Neeraj Ghaywan, the debutant filmmaker who made the visually beautiful yet simply told Masaan spoke to usri basistha over the phone. In the ensuing conversation, Ghaywan discussed everything from how he came into films, his narrative technique, his actors and Hindi poetry to how he thinks criticism is important for a director’s growth.
Edited Excerpts from the interview
Tell us about your journey towards Masaan. How did the idea come about?
My movement towards Masaan cannot be explained if I do not go into how I came to be a filmmaker. As a child, I used to watch parallel cinema on Doordarshan because my mother and sister would watch them. That is where I got acquainted with the works of Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray. Otherwise, I grew up like anybody else on a steady diet of Amitabh Bachchan films.
I had studied to be an engineer and after that enrolled for mba in Pune. While there, a class on cinema by Samar Nakhate, ex-dean of the Film and Television Institute of India (ftii), left an indelible impact on my outlook towards films. Although I had watched Ray’s Pather Panchali as a child and had got bored then, Nakhate’s analysis about the film moved me to rethink what I had seen.
Later, I began working for a popular indie film website called passionforcinema. com. What began as my comments on the blogs written by people such as Anurag Kashyap and Sudhir Mishra, soon snowballed into my own blogs and reviews on world cinema. I would take a whole month to analyse a film and my pieces would be really long.
Eventually, when I became an editor on the site, I was called with three others to Mumbai for a chat with Anurag. It was a magical night where we talked cinema till five in the morning with Vishal Bhardwaj joining us casually midway through our session.
From that point on, I decided that I wanted to pursue something to do with cinema. After working in Mumbai for a little while with utv Spotboy, one day, when Anurag called to check up on me and encouraged me to switch over to his side, I told my parents that I was quitting my corporate job to make films.
When I got a chance to work as an assistant director on Anurag’s Gangs of Wasseypur (gow), that turned out to be my film school. It was here that my journey towards Masaan was materialising on a parallel strain. While working on gow, we had visited Varanasi and there I wrote a short story around the city. When Varun (Grover, Masaan’s joint screenplay writer) came on board, we went back to Varanasi and stayed there for one-and-a-half months, trying to understand the space. Out of that was born the present script for Masaan.
Hindi films have been coming back to the holy city over the years. Were you worried about showing the city in a different light?
As I was telling you, when we camped in Varanasi, we did not want to be like tourists exoticising the place. Instead, we decided on becoming Benarasis ourselves. We tried learning the local dialects, researched the lives of the small town women. Both Varun and I did not like the objectification of small towns happening in present-day cinema, where the small town is seen from a satirical point of view.
Besides, we kept asking ourselves whether we were straying too far from reality. Instead, we looked towards giving an internal perspective to our audiences by bringing forth the progressive side of small towns and juxtaposing that with the regressiveness of moral duplicities. At the end of the day, it is how Sanjay Mishra (the girl’s father in the film) puts it, ‘This film is not about Benares but about Benarasis’.
The film throws up quite a few heartfelt performances. How did you go about choosing your cast?
Since I had worked with Richa (Chadda) in GOW, I had her in mind while writing the character. She was the perfect person to get under the skin of the girl. Moreover, she was kind enough to wait for us as the shoot kept getting delayed. Initially, Manoj Bajpai was supposed to have played Deepak’s father. But that did not work out, Later, Sanjay Mishra, a true Benarasi at heart, stepped in as Vidyadhar. After Ankhon Dekhi, Mishra’s calibre as a character actor beyond the stereotypical funny roles he usually played could be explored and for him this role was a return to his roots.