Promising Passage to India: Debut Feature Shakes Off Shackles of the Past

in 68th Cannes Film Festival

by Richard Mowe

MasaanThe powerful underlying themes in Neeraj Ghaywan’s ambitious and challenging debut feature Masaan deal with a Continent in turmoil. The conflicts of tradition on the one hand vie with a desire to move forward and shake off the shackles of the past linked to the caste system, class divisions as well as deeply felt religious beliefs.

With interweaving narratives and set on the Ganges in the holy city of Benares the film follows several different journeys, starting with a tryst in a hotel bedroom between Devi (played by Richa Chadda) and another student whose hesitant attempts at love-making are interrupted when the police break down the law. Accused of indecent behaviour he runs to the bathroom and slits his wrist.

Meanwhile the police videotape the girl with a view to blackmailing her father Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra), a former Sanskrit academic who now supervises “ghats” where offerings are made following a cremation. The police inspector offers to drop the charge against his daughter if he pays an exorbitant sum.

Ghaywan then introduces Deepak (Vicky Causal) whose drunkard of a father and brother are of a lower caste. The young man is studying to be an engineer as a way out of this depressing background. When he falls for a middle-class girl Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi) his sense of inferiority and the difficulties of a romance across the divide rise to the surface.

Meanwhile there is another criss-crossing strand about a young boy Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni) who assists Vidyadhar on the river bank and tries to inveigle his way into the old man’s affections and confidence.

The strongest character is Devi who takes on the burden of helping her father to pay off the blackmail demand by finding a job. She is a resolutely independent woman who aims to break free but she has to meet her obligations before she can do so.

It is by no means a perfectly conceived or executed film with too much going on and threads that could be better integrated. Yet Ghaywan captures the mood of a changing society in narratives that are engrossing and touching. Cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware captures some stunning visuals including funeral pyres lighting up the night sky, as well as giving a sense of place and timelessness.

Besides the Fipresci prize the film also shared a Promising Future prize from the Un Certain Regard jury headed by Isabella Rossellini, which should help it to find an audience both at home and abroad. It will be released in France on 24 June.

Richard Mowe