Starring: Richa Chadda, Sanjai Mishra, Vicky Kaushal and others
Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan
Devi Pathak (Chadda) is the daughter of a low-income, well-respected and upright priest who works on the burning ghats or ‘masaans’ of Varanasi. Like most young women of small-town India, she is net-savvy and works at a computer centre, uninhibited and takes her rights for granted, without being in-your-face about it. So she thinks nothing of checking into a seedy hotel with a male colleague—guiding the shy, slightly awkward young man into bed—as they satiate their ‘curiosity’ about sex. Except that a predatory society will not let them. Possibly tipped off by the receptionist at the counter, the police break in, pretend they’re cracking down on prostitution rackets, beat up the lovers and videotape them. It’s a spine-chilling sequence about powerlessness which kickstarts the riveting narrative.
The director depicts the existential threats that plague daily lives of ordinary Indians and their unsung battle for survival with a brutality that shakes up our collective nonchalance. Without being didactic or questioning this indifference, Ghaywan forces us to experience, vicariously, the horror of it, giving us an inside view of the precipice from where suicide looks like the only option. Letting us feel the desperation to wriggle out of the grip of a blackmailer. Or transporting us into the circumstances of why an honest man slowly lets go of his integrity.
A parallel story runs along the main one, both converging at the end with a twist. The protagonist of this sub-plot, Deepak Chaudhary (Kaushal), is the son of an undertaker or Dom who despises the idea of spending his life like his father (yet is skilled at cracking open skulls of burning corpses with bamboos). He tries to break free, pursuing a career in engineering and falls in love with an ‘upper caste’ girl. He wins some battles, loses several others. Devi and Deepak are representatives of a resilience in the face of the all-consuming, rapacious masaans. If Ghaywan’s is a parable, it lies in the boats that row past the filthy, stagnant banks of burning ghats towards the unspoilt confluence of rivers.
But Devi’s almost robotic responses to situations is inexplicable. Sure, Indian movies are reacting against years of tearjerking. And Chadda’s is a no-nonsense character. But that certainly allows her to emote! When a corrupt cop threatens her father, she has a blank expression. Her monk-like stoicism in the most shocking circumstances is unreal. Even when she cries, it’s merely a sniffle. The only exception is the hotel room scene in which she calls out to her boyfriend, who is hiding in the bathroom, in that eerie, fear-laced voice. Sanjay Mishra’s Vidyadhar, on the other hand, strikes the right balance and his angry outbursts are as credible as his frustrated silences. Kaushal’s performance also gets steadily better.