Anurag Kashyap’s assistant on “Gangs of Wasseypur” delivers a muddled feature debut with the narratively challenged “Masaan,” a heartfelt yet overambitious tale of class and gender inequality in contempo India. Set on the Ganges in the holy city of Benares, the pic (alternately titled “Fly Away Solo”) attempts to weave together two separate stories of people struggling to overcome societal pressures, but helmer Neeraj Ghaywan hasn’t found ways to overcome script and editing weaknesses, resulting in a disappointing drama that’s unable to realize the potential of the one truly interesting character. “Masaan” may fill a few slots at fests looking for indie Indie fare, though French co-production coin is unlikely to result in more than a limited Gallic release.
The pity is that Devi (Richa Chadda) is a fascinating figure who’d be far better served with a film of her own. She’s a university student, first seen watching a porn film on her computer and then heading to a rendezvous with fellow student Piyush. Obviously both virgins, the two check into a hotel and start indulging their natural urges when the law busts down the door, accusing them of indecent behavior. Piyush freaks and runs into the bathroom, where he slits his wrist.
After videotaping Devi for blackmail purposes, the police take her to her father, Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra), a former Sanskrit professor who now looks after one of the sites along the Ganges, called “ghats,” where offerings are made following cremation. Abusive Inspector Mishra (Bhagwan Tiwari) offers to wipe away any charges provided Vidyadhar comes up with the equivalent of $1,500 in two days, and a further $3,000 in the coming months.
It’s a heavy burden for a poor family, but even further down the social chain is Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), whose brother Sikandar (Bhupesh Singh) and drunkard father Ramdhari are among the lowest caste, in charge of cremating bodies along the river. Deepak hates this nightmarish environment and is studying to be an engineer, but he can’t escape a sense of inferiority, especially when he falls for middle-class Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi) — a montage of scenes set to a bouncy song, of Deepak searching for Shaalu on social media, feels taken from a different style of film.
Director Ghaywan intertwines these two storylines, with the fitful addition of young Jhonta (Nikhil Sahni), a boy assisting Vidyadhar at the ghat and willing to do anything to get in the old man’s good graces. Meanwhile, Devi gets a job to help pay the blackmail money, but sexual advances by male co-workers force her to change work laces. At least she and Deepak both see a way out of their rut, provided they can overcome the immediate challenges trapping them in their milieu. Theirs is a generation wired to global social values and unwilling to be kept down by caste, but as the first age group to resist the straightjacketing hold of class, they have to fight the entrenched beliefs of their elders.
The ideas in “Masaan” are worthy topics for exploration, but the execution lacks modulation. There’s little sense of how much time passes, and the multiple narrative strands are not well integrated, though they do come to together at the end. Devi’s personality is what makes the film, her firm streak of independence exuding freshness notwithstanding the stoically glum demeanor she’s forced to wear for most of the running time. She’s not ashamed of what she did (nor should she be, since there’s nothing to apologize for); rather, she’s guilt-stricken on account of her weaker friend Piyush, and determined to help her father pay off the blackmailer so she can move on with her life.
Visuals are another positive element as tech credits are solid and lensing is often attractive without turning into a tourist primer for Benares. Most scenes were shot on location except for cremation sequences along the river, which are suitably hellish without being lurid.