Neeraj Ghaywan’s sensitive Varanasi-set debut is next on our countdown of the best Hindi films made in 2015.
Neeraj Ghaywan’s first feature, written by lyricist and stand-up comic Varun Grover, is set in the ancient city of life and death. Chance, the Ganga river, and railway tracks all plays their part in the stories of Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), from the Dalit Dom caste that has raked coals over corpses at the ghats for millennia, and Devi (Richa Chadha), a computer institute employee whose first brush with love and sex goes horribly wrong. Deepak falls and rises in love, but Devi’s journey takes longer. Harassed and shamed by a venal blackmailing police officer who claims that he possesses a sex tape of her tryst with her lover, Devi folds into herself. It takes a convivial colleague, Sadhya (Pankaj Tripathi), to break the ice and make her re-assess her relationship with her father (Sanjay Mishra). Sadhya’s tribute to the pleasures of kheer is one of Masaan’s most brilliant moments.
Tripathi, one of Hindi cinema’s most gifted and dependable actors, is perfectly cast as Sadhya. Ghaywan had met Tripathi on the sets of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, on which Ghaywan was an assistant director. The sequence was more comic in tone, but was trimmed for the final cut, the filmmaker said. “Sadhya is a happy loner,” Ghaywan said. “Completely unaware of how lonely his life is and yet, relishing the goodness of life, he is the catalyst who brings change in Devi’s life. Varun wrote Sadhya based on a character from Vinod Kumar Shukla’s novel Deewar Mein Ek Khirkee Rahti Thi.” The movie is packed with several references to Hindi literature, and the eagle-eyed viewer might spot Sadhya reading Shukla’s book in the movie.
The conversation between Devi and Sadhya is quiet and ordinary, yet profound, like so many of the exchanges between various characters. “Sadhya is the one who purges Devi’s turmoil that is inside of her, making her reassess her equation with her own father,” Ghaywan said. “Throughout the film I wanted the dialogue to be spoken in a conversational manner, the way it was written. I didn’t want the philosophy or the character’s motive to be spelt out and attract attention, but just happen organically.”
There was more to Sadhya’s character than was included in Masaan’s final version. “A scene that is there in the deleted scenes on the DVD shows him talking to Devi on a scooter,” Ghaywan said. “He reveals his urge to someday just get on a train and get off an a random station where he can get a whiff of good tea. He can’t do this now as he is tied to his father and his job. Devi motivates him to do it. One day Sadhya calls Devi while she is in Allahabad at a lecture. He tells her that he has taken that train and it motivates Devi to do something that she has been wanting to do – go and meet Piyush’s parents.” Piyush is Devi’s unfortunate lover, with whom she gets caught in a tawdry hotel room by a police unit. “All this was removed in the film because of time,” Ghaywan said. “Also, in the edit, I wanted Devi’s trigger to finally meet Piyush’s parents to be more internal rather than external. She has a sense of dignity that is dear to her. While writing, we knew it is not going to be an easy character to fathom. We didn’t want a perfect arc for her (like it is for Deepak) or a defined set of character traits. In grief, your inner soul is in contradiction with what the mind wants. Devi had to be uneven, unfathomable and instinctive.”