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Masaan, a gendered story of bodies as tools of desire as well as exploitation, opens up a new chapter in Hindi cinema. A must-watch movie, says this reviewer.
I had a tough time writing this review for Masaan. There were at least three points in the film when I almost started weeping, there were points where I was anxious about what was going to happen and finally when I came out of the theatre I had a heart full of emotions but the mind was calm, as calm as the river Ganga depicted in the last scene of the film.
The feeling was of surrender to the circle of ‘life and death’, of ‘loss and gain’. No more words, no more tears, no more grief, just sail away with the river and see where it takes you, to the confluence or to the other side of life.
Masaan is not just a love story between an ‘upper caste’ girl and ‘lower caste’ boy as a lot of previous reviews have portrayed. It was one of the plots in the narrative but I didn’t feel it was the central theme. To me, Masaan is the story of bodies – desiring bodies, dead bodies, burning bodies, children’s bodies as a tool of economic exploitation, gendered bodies facing medical negligence, apathy and exploitation and so on.
To be able to identify these stories one has to see the film with an eagle eye and in that Masaan is a whole new genre of film making coming out of Bollywood in which the sets, props, visuals, sounds and silence convey more than the characters and their spoken words. Two red balloons going up in air in unison floating away from the maddening crowd below conveyed a young couple’s love and passion in a way that even hundreds of well-orchestrated song and dance around trees can never do.
The film opens with the story of a strong female protagonist. We see Devi Pathak (played by Richa Chaddha) a young independent girl most likely watching a porn/sex clip on her mobile phone as can be deduced from the sounds of moaning and heavy breathing. Woman’s sexual agency and bodily desire is established in this small detail.
She is next seen checking into a hotel with a young man. Inside the hotel room, curtains pulled, the man gives her a gift, they try to kiss and feel funny and embarrassed as it is the first time for both of them. As they passionately make love the cops burst in and ruthlessly crush their privacy, honour, bodily integrity, and their right to sexual liberty as free adult citizens.
In this country women routinely get raped a few kilometres away from police headquarters and they don’t get any information until it is too late, but two consenting adults cannot spend private time without the moral police harassing them in every way.
Devi and her partner Piyush are caught naked, given no time to dress; they are beaten, dragged by the hair and filmed on camera by the so called protectors of law. Free, desiring bodies are made tools of humiliation and torture. The ugly heads of the corrupted rise from the filthy dark corners of Varanasi – the holy city, the spiritual capital of India, the city of Vedic knowledge and learning.
Devi and her father are harassed and blackmailed in the name of saving honour. But Devi remains unapologetic and unshaken through her ordeal. She remains convinced that there is no crime in desiring pleasure and that sex is an act between two consenting adults who have equal responsibilities. She fights her own battle alone.
In the parallel story we meet another girl who may not be as fiercely independent and rebellious as Devi but can hold her ground. She is neither afraid to fall in love with a so-called lower caste boy nor is she worried about the consequences when her family would find out. “Agar bhaag kar jaana hoga to bhi theek hai” (If we have to elope I am ready for that too), she tells the man as she conveys her commitment to him.
When two young desiring bodies of different castes embrace each other and share their first kiss they break taboos, transcend human boundaries and bigotry and give love a chance but soon the same body carries the story of tragedy and grief.
The sounds of burning bodies at the ghats of Varanasi is a recurring motif in the film with dialogues describing the graphic details of burning as a process of salvation for the soul – “hit hard on the skull and break it open otherwise how would the soul escape,” says the Dom (a man of the Domar caste who traditionally burn the pyres at ghats of Varanasi) in one scene to a grieving man performing the last rites. Death is merely a mechanical process here in Varanasi in which men of the ‘highest’ caste and the ‘lowest’ caste have an equally important role.
Women are not allowed to go to the funeral ghats and so Devi is not even allowed to grieve for her loss.
Another recurring motif in the film was the bodies of children diving into the river for collecting the coins and adults making that into a gamble. Although the children were males, to me it was very much symbolic of gendered bodies, desire, voyeuristic pleasure and control.
The various motifs and themes in Masaan are surely complicated and nuanced yet the film doesn’t burden you; it makes you feel lighter – as I said in the beginning, it inspires you to loosen up and fly away.
Feminist or not, the film is a must watch for art’s sake. Bollywood opens a new chapter with this film.