Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Masaan—Of Life, And Death

A few days ago, I finished reading Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk, a book in which the author learns to overcome the immense grief of her father's death by learning to fly a hawk. At one point, she writes about bereavement. "Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try." She goes through a whole plethora of emotions, and in the end, comes out a much stronger, and a much more enlightened person. Reading the book, I was constantly reminded of Neeraj Ghaywan's Masaan, in which the smell of death is all pervasive, but in the end, Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and Devi (Richa Chadha) learn to accept the tyranny of life, and the certainty of death, and become much stronger individuals, in control of their destiny.
Throughout Masaan, there is a theme of people trying to somehow get out from the lives they lead because they feel stuck. Deepak's father wants Deepak to get out, and find a job, else he will remain stuck in the daily task of cremating the dead. Deepak's brother Sikander has an animosity against him because he feels stuck and he can never get out. Devi tells her father that she wants to get out and move to Allahabad, but the extortion case with the cop happened else she would have moved out even sooner. Shaalu wears a ring that is 'stuck' on her fingers, and does not come out. At one point, Sadhya Ji (Pankaj Tripathi) tells Devi that twenty eight trains stop here, but sixty four trains don't. Yahan aana aasan hai, lekin yahan se jaana mushkil. It is easier to come here, but it is not easy to leave. Like the lyrics of Hotel California, "You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave." The word Masaan means a crematorium, and is a place where the dead are burnt so that they can be sent to heaven. Humans build relationships in the world. Moh moh ke dhaage. It is easier to come in the world but it is not easy to go because of the relationships we build here. Everyone has a fear of death. The community of Doms helps the people who are 'stuck' by crashing their skulls, and bones, so that they can achieve salvation. At another point, the lesson in Deepak's class is about centrifugal and centripetal force. The professor says that centrifugal force turns into centripetal force, and people hit a deadlock there, so they started moving upwards. It has been quite a while I studied physics, but I remember some of it. Centripetal force is a real force acting on a body in a circular motion that is directed toward the axis of rotation while centrifugal force is an imaginary force, equal and opposite to the centripetal force, drawing a rotating body away from the axis of rotation. Centrifugal and centripetal force are essentially the same force, just that the frame of reference is different in the two, and centrifugal force can never really turn into centripetal force because one force is imaginary, and one is real. Perhaps, that is why when the professor says centrifugal force turns into centripetal force and gets deadlocked is more a reference to the film's larger theme of a body trying to move away from its center, but somehow, it gets pulled towards the center. They, then, move upward. Everyone wants to move out but the attachments in some form of the other prevent us, whether is love, relationships, or society. At one point in the film, there is even a beautiful set of balloons that float-up together. Even they want to get away. The film's English title is not a literal translation of Masaan. It is titled as Fly Away Solo, pointing to the desire to fly away. There is a wonderful sequence when a pack of birds are flying together in the sky.
Devi and Piyush check-in to a hotel while pretending to be married. They are in the middle of their first sexual experience, when the police knocks on the order and accuses them of engaging in illicit activities. Piyush rushes into the bathroom, and kills himself, while Devi is taken to the police station on the charges that she is a prostitute. There is a scene in Imtiaz Ali's Jab We Met where another couple, Geet and Aditya check-in to a shady hotel, ironically named Hotel Decent. The receptionist assumes that Geet is a prostitute. In that film, too, there was a police raid. Although Geet and Aditya were not engaged in any 'indecent' activity, other couples in the hotel were. But somehow, they managed to escape, and nobody was caught. The contrast between the scenes in Masaan and Jab We Met could very well be what happens in real-life, and what happens in reel-life. Masaan, a realistic film, shows that one event changed the life forever as the couple got caught, while in Jab We Met, a not-so-realistic film and more an escapist film, shows that the couple manage to escape, and the event was remembered only for a few jokes later in their lives. Again, the couple in Masaan wants to leave but they are stuck by the ignominy of shame by the society. 
Sometime ago, Mumbai police raided a hotel where it picked couples from 'private' hotel rooms, and charged them with 'public' indecency. The irony of it cannot be missed. A few years ago, Meerut police thrashed married couples who were sitting in the park. If one has traveled in Delhi Metro, one would have seen young couples canoodling on the balcony of metro stations. All these are chilling statements on the stark reality of our country's claustrophobia that a young couple cannot find any space to engage in private activities. A few days ago, there was a report on a startup that is helping unmarried couples find a room. It is a fabulous initiative and hope there are more such spaces for people. 
In one scene, Deepak's father is sitting with a bunch of people during night. One of his friends remarks that there are two kings in Kashi—Kashi Naresh and Dom Raja. One on this side, and one on the other side. Hinduism is full of fascinating stories. It is believed that the Doms were once a family of high caste Brahmins. After Parvati died, different parts of her body were flung to different places in India. Her earring fell at the present ghat in Kashi. A member of this Brahmin family picked it up and kept it. When Shiva discovered this he cursed the family and decreed that they become the lowest of the untouchables—the Doms. The man who had found the earring pleaded for mercy on the ground that he was his devotee and that he had sought to return the piece to Shiva. Unable to take back the curse, Shiva was nonetheless able to modify it by gifting them the ghat and giving them a sacred fire, cremation by which would provide mukti to all who were burned there. The Dom Rajas are said to be the direct descendants of this family. There is another legend associated with Doms. It is believed that the great king, Raja Harishchandra, worked as a helper to Kalu Dom, who tended the cremation grounds centuries ago. The king had sold himself to the Dom. Since then, the head of the Doms, the chief cremator at Varanasi have taken on the title 'Dom Raja' or the Dom king. The Doms are the keepers of the sacred fire at the cremation ground, which is never allowed to die down. Death is the constant companion of the Doms, who spend their entire lives at these cremation grounds. Caste continues to remain a huge blot on Hinduism. It is ironical that to get mukti, one has to have the sacred fire of the Doms. In life, no one would touch the Doms, but people cannot achieve salvation without the sacred fire from the Doms. Death is indeed the great equalizer. Likewise, with the manual scavengers, who are called dirty and untouchables, when they clean the human waste of others. So, who is dirty here? How can even one justify the division of a society just on the basis of accident of births, and exploit them in the worst way possible? Few years ago, if someone had asked about reservations, I would have responded the same fashionable argument that there should be none, but I am not too sure now as reality is far too complex. Reservations may or may not be the right method, but some kind of affirmative action is definitely required. After millions of years of exploitation, I am amazed that Dalits continue to be believers in Hinduism. Should we blame them for trying to convert when their religion treats them in the most inhumane way possible? Why should they stay? There was this report of a groom where he had to wear a helmet on his wedding because he had the courage to ride a horse and upper castes threatened to throw stones. Human evilness, sometimes, has no limits. There are problems with all religions, but rather than crying hoarse about other religions, it is best to reform your own religion.
In Sharat Katariya's Dum Laga Ke Haisha, there was this metaphor of gurutvakarshan or gravity. In Masaan, we have the centrifugal and centripetal forces. There is another one in the film. At one point, we see Devi reading the thesis of Piyush. It is called Latent Dirichlet Allocation. I understand very little of it but it is something related to machine learning. There is a fascinating explanation to understand it. At a brief level, it is a technique that is used to find underlying patterns in things. For example, a researcher used this technique to find the topics commonly occurring in Sarah Palin's emails. To extend the same argument to the film, there are repeating patterns in the film's characters as well. The essential premise of the stories of both Devi and Deepak is the same and there are numerous common patterns in their stories—death of a lover, the importance of education, getting a jobs in Railways. He creates rails, and she cuts tickets, in a way both of them helping people to get away. But there are other common patterns. The cop blackmails Vidyadhar Pathak so that he can protect his daughter's reputation from being harmed. In one scene, we see the cop himself has a daughter. He has no qualms in extorting another father. Who knows some day his own daughter can get into trouble? Vidhyadhar Pathak and Deepak's father, Dom Raja, both work on the river bank, one on this side, and the other on the opposite side. One is an upper-caste Brahmin, and the other is lower-caste Dom but both are engaged in activities related to death helping people reach salvation. There is the repeating pattern of magic tricks. When Deepak and Shaalu meet at the fair, there is a magic trick happening on the stage. When Jhonta gives the ring to Pathak, he uses the magic trick that he learnt from the magician. There is the repeating pattern of a recording device. When Devi and Piyush are caught, the cop records their video on the mobile phone. When Devi is arrested, a girl records her arrest on her cellphone. When the students who are doing a course on anthropology come to speak to Pathak, they want to record his voice so that they do not miss anything. When Shaalu calls Deepak, and tells her poetry, he records her voice and gifts it to her as a present. No one wants to miss anything. In another scene, Sadhya Ji tells Devi about her dad who stays alone, Devi realizes that her own father is like that, and makes kheer for him as Sadhya Ji did. Everything seems connected, and related. Perhaps, that is the underlying meaning of the essential sameness of us, yet we create these insurmountable barriers. Paat na paya meetha paani. Or-chhor ki doori re.
There is also a reference to Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. When Deepak gifts a souvenir to Shaalu, Gazab Ka Hai Din from that film starts playing. Based on a story of the rebellion of two youngsters—Raj and Rashmi—who leave their warring families, but are ultimately killed, the story of Deepak and Shaalu could have eventually reached that point, if not for Shaalu's tragic death. They had talked about running away, and Deepak finding a job, but life or rather death had other things destined for them. 
When Deepak is interviewed, he is asked a question on the difference between a narrow gauge and a broad gauge. It could well point to the thinking of narrow-minded and broad-minded people as Devi remarked, the smaller the town, narrower is the thinking of the people. Eventually, every train will move on a broad gauge in a few years, Deepak says, but the thinking of the people has also to move with the times. It is also a statement that one has to embrace change. When Sadhya Ji's erstwhile colleague refuses to learn computers, he says that Railways sent him off to the deserts of Dungarpur. 
There are some characters for whom one develops a visceral hatred. In Queen, I absolutely hate those kudi-mudi aunties in Paris when Rani visits them. In Devdas, I hate Dev's sister-in-law who sows the seeds of discord between him and his family. I think I will add the cop from Masaan to the list. I absolutely hated that man, the way he behaved, the way he sizes Devi when he visits her house, the way he abuses Pathak, and the way he extorted Pathak and Devi. It was bone chilling, and millions of people actually go through this on a daily basis. It is also fabulous acting that the boundaries between the character and the actor become blurred. On the other hand, I loved Deepak's friend KK who had colored his hair. He was a charmer. He does not judge his friends, and supports Deepak in everything. When Shaalu dies and Deepak breaks down in that gut-wrenching scene, he comforts him. He says he will hit him if he does not stop crying. If I had a friend like him, I would never ever let him go. And, then, there is the super awesome Sadhya Ji. He says he was that wise friend in his group, to whom everyone used to come for advice. He is genuinely such a gem of a person. He has a thehraav in his demeanor, someone who would never get angry with things. One would actually go for advice to him. But even his love story remains incomplete, like that of Deepak and Devi. He wants to tell something to Devi but she runs away.  
Poetry is filled in every corner in Masaan, be it the poetic moments or the poetic lyrics. The film begins by an Urdu sher by Brij Narayan Chakbast.

"Zindagi kya hai, anasir mein zuhur-e-tarteeb; 
Maut kya hai, inhi ajza ka pareshan hona" 
"What is life, a delicate arrangement of the five elements;
What is death, a disarray of these elements"

It is a beautiful couplet. According to Hindu mythology, every human body essentially is made from five elements which are earth (bhumi), water (jal), fire (agni), air (vayu) and space (aakash). Hindus believe that, upon death, all these five elements of human body are dissolved to respective element of nature, so that it can balance the cycle of nature. When a dead body is cremated, all these elements are present in some form of the other. Later, Shaalu narrates Deepak a sher from Ghalib. Tu Kisi Rail Si is a wonderful song, but Mann Kasturi Re is just terrific. There is a phrase in that song, and it says, "Ulta kar ke dekh sakey to, amber bhi hai gehri chhai." If you turn it upside down, even the sky is like a bottomless pit. The poetic imagery of the song forces us to savor the deeper meaning of life. 
At one point, Sadhya Ji tells Devi that she is an eight-armed Devi, like the goddess with eight-arms, ostensibly because of her speed of giving tickets to passengers, but she is also very much human. She does not shy away from accepting her feelings. When a young couple asks for tickets in Tatkal, even though tickets are available, she tells them there are no tickets. We hear the couple talking about going back to the shady hotel. So, perhaps, out of jealousy, she wants them to go through the same experience as her. She tells her father about the resentment that she had been harboring against him due to the death of her mother. Her father also gets carried away by greed that he put Jhonta's life in danger. It is these myriad emotions that make us human. Earlier, Shalu tells Deepak that there is a certain honesty in him, like that in the poems of Nida Fazli. There is a similar honesty in all the characters of the film. They feel and express their emotions, from the zenith of love to the abyss of grief.
There is also a pattern in the news that is shown in the television. When Devi and Piyush meet in the hotel, the news in the background talks about the incident of a man getting mauled by a white tiger in Delhi Zoo (remember Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger?). Then, the news of a baba engaging in indecent activities plays in the background. It was as if both the incidents are hinting to the events in the characters itself. Like the man in the zoo is eaten by the white tiger, Piyush gets trapped by the powerful police, and he gets killed. In a later scene, when the cop comes to visit Devi and Pathak, there is news about the flood in Ganga, and the villagers are requesting for help from the government for their rehabilitation. There is also a painting of a river in that scene in Devi's house. Likewise, Devi and her father are pleading to the cop for help so that they can forget this incident and move on with their lives. Further, Devi sees a competition on television to guess the face of the actress and win a gift, and she realizes her own unopened gift from Piyush.  
 At one point, some students come to Pathak for their anthropology project. The effects of industrialization (that was Deepak's group discussion topic), the use of technology, the power of social media, the deep aspirations of young bound by the barriers of caste are all seen in the film. Masaan could very well be an anthropology of society, of life, and of death.
Macdonald writes in her book, "There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realize that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realize, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are." Deepak and Devi will come to terms with loss, and will start again. Death signifies an end. But after death, there is also rebirth leading to a new beginning. 

Other Reading:
1. An old profile of the Doms in India Today (1986)—Link
2. On Gravity in Dum Laga Ke HaishaLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Sitaron ko aankhon me mehfooz rakhna, badi der tak raat hi raat hogi. 
Musafir hai hum bhi, musafir ho tum bhi, kisi mod par phir mulaqat hogi."


  1. WOW! Loved it, every bit! XD
    You really got a 'Theesri Ankh'! MashaAllah Your observations leave me in an Awe-struck. Hamesha!!!

    [P.S: FYI. The following line needs amendments, You meant 'her mother' in the end, right?: She tells her father about the resentment that she had been harboring against him due to the death of her father.]

  2. pankaj! words r less to express the beauty of this piece. it's amazing :)

  3. awesome... love reading your words.. it explains the movie... thank you

  4. wonderful Pankaj... visited the blog after a long time n got sheer pleasure of reading this post...
    i wonder how many times u hv watched the movie to get into such details of it. The mythological references u hv given r quite interesting.
    The first thing come to my mind whenever i think of Masaan is the skull breaking act of Dom Rajas...this is something i never knew that it actually happens after cremation...
    There's this song 'Kabira' by Agnee which hs this line 'jam ka dand mund mein laage...dhari rahe chaturayi'... I wonder this line refers to this skull crushing... bt now i usually end up relating this song to those scenes of Masaan...btw, 'Kabira' is a great song that talks about this life n death cycle.

    Mann kasturi is awesome n deep....

    Lastly, i will say "Dil khush kar ditta" :) worth a read...surely!

  5. Thank you, Pratima :) Long time no see, you were not seen for sometime, all ok I hope :)
    I loved Masaan, it always reminds me of the breaking the skull scene, too. I will check out the song Kabira, first I thought it was the song from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani :)

  6. IMPRESSIVE!! I'm trying to make a subtitle in my language for this movie. As a foreigner, your comments on Indian society and religion help me a lot to learn more about this movie. Thanks! Also thanks for the tips on songs from other movies, too.

  7. I really enjoyed your review!!
    But... in your writing,
    "When Devi and Deepak meet in the hotel,..."
    it has to be Piyush, not Deepak. Uh-oh :)

  8. Deepak realises what lost is lost when he is unable to find the ring he flunged into Ganga.(He moves on and focuses on his job)
    How does Devi realise this and accept Piyush's death?


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