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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Masaan (a.k.a. Fly Away Solo), Review: Burning bodies, tormented souls and a minor classic

Masaan (a.k.a. Fly Away Solo), Review: Burning bodies, tormented souls

Set in a city known as the holiest cremation ground in India, Masaan is made with fired-up creativity, and has won encomiums it richly deserves.

Seven years ago, a documentary was made on life at the ghats (banks) of Varanasi (Banaras), of which Kashi is a part, where a large number of Hindu devotees from all over India bring their dead for cremation, and immerse the ashes in Ganga, their holiest river. The rites are performed by a group of traditional professionals, known as the Doms, and the sights of the funeral pyres can be highly disturbing. That compelling film, Children of the Pyre, followed the lives of seven children who work on these cremation spots. 

In the 70s, there were stagings in Mumbai of Bengali playwright Badal Sircar’s rivetting short play, Pagla Ghoda (Mad Horse, written in 1967). It was about four men from different walks of life, who chat at around the funeral pyre of a young girl. A mystery shrouds her death. As they begin to dig out the truth behind the cause of her death, skeletons from their own cupboards start tumbling out. It continues to be staged, 45 years on. Richard Curtis made a film in 2003, about how Heathrow airport can be a symbol of love, expressed by people receiving their loved ones, and juxtaposed nine tender love stories that take off or land there.

Writer-director Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (a colloquial abbreviation of Smashaan, which is Hindi for cremation spot), has many elements of both the above premises, but carefully weaves two separate story-lines around the locale, even reaching out to Allahabad, another holy city in Uttar Pradesh, known for the confluence of three rivers Ganga (Ganges), Jamuna (Yamuna) and the ‘invisible’ Saraswati, called the Sangam. When you go to see Masaan, as you should, be prepared for some emotional jolts and a biting indictment of traditional morality, in the age of Internet porn and viral MMS.

Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda) works for a Coaching Class for college students, and gets attracted to one of them, Piyush (Saurabh Chaudhary). One day, Piyush books them into a hotel and they have sex, not out of lust, but as an extension of their exploratory attraction. Immediately afterwards, the police come barging into their room and shoot an MMS, capturing them almost naked. Devi is held down by a policewoman, while Piyush rushes to the bathroom, where he bolts himself. Terrified of his parents finding out, he slashes his wrists. Devi is released on bail, but Piyush dies three days later.

The Inspector (Bhagwan Tiwari), who had conducted the raid at the hotel, asks Devi’s father, Vidyadhar (Sanjay Mishra), a former Sanskrit lecturer and currently a small shopkeeper selling religious paraphernalia at one of the Varanasi ghats, for a Rs. 3 lakh (approx $5,000) bribe to hush up the case. Devi has no regrets, but the bribe must be paid, to avoid an MMS scandal. The second major track involves a man from a lower caste, corpse-burning family, Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), who falls in love with a middle-class, higher-caste girl, Shaalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi), on first sight. With the help of friends, he traces her on Facebook, and she responds. Soon, he wins her over. He is shy and unrefined; she is cultured, fond of Urdu poetry and unafraid of her sexuality. Opposites attract. Opposite also kill.

As debuts go, this is some debut: Casting is picture perfect (no stars, though two big names—Manoj Bajpai and Rajkummar Rao--could not join the cast on account of dates issues), actors always remain in character, performances usually under-stated, ambience difficult to fault and an acceptable length to sit through. Neeraj Ghaywan (writer/assistant-Shor-short, Epiphany-short, assistant to Anurag Kashyap on Gangs of Wasseypur, assistant on Ugly) has shown his mettle, and will have to really mess it up if he falters from here on. Just one point: after a while, the directorial ploy of getting actors to just tilt their heads and/or half nod in reply to questions, without saying anything, or merely mumbling, becomes a predictable crutch, and loses its charm.

It will take some believing that Varun Grover (IIT Varanasi, stand-up comedian and lyricist, screenplay debut), seen on the screen in two films this year (topical documentary, I Am Offended, and Kashyap’s box-office disaster feature, Bombay Velvet), as himself, wrote the carefully layered screenplay and wholly credible dialogue of Masaan, from Ghaywan’s own idea (triggered by a story narrated to Ghaywan by a friend), about the Dom community. Masaan is a very bleak film, clinging on to the thinnest straws of hope amidst a whirlpool of emotions, not what you would easily associate with a stand-up comedian. With this film, the stand-up comedian will stand up, stand out and be counted.

Unfortunately, three elements come in the way of lifting Masaan to the acme which was in sight: too many co-incidences in the narrative, amalgamating four or five stories, that could stand by themselves, as one continuum, howsoever temporally neutral, and the recurrent succumbing to temptation to deconstruct a scene and engage the audience in a guessing and filling-in-the-blanks exercise. As a classic screenplay hook (like writer-director Kamal Swarup, the famed screenplay teacher, reminded this reviewer last year), the idea is based sound film grammar, but in an otherwise linear film, it looks somewhat ill-placed.

Sanjay Mishra, who has been unfortunate to get slotted as loud-mouthed comedian for a decade or more, in parts written for actors often much older than his age, again plays an older man. A touch of comedy introduces him on the screen, making you exclaim, “Here he go again.” Your fears are quickly dispelled, as he soon metamorphoses into a depressed father mode. Shocked, brooding, befuddled, loving…he conveys it all. This is the kind of role Mishra deserves, this is what he should get. Richa Chadda is the only actor in this film with some famous credits against her name: Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Goliyon Ki Ram Leela, Tamanchey. Hers is a studied portrayal, simmering inside, but practical outside. Faraway looks and grim determination apart, she does not have too many histrionic challenges to overcome. Saurabh Chaudhary is convincing, in a small role.

Masaan is Vicky Kaushal’s first release. Son of fight composer Sham Kaushal and a former assistant director, he plays the impulsive, tentative, lover, who initially cannot believe his luck and breaks down when reality dawns. A ‘fresh as the dawn persona’ emerges in the shape of wonderstruck, doe-eyed, Shweta Tripathi. Daughter of the Delhi government’s former chief secretary, who came to Mumbai eight years ago, 29 year-old Shweta is an alumnus of the National Institute of Fashion Technology. She looks a cherubic 20, and acts with the élan associated with senior actors, though this is just the second film she has signed.

It is in the smaller parts that we really rate the acting pantheon in a film, so please welcome Brij Kumar Pandey as the somewhat conceited railway booking clerk who wants to turn his respect and regard for new colleague Devi into the bond of marriage. Welcome too, Bhagwan Tiwari. We have seen many actors play corrupt, ruthless cops, but not all have the physique and the dialogue delivery he imparts to his character. And lastly, child actors can be precocious or adorable, even both, but it took films like Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire to explore the rare breed called the child-adult. Nikhil Saini, playing Mishra’s oddjob ‘boy Friday’, Jhonta, is in that league.

Music by Bruno Coulais, with three songs by the band Indian Ocean, is an asset. Shot almost entirely in natural light, cinematography by Avinash Arun Dhaware is of a high calibre. But it must be said that in some shots, you do have to struggle to make out what is happening in the background. Editing by Nitin Baid is slick. Perhaps too slick, some might feel, for it is obvious that what has been left out was not an editing but a directing decision, though the second half of the film is a bit abrupt.

Armed with two prizes at Cannes, the FIPRESCI, International Jury of Film Critics prize and Promising Future prize in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, Masaan is the pooled effort of as many as 17 producers, including acclaimed directors Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, and Shiladitya Bora (ex PVR). Most of the others are French names, making it an Indo-French co-production. The language is a mix of Hindi, Urdu and Kashika (itself a blend of the Bhojpuri dialect and Hindi, and easily understood by Hindi speakers). Masaan goes out of its way to plug Urdu poetry, paying tribute to poets like Mirza Ghalib, Akbar Allahabadi, Chakbast, Dr. Bashir Badr and Dushyant Kumar, and deserves kudos for taking up the cause of one of India’s richest languages that, with diminishing patronage and propagation, could face a real battle for survival. (Read footnotes).

Masaan just falls short of mapping the entire, ambitious landscape it sets out to explore, and has to settle for a minor classic label. While it misses out a few trees, but the enchanting cinematic forest is explored from many a breath-taking angle.

Rating: ****


(Not to be confused with a Nepali film with the same title, made in 2011).

How Masaan adds more life to the vibrant cultural heritage of the Urdu language

Masaan opens with a couplet of poet ‘Chakbast’:

Zindagi kya hai? Anaasir men zahoor-e tarteeb

Maut kya hai? Inhee ajza ka pareshan hona


On his Twitter account, Varun Grover has translated them as:

What is life; a delicate balance of the five elements,

What is death; a slight disturbance of this equilibrium.

My own humble version, though more literal, is not too different:

What is life? The elements manifest in arranged order

What is death? These very components in disarray

‘Chakbast’ (1882–1926) was the nom de plume of Pandit Brij Narayan, an Urdu poet, born in Lucknow, in 1882, in a Kashmiri Pandit family that settled in North India in the 15th century. His father, Pandit Udit Narayan, was also a poet. By profession, Udit Narayan was a deputy collector, the highest post that any Indian could hold at that time, under the British colonial rule.

In Masaan, Shalu Gupta is shown to be a big fan of Urdu/Hindi poetry. "She reads the poets I love," says Masaan writer Grover. His favourites include Akbar Allahabadi (Syed Akbar Hussain Rizvi, 1846-1921), Dr. Bashir ‘Badr’ (Syed Mohammed Bashir, M.A. Ph.D., now 80, father of film lyricist Nusrat Badr, whose house was burnt down in a riot) and Dushyant Kumar Tyagi (died in 1975, aged 42, worked for All India Radio Bhopal). A Dushyant Kumar couplet, using a train and a railway bridge as unusual metaphors, provides a telling tableau in the tale. Shaalu also talks to Deepak about the masterful poetry of the greatest poet/philosopher Urdu literature has ever known, and equally lauded for his work in Persian (Farsi), Mirza Asadullah Khan ‘Ghalib’.  Ghalib lived in the 19th century and wrote under the pen names of ‘Asad’ and ‘Ghalib’. Ghalib has influenced hundreds/thousands of poets across six generations, in many languages, and his life was the subject of as biopic that won the President’s Gold Medal in India during the mid 50s. ‘Mirza Ghalib’ was directed by Sohrab Modi, and starred Bharat Bhushan and Suraiya.

Though a large number of Muslims speak, read and write Urdu today, it was India’s official court language for a long time, and never associated with Muslims exclusively. Chakbast, Daya Shankar ‘Naseem’, ‘Firaaq’ Gorakhpuri, Ganesh Bihari ‘Tarz’, Dushyant Kumar, ‘Gulzar Dehlvi’ (by far the most vocal crusader for the preservation of Urdu), ‘Sheen Kaaf Nizaam’, Krishan ‘Adeeb’, Sardar ‘Anjum’, film lyricist Gulzar, Lata ‘Haya’, Salil Tripathi, and hundreds of non-Muslims have done yeoman’s service to the language. It is good to see Masaan choosing from the oeuvre of Chakbast and Dushyant too. And I neither noticed nor missed a single Muslim character in the film.


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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