Neeraj Ghaywan: 'Masaan is not about Benares, it's about Benarasis'

Bajrangi Bhaijaan may have generated all the hysteria in the last week or so, but it's Neeraj Ghaywan for whom the applause won't stop.

It started at Cannes where he received a standing ovation when his film Masaan was screened. It continued when the film won two prestigious Cannes awards - a FIPRESCI, International Jury of Film Critics prize and a Promising Future prize in the Un Certain Regard section. And it's being echoed in movie halls and screenings around the country since its release on Friday.

Having trained with Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj - a Maharashtrian who was born and brought up in Hyderabad - has made a superbly nuanced film on the realities and struggles of present-day Benares - split between the paradoxes of modernism and tradition.

He's neither the first nor will he be the last to make Benares a centerpiece of his film - a legion of artists, filmmakers, poets and photographers have thronged the city and sought inspiration and stories from the town over the centuries.

Catch spoke to Neeraj a day before the film's release about his film, his vision, and his personal vision of Benares that steers clear of sadhus, snake-charmers and corpse-burning ghats.

SS: What were your cultural and cinematic influences for Masaan?
NG: In terms of narrative-driven cinema, Gulzar and Shekhar Kapur have influenced me. The cinema of the Dardenne brothers, the Belgian filmmakers, has definitely inspired Masaan.

Varun Grover, my scriptwriter, also wanted to pay tribute to Hindi literature through this film. Masaan is our tribute to Bashir Bhadr, Dushyant Kumar and Akbar Allahabadi. In fact, the film opens with the lines of Brij Narayana Chakbast.

There is one tribute that we couldn't use in the film. It's the book Deewar Mein Khirki Rehti Thi (The Window Resided In the Wall) by Vinod Kumar Shukla, which is actually Varun and my favourite book. Masaan will make you feel like you're in a Hindi novella - possibly in a VK Shukla novel. But for the sake of a pure narrative, we've derived heavily from reality itself. It's a straight, honest-to-the-gut narrative.

SS: Is there a Benares connection? Why Benares?

NG: I've tried to answer this question repeatedly but have failed. There's really no way to articulate why Benares - it's an experience one has to go through. You cannot articulate the essence of the city. I have never felt such a close connection to a place with which I previously had no links.

Magic is the closest word I can associate with the city. It's home for me now. I'll be heading to Benares to screen the film soon. I'm looking forward to it, it's like a homecoming.

SS: You've taken on the socio-political reality of today's Benares, and in the process have unraveled the city from within. Was that deliberate?

NG: Actually, I never wanted to set this film in an overtly socio-political or geographical context. It was more about the love story, the father-daughter relationship, a child seeking a father figure - personal, individual relationships. Benares just happens to be the backdrop. The socio-political aspects form the background against which these individuals have to play out their choices.

That's typical of the kind of films I draw inspiration from; they talk about a certain class - the middle class or even lower classes - and their moral or existential crises.

SS: So Benares, the city, is not the muse?

NG: Our story is not about Benares, it's about Benarasis. When you look at Benares in cinema, you see the classical, predictable representation of Benares. We didn't want to eroticise the city even more.

Locals and line producers on the set would come and say "You've been shooting for so long, why don't you show the temple once?" But that wasn't my intent. Even when we do show the ghats, they are central to the narrative. We didn't intend to - and haven't - shown Benares' rich culture. There are no pan-eating people sitting on the ghats playing cards, neither will you see depictions of thandai, holi etc.

SS: Your team has a host of outsiders. How difficult or easy was it to shoot in Benares?

NG: We shot in the city for 33 days - starting in October on the first day of Durga Puja. Actually, it was pretty easy as we had an immense amount of support from the local people. Fortunately, some people from Benares fell in love with the script and unconditionally offered us their support. They felt that, for the first time, somebody was making a film very close to the real Benares.

Even the government was supportive. The DMs and ADMs gave us permissions to shoot on the ghats and offered protection.

The shoot itself was challenging, physically draining. It was very hot and occasionally quite humid to boot. We were recreating the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats, with the funeral pyres and other paraphernalia, which was both stressful and a little scary for the actors. Extended hours of shooting and minimal light etc made it difficult. We also recreated a ghat elsewhere for shooting the underwater sequences. The warmth of the locals kept us going.

SS: Were there locals in your cast and crew? How difficult was it for the city to accept you?

NG: There was a lot of local help. Some of the cast and crew were Benarasis. Of the main cast, one of the little boys is from Benares.

Varun and I didn't want to be those backpacking, dictaphone-using Bombay filmmakers who become too cool for the place where they're setting their film. The thing about Benares is: it will not welcome you till you surrender yourself, which is what we did.

I started speaking in Bhojpuri. And we took time to just immerse ourselves in the city. One day, for instance, we sat in a saree shop and some four-five people came to join. From 10 am that morning till late that evening, we sat there just discussing politics, science, literature, folklore, culture - everything except the film.

That's what Benares is. When we're all madly chasing our mundane everyday pursuits - driving to work, paying bills - these guys really know how to live life. We completely surrendered to the Benarasi way of life - we became them.

SS: You recruited Indian Ocean to do the music, despite Benares' own legendary classical music traditions. The city is known to have produced the stalwarts of Hindustani classical.

NG: Long ago we decided to go not classical but folk with the music for Masaan. I tried to look at chaiti, thumri and other musical forms. I thought about it a lot and felt that classical music - Ustad Bismillah Khan's shehnai for instance - would stereotype the film and expectations of it.

I didn't want to give the film an '80s parallel cinema effect or to alienate audiences. Also, there was a certain kind of modernity I wanted to bring into the film. We're talking about small towns in transition.

Indian Ocean fit the bill perfectly - they're a modern band, in the sense that their sound is modern, but their soul is extremely rustic and rooted. They're activists and intelligent people - perfect soulmates for the film.

SS: Six production companies - three Indian and three French - invested in the film. You premiered in Cannes before the home country. Is that the way of all indie films now?

NG: When you want to produce an honest film in India, it's difficult to get the money and conviction from producers. Clearly, there are no big commercial prospects in Masaan. Even now, if you want to strengthen your commercial prospects, you have to compromise the realism of your story. You have to throw in big stars, lip-sync songs etc. But to tell an honest narrative is difficult because nobody wants to fund it. So we had to go this route.

People also don't seem to realise what it takes to take a film to Cannes or anywhere abroad. They think you go to Cannes, they pat your back and you come back successful. But actually, a lot of work goes on there that helps the film find audience. For starters, a huge market opens up annually at Cannes where a film gets buyers. Masaan, for instance, got sold in Italy, Spain, Middle East etc.

Secondly, if I had not gone to Cannes, won these awards, received the standing ovation, I would have had to invest five times the budget of the film to garner the kind of buzz I am now getting.

'There's a kind of modernity I want to bring into the film. We're talking about small towns in transition'

SS: But one would imagine that after films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Lunchbox, it would be easier to make such films in India.

NG: No, not really. We seem to move one-step ahead and two-steps backwards. Bollywood's 100 crore bandwagon makes it even more difficult for indies to break out. Studios are still very wary about new people and new ideas.

Lunchbox did kind of change things, and it was easier to make Masaan. But overall, change will take time. This year, though has been encouraging - lots of script-driven films are doing well.

SS: Stories of small towns seem to be taking precedence over big, overarching metropolitan narratives in Hindi cinema currently. Do you observe this pattern? Is Masaan trying to do this as well?

NG: There are many interesting and untapped stories in our smaller towns; people want to see newer stories. They're bored of the cliched mafia stories from Bombay, big family dramas etc. There's a lot of freshness in small towns, lots of facets to explore.

Also, in Hindi cinema, there has been a trend of looking at smaller cities with a satirising or mocking gaze. It tends towards objectification. The real message is 'look, here's how small townspeople live and here's how funny they are.'

We wanted to show the story from an inward-looking point of view. With Masaan, the story came first and that led us to the small town. We went there, did a lot of research and set this story from the Benarasi point of view, not catering to a typical Bombay, Bollywood perspective of how Benaras ought to be.

SS: But your Benarasi too has aspirations of moving towards the big cities.

NG: Yes, but their aspirations are a metaphor. We're talking about the larger perspective here, trying to show how stifled these people feel in a rapidly-changing but morally stuck society.

The people of Benares are on the middle road. One way is headed towards modernity - they're seen as an intellectual capital, loads of BPOs are coming up, markets are opening, social media is creeping in and so on. The other way still battles with age-old caste prejudices, dubious morality etc.

The strict lines between urban spaces and small towns are blurring and not many people are noticing the rapidity with which this is happening.

SS: And finally - how did the standing ovation and awards at Cannes feel when you were standing there and experiencing them?

NG:

I was stunned because I got the same reactions from Cannes as I used to get during my edit screenings here. At Cannes, after the film was shown and before the credits rolled, I had a moment of fear that maybe this film is too rooted and would alienate a Western audience.

But once the applause started, it went on and on. The phone of the person shooting the video ran out of battery! Actually, the real ovation started after that - they started clapping to cheers of Bravo! over and over. It was overwhelming but also reassured me that people connect with basic emotions very well.

Soumya Shankar

Soumya Shankar @shankarmya