Ghosts of Ganga and the Dazzling Display of Death in Masaan

When I try to paint a picture of the Ganga in my mind, I mostly imagine a pristine river with the rising Sun at the horizon. That’s how we all have been conditioned to imagine the holy river. Ganga stands for purity, tranquility and piousness; a river that may have been abundantly polluted over the centuries but, as per the millions’ belief and reverence, still holds the magical power to purify the polluted. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan paints such a contrasting picture of the holy river and its mythical home –Varanasi that it shakes your conscience and unravels the ghosts that lie quietly somewhere deep inside the river bed.

Our films mostly shoot on the Varanasi’ Ganga Ghats in the morning. The serenity of the morning light, the splendid sight of the boats sailing on the waters, the believers paying their obedience to the Almighty, and the sound of hymns and bells of devotion; all of these make for a stunning visual. In stark contrast, Masaan (the word means crematorium in English) has a protagonist, Deepak (played by the brilliant Vicky Kaushal), who dives into the Ganga river at night, burns dead bodies at its bank early in the morning, hits the dead body’s skull and limbs back into burning pyre so that the last rites are seamless, and he also cries and howls in seething pain at its bank.

Masaan’s Ganga is dark, its waters black and its banks are abodes of implicit human agony and anguish. And most importantly, Masaan’s Ganga is a means to achieve the greatest closure any living being can wish for – death.

masaan-story_647_072115010130Masaan’s portrayal of the Ganga and its Ghats in Varanasi is innately disturbing but hauntingly beautiful. You are constantly at unease when visuals of burning death pyres hit you at an alarming regularity but never ever you are able to take your eyes off the screen. And that’s the biggest achievement of Masaan and its makers. They throw the greatest reality of life (how ironic that it is nothing but death) on your face but juxtapose it with subtle messaging and a heartwarming story that grips you like a hawk’s claws. Masaan haunts you long after you have left the theater. The visuals stick to your brain.

I have always been intrigued and rather fascinated with themes of death in popular literature and art. JK Rowling brilliantly introduced the beauty of mortality to her young and impressionable readers. Mitch Albom is one of my favorite authors these days as his books throw a different light on death, loss and longing (in no particular order). Neeraj Ghaywan joins the elite list with Masaan. His film takes away the perceived fear and brutality of death and celebrates its inevitability.

That death is often succeeded by a numbing feeling of loss is a universal fact. And loss, either by death or by separation, is succeeded by a strong sense of longing. Masaan’s principal characters epitomize the trinity of death, loss and longing. Here are some excellently conceptualized and seamlessly executed sequences from Masaan that give us ample indication that Neeraj Ghaywan is a man who likes to keep the reality naked:

  1. In a heart wrenching sequence in the second half, Vidyadhar Pathak (played by the ever-reliable Sanjay Mishra) puts his head in his daughter Devi’s (played by a restrained Richa Chaddha) lap, a beautiful role reversal of the man-child relationship, and says sheepishly, “Hum tumhari Maa ko nahin maare hain” in a typically innocent Bihari/Eastern UP accent. Flood gates of his eyes open and the inner guilt of perhaps not having done enough to save his ailing wife shows on his face in form of helplessness and inscrutable pain. This moment of catharsis cements Pathak’s and his daughter’s weakening bond, highlights the everlasting impact of an important death and showcases how loss and longing always go hand in hand.
  2. Death forms an ever-lasting and sometimes chilling backdrop of Masaan. In another sequence, a reassured and madly-in-love Deepak, whose confidence is boosted by his beloved Shalu’s (played by the beautiful Shweta Tripathi) acceptance of his supposedly lowly caste and social background, is woken up by his irritable elder brother in the morning. He wants Deepak to help him in burning some of the dead bodies as the volume of work is unexpectedly large. Deepak gets on with the task with an air of nonchalance as burning dead bodies was his family’s daily job and his everyday sight. The sequence goes on and on for good 3-4 minutes with Deepak picking up dry woods, shoving limbs back in the pyre, burning dead bodies and you wonder what could be the significance of this longish sequence. The sequence finally ends when Deepak is helping his brother in lifting a dead body and putting it over the pyre. The right hand of the dead body suddenly comes out of the white shroud and Deepak notices a familiar red ring in one of the fingers. Shalu had died in a bus accident last night.
  3. Deepak, shocked and numbed by the cruel twist of fate and irony of circumstances, somehow manages to pull out the ring from Shalu’s finger – the only memento of their brief but breezy romance. But, that ring becomes an albatross around his neck as it keeps reminding him of his ill-fated love. He cries manically in seething pain while drinking on one of the secluded Ghats along with his bunch of caring and understanding friends. As he lets out bursts of extreme despair and frustration in loud mourning, your eyes become wet and the body shivers by the mere thought of having to face such tragic loss in life.
  4. Deepak eventually throws the ring into the river one fine night. The very next moment, he wants to retrieve it back as he jumps into the dark waters and swims vehemently but fails to locate the tiny ring. Towards the climax, the ring is finally retrieved by Jhonta (played by the little bombshell Nikhil Sahni) who is Vidyadhar Pathak’s tiny partner in his religious business on the Ghats. Jhonta gets his hand on the ring while having dived into the river as a part of a bizarre diving competition on the Ghats where children collect coins from the river bed while elders bet on them. Pathak bets as much as ten thousand rupees on Jhonta as he desperately needs money to pay the policeman’s ransom, but Jhonta drowns mid-way through the competition and is later hospitalized in order to be saved. Pathak loses all his money but Jhonta rekindles his hope by handing him over Shalu’s ring which would fetch some money once it is sold to a jeweler.

One man’s loss is another man’s saving grace in Masaan. Neeraj Ghaywan portrays death both as a tragedy and a symbol of hope. Deepak’s family earns money by burning dead bodies, Deepak has to see his beloved’s dead body burning before his eyes and Pathak’s life is saved by a token of someone’s lost love and tragic death. All of this unfolds in and around Ganga, the river that mostly symbolizes life but also quietly carries the dead in her womb. Masaan is a celebration of death, loss and longing. The kind of celebration that resonates in our heads for long – irrespective of how much we have loved, lost or longed ourselves.

P.S. – I watched Masaan on 27th July at a Delhi multiplex. The 08.35 PM show. Coincidentally, within half an hour or so, a NDTV news flash on my phone informed me about the sudden demise of former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Death and its contours – you can never figure it out completely.

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