Masaan is a Rose in a Desert full of Cacti

6 Min Read

Rifat Ahmed Riyad

What’s it like to lose someone you love? Only those who lost their loved ones can only imagine. But what if it’s not someone you loved for a long time? What if it’s someone you have just started to love, and you are yet to explore the depth of the very word “love” for the first time with that person — someone who would’ve blessed you with an exhilarating experience of which you got a mere subtle touch? Loss of such a person and its aftermath are shown in the two tracks of Masaan’s story. 

Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut film Masaan won the ‘Most Promising Newcomer Award’ in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival 2015. The movie speaks against society’s constrictions on personal liberty by breaking down the stigma of pre-marital sex and inter-caste relations.

Set in Varanasi, the movie opens with Devi’s tale. We find her meeting her lover in a shady hotel where police break in, beat up, and threaten the boy who in turn takes his life in fear of his ruined future. This traumatic experience of losing her lover in such unfortunate circumstances is what Devi was cursed with. Richa Chadda brilliantly captures Devi’s persona as an educated and independent young woman defiant in her outlook. Though she’s going through grief, she’s resilient enough to clear her father’s debt. She’s unapologetic in her choices, like when she was asked about the rendezvous with her lover, “Out of curiosity,” she replied. Her liberty is her top priority, and that’s why she leaves Varanasi, a city of outdated norms, for Allahabad at the end. Unlike typical Bollywood female protagonists, she doesn’t doll-up, nor does she consider her physical beauty to be the sole trait of her character.

In the second track of Masaan’s story, we meet Deepak and Shaalu as two love-birds. Deepak is a cheerful guy who longs to rise above his social station by becoming an engineer. He falls in love with shayari (poetry) loving Shaalu who’s from a way higher caste than his. Deepak, finding it hard to reveal his lower caste origin to Shaalu, highlights the stigma of inter-caste relationships prevalent in the society. Their budding romance bit is the most endearing part in the movie. This is not because they sing and dance like typical Bollywood protagonists do — to depict how happy they are being in love, but because Deepak and Shaalu make us feel the ethereal joy of the first kiss, the soothing elation of making-up after a fight, and so on. So, when Shaalu dies in a sudden bus accident, it comes as a blow to us as it does to Deepak, we’re as heart-broken as he is. Deepak and Shaalu’s characters which linger in our minds long after we’ve watched the movie, are brilliantly played by Vicky Kaushal and Shewata Tripathi. Unlike typical Bollywood movies’ unrealistic love stories, Deepak and Shaalu’s one feels extremely authentic. 

Now, in the two tracks of the story, we’ve got two characters who both lose the person who swept them off their feet. Though we’re not shown Devi’s romance elaborately, we can imagine it. Both Deepak and Devi grieve for their respective deceased beloveds. The movie’s portrayal of their suffering transcends us into a world where people are real and their problems believable. 

The word ‘Masaan’ in Hindi means ‘crematorium.’

Hindu mythology looks upon death as the beginning of another journey that the soul undertakes to cross over,” writes Stutee Ghosh.

So, taking on the symbolic meaning of the title, we can assert Masaan is as much about death as it’s about hope. And it becomes apparent when we discover that the two strands of the story are interwoven. 

Born into the Dom community, Deepak who burns the corpse of Devi’s lover at the beginning of the film, meets her at the end, on the banks of Ganges. When they meet each other, it’s dawn and they’re waiting for a boat. Then the movie ends with them riding a boat together and making small talk — with a background song repeating the lines: ‘it’s dawn,’ ‘a dawn is like a free bird’. The setting of dawn and the repetition of the words imply a new beginning which fills our heart with hope. Probably, Deepak and Devi will bond with each other over their shared trauma of losing a lover. They’ll understand each other’s grief like no one else possibly could. On top of that, both of them are free as birds now. Both left their nest and are about to fly in the sky.

Masaan with its preoccupation with death is also about the living, their hopes, their wish to be free. It’s also vocal about society’s restrictions on personal liberty.

This heart-touching well-directed film is accompanied with exquisite cinematography, brilliant screenplay, and powerful acting. It’s completely different from a cheesy Bollywood movie. It is indeed a rose in a desert full of cacti.


Riyad identifies as a cinephile. He loves travelling, listening to music, and learning foreign languages. 

Share this Article
Leave a comment