This is a double feature. Maybe this would work better as two separate blog posts but in my head, they’re so tied together they have to be written together so here goes.
Perhaps necessity and need leads everyone trapped within the temporal bounds of the same generation to believe in similar things and behave in similar ways. There are other things at play here, of course. The zeitgeist of a generation in India does not need to be similar to that of a generation in Australia or Japan. But, geography aside, the resistance of the young to the haranguing of the old is not just a literary trope but also a life one. A mood, if you will. There is the older and grayer side who cannot see the world in any other way than the way their times fashioned them to and there is the young who are slowly and gingerly fashioning their own times. And there is a complicated resistance. That is what Masaan seeks to explore.
Masaan which means funeral pyre, is the feature debut of indie short film-darling and Anurag Kashyap’s frequent collaborator and assistant Neeraj Ghaywan. It follows an ex-Sanskrit teacher and now small-town vendor played to simmering perfection by Sanjay Mishra as he is forced to grapple with a cardinal sin his daughter Devi (Richa Chadda) commits, a policeman trying to exploit the situation and the safekeeping of honour, his and his daughter’s. There is his daughter who doesn’t quite want to live in a universe of her father’s construction. There is a family belonging to the Dom community who burn funerary pyres traditionally to make their living and there is the youngest of this family (Vicky Kaushal) who is trying to live and love on his own terms.
Ghaywan shoots and edits with a steady confidence his mentor Kashyap perhaps couldn’t ever afford, letting shots tantalizingly linger on his talented cast of performers and this plays very much to the strengths of Chadda, Kaushal and Mishra. Kaushal and his upper-caste love interst played by the very talented Shweta Tripathi are so darn adorable I was smiling through most of the first half of this movie. The movie is careful and deliberate, stepping around it’s characters quietly enough to give them oodles of space to breathe and evolve enough to see a coming of age not just for the young but also for the old.
Like all good art, Masaan is about change. The arbitrariness of Devi’s ‘crime’, and the ‘illegality’ of it being a socially constructed fiction are things we all (should) know going into this. Ghaywan goes further than that to show a callous government and bureaucratic system exploiting emotionally hardwired concepts like honour and righteousness for nothing other than capital. This comes at is early and was enough of a sledgehammer of a plot device to make me think Mishra’s character would mostly remain the same. But the movie slowly meanders through his life, watching as he struggles to get money together to pay the bribe, try to understand why his daughter did what she did and, through a genius sub-plot featuring a terrifying gambling game and a young boy who drowns, learn how autonomous decisions taken by young people may be valid enough to solve real problems.
Kaushal’s inter-caste relationship is as deliberate and slow and serves as a counterpoint to the other narrative along with Chadda’s character’s story. They provide examples of the young being autonomous and perhaps more intelligent than the old. But the film does not leave you with a narrative as clean and precise as ‘the young are better than the old in ways the old will never understand’. It terminates at a place of understanding yes, but featuring the young looking back as much as the old look forward. Everyone learns something about honour, tradition, love and family. And everyone changes.
And the government hangs above them all, tinkering, exploiting and manipulating everyone’s weaknesses. And as such, it stands as a breathtakingly complete, emotional and empathetic portrait of India today.
Masaan hit it big in Cannes, bagging international distribution rights by Pathe. But the domestic production company is a familiar name.
Perhaps the thing people remember most about Phantom films is the logo animation where the Hindi alphabet फ is drawn across a chalkboard while the voice of a teacher calls out “pha se?” and a chorus of students reply “phantom”.
This is significant because it matches up with what Phantom Films have been doing since its establishment in 2011 by Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Vikas Bahl and Madhu Mantena.
Starting with Motwane’s Lootera and till the gritty superhero feature Bhavesh Joshi in theatres now, the Phantom project has been noticeably educational.
Cinema has been teaching us to think for a long time. Or perhaps, the cinema of the times reflects how people think. That is probably a ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario. But Phantom Films, ranging from the artistic to the commercial, with comedies, thrillers, crime-films and everything in between, have been subtly reshaping the contours of Indian cinema and the influence it plays on the masses who watch them, the occasional misfire like Hunterr notwithstanding (ugh).
Indian cinema, especially over the last twenty years or so, hasn’t been teaching us good things. You know the answer to questions like ‘what skin colour represents good and what represents evil?’ and ‘is stalking, abducting and/or coercing a woman romantic?’. You also probably know who taught you those things. Phantom has been working consistently, through bankrolling and controlling the productions of some of the most excellently crafted films of this global film-making generation, been trying to get you to ask why you think those things and whether you should think differently. Kashyap’s cinematic project seems to be one of constantly questioning whether the good and evil paradigm is valid, Bahl works at gender paradigms and preconceived notions with deftness and grace and Motwane looks at the seedy underbelly of the glamorous corporate urban life in modern India. These movies are all very cleverly trying to teach you things.
It has also done something as significant. It has created an ecosystem of actors, directors and crew who work together and separately, spilling over to mainstream Bollywood as well as regional cinema who are taking this ethos forward. Longtime Phantom collaborator and cinematographer Rajeev Ravi directed two stellar movies questioning the problematic nature of romance as portrayed in the rampantly mysoginist world of Malayalam cinema (Annayum Rasoolum) and a stylish, slick exploration of caste history in Kochi (Kammatipaadam). Other film-makers like Zoya Akhtar, Dibanker Banerjee, and though I include his name here with several misgivings, Karan Johar have participated in short film anthologies produced by Phantom which shaped the trajectories of their careers in obvious ways. Pink wouldn’t exist in a world without Phantom.
What am I trying to get at here? Go find the Phantom filmography on Wikipedia, avoid Hunterr, and work you with through all the rest. Happy learning!