Neeraj Ghaywan's debut feature, Masaan (Burning Ghat) was introduced Tuesday afternoon to a packed auditorium at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival by no less than Thierry Fremaux, the top man at Cannes. And when the movie ended, there was indeed a long applause. There was similar appreciation for other films as well. And movie-critic Sudish Kamath from Mumbai tweeted that it was a proud moment for India. Well, why not. In a festival that has seen but very little of Indian cinema in the past two decades, the louder the claps, the greater is the feeling of joy.
But as a critic, I saw very little novelty in Masaan. The film has police brutality and corruption. Lovers renting a seedy hotel room for a bit of sex and getting caught by the cops, who call the girl a whore and the boy a pimp -- all in the hope of extracting money. The boy, fearing familial backlash in the face of police threat, kills himself. The cops are happier, for now they can nail the girl for abetment of suicide and get some more money. The girl's poor father, a retired teacher who now lives selling articles for puja on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, is humiliated and forced to pay a bribe of Rs three lakhs, which he just cannot afford. The girl takes up a job, moves away from Varanasi.
I have seen this kind of plot a million times. And I found nothing to grip me, nothing to bowl me over.
Yes, the narrative is low-key, performances are understated. But except for Sanjay Mishra who plays the retired teacher with fantastic dignity, the others are just passe. Richa Chadda, who essays Devi, the tormented girl, is uncomfortably wooden, so too the male actors. However, Shweta Tripathi as the girl who dies in the accident, Shaalu, has a lovely expressive face that can take her far.
In comparison, the other Indian work in the festival's official sections, Gurvinder Singh's Chauthi Koot (The Fourth Direction), was a riveting piece of cinema -- in the lines of Hitchcock who mastered the art of conveying sheer fear and fright without resorting to blood and gore. Singh does that as well. There is only a hint of violence, but the screen resonates with a sense of scare. Yet, Singh's work did not attract the kind of attention which Ghaywan's did. Odd is it not?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Cannes Film Festival for the 26th year.)