Bollywood is seen as a liberal bastion where people talk about equality and inclusivity, but when it comes to telling stories that tackle the issue of caste, it might as well prefer to stay silent.
It's because the industry is so "unprepared and uncomfortable" to discuss the caste realities of the country, said Masaan director Neeraj Ghaywan, who is probably the only Hindi filmmaker that has identified himself as low-caste, during a tell-all interview with The Wire, last year.
Ghaywan's 2015 film sprang from an effort to start a conversation around diversity in Hindi cinema. Through Masaan, the director got the audience in touch with the fears and anxiety inherent in being a Dalit in this country.
In the film, one of the four principal characters belongs to the Dom community which cremates the dead at the Varanasi ghats. It's not necessarily a universal theme but Ghaywan and writer Varun Grover's conviction and sheer honesty toward the subject help the audience see how universal its experience is. The filmmaker brilliantly captures and humanises the conversation of the people of the Dom community and depict them in all their complexity.
Set in Varanasi, Masaan follows an engineering student Deepak (Vicky Kaushal), from a lower-caste, who meets and falls in love with Shaalu (Shweta Tripathi), an upper middle-class woman from a higher caste. In the film's parallel narrative, Devi (Richa Chaddha) and her boyfriend Piyush secretly meet at a hotel, but their sexual encounter is interrupted by local police inspector Mishra, forcing her lover to commit suicide.
The film broils and brims with quiet rage, eventually bursting over in a final act where Deepak is shattered on seeing Shaalu's dead body at the same cremation ground where his family works. He breaks down and cries, "Yeh Dukh Kaahe Khatam Nahi Hota Be!"
However, the more suffering Deepak goes through while witnessing Shaalu's funeral pyre burn, the more his conscience grows uneasy and urges him to fight against all odds, rather than submit to them. In simpler terms: Ghaywan refuses to victimise Deepak even as the love of his life is no more. And, this is what makes Masaan a groundbreaking depiction of marginalised narrative in Bollywood.
The story of Devi is also a compelling one, which details the stigma around female pleasure in the society. However, even though she is constantly harassed and blackmailed by the police officer, Devi refuses to give in as she believes she hasn’t committed any crime. After a series of dramatic setbacks, she finally decides to front her own fight.
In addition, the climax of Masaan is among the most audacious and moving scenes in recent times where Deepak and Devi's stories beautifully coincide as they both embrace their lives, losses and everything in between.