Friday 31 March 2017

At the BFI: "Masaan"

That Masaan intends to transport us some distance from the Hindi norm can be discerned from the opening scene alone: a young couple meeting for an assignation in a hotel suite, and unabashedly getting it on, only for the authorities to come crashing through the door, scattering F-bombs left, right and centre, driving one of the lovers to slit their wrists in shame. Where be your song-and-dances now? This doomy tryst initiates but one strand in a tapestry writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan unfurl on the banks of the Ganges - some distance from the usual movie hotspots, and rather closer, it would appear, to the end of the world; a place where life is hard, minds can be narrow, and happy endings come at a cost. The female half of the lovers, Devi (Richa Chadha), returns home, already in a state of some shock, to find a cop blackmailing her father over a video recording of the assignation; and yet, around the next corner, and altogether more optimistically, nervy young swain Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) is starting to connect with the object of his affections via Facebook, little foreseeing that hidebound issues of caste will present as an obstacle to romance.

On one side of the screen, then, tradition, on the other, modernity; on one, the death of love (and its grim funeral arrangements), on the other, love's birth (and its niggling teething pains). What's most impressive about Ghaywan's film - a French-Indian coproduction, enabled by the revolutionary producer Anurag Kashyap, and screened to considerable acclaim at Cannes 2015 - is that all its elements come to line up in perfect balance: one set of relationships seems to be building itself up as another comes crashing down. It's a film that guides us round a very real, unadorned (in many ways, non-movie) space where people live, work, have good and bad days in equal measure, rub up against one another, and - crucially - strive to make something of their lives before they turn to dust. (The title would translate into English as Crematorium.) There's an unusual, documentary-like aspect to Ghaywan's shot selection and framing - he's not making escapism, so much as seeking to show exactly those situations ordinary souls might seek to escape from, which explains why he casts performers who don't seem to have the right words or easy answers at their disposal, and whose bruised and wounded looks serve as signifiers of a tough, circumscribed existence.

Where a crowdpleaser like Slumdog Millionaire dashed so breathlessly through the poverty of India towards uplift and validation, Masaan takes care to study it, and the impoverished thinking it can sometimes beget: deep into the closing half-hour, there looks to be no way that these characters can pull themselves out of the mire - and yet they will do, as real people do, against all the odds, and in such a manner as for the film entire to count as a quietly moving triumph. Avinash Arun Dhaware's cinematography is crucial to this, alert as it is to both the rigours of the daily grind - not least the transfixing horror of the Ganges cremation rituals ("The skull must burst to release the soul") - and those sporadic flickers of beauty that float up out of nowhere, like the heart-shaped balloon seen heading for the heavens over a passing funfair. (Again: escape.) It makes sense that Deepak's Facebook sweetheart should seek to commemorate her feelings in verse rather than status updates, texts or Tweets: there is a streak of authentic street poetry running through Masaan that hasn't been this prominent in Indian cinema since the days of Guru Dutt.

Masaan screens as part of the India on Film season at BFI Southbank tomorrow at 3.50pm, and on Friday 7 at 8.30pm. 

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