshant, which depict the plights of all youth in the world, facing tragic fates, disjointed lives, impossible destinies, but finding love at the end.
What is life? A delicate arrangement of the five elements
What is death? A disarray of these elements
Hide these stars safely in my eyes, the night will be a long one
Wanderers like us, will meet somewhere, perhaps in the morning light
You move like the misty morning train,
I tremble like a bridge in the rain
In the deep jungle of your gaze
I lose my way, no trail to blaze
* Published in print edition on 18 March 2016