For Neeraj Ghaywan, the director of Masaan, trains are the symbol of freedom and escape. He longed for the narratives along the train routes when he was working at a MNC six years ago when he travelled only by plane. After he quit and started research for Masaan, he travelled only by train.

“I have seen such amazing stuff from the train. Once I saw a village almost lit up by fireflies,” he told Fountain Ink. So, it’s not a surprise that trains and travel figure prominently in his oeuvre. In his 2011 short film, Shor, the railway track is the site of transformation. In the film a couple from Varanasi are trying to make ends meet in Mumbai but have a fight when the wife takes up a job at a sewing factory. It is only when the husband’s foot gets stuck in the rail track that he realises that he is also mentally stuck. His mind has not progressed even after their physical journey.

The film won awards at the South Asian International Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. It also took the Satyajit Ray Foundation’s Short Film award. Trains reappear in his latest, Masaan, as an instrument of escape from the narrow world of small towns that regulates human desires along lines of caste and gender.

Masaan won two awards at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, the FIPRESCI (International Federation Of Film Critics) and the Promising Future award in the Uncertain Regard category. The film is set in Varanasi and interweaves narratives of two characters, Devi (Richa Chadda) and Deepak (Vicky Kaushal).

It starts with a rendezvous between Devi and her lover in a hotel room raided by police. The police harassment leads to the suicide of the boyfriend. The film then follows Devi as she struggles to reconcile with this tragedy.

There is a parallel story of Deepak, a Dom whose hereditary occupation is the cremation of the dead. He falls in love with an upper caste girl called Shalu (Shweta Tripathi). She returns his feelings but is killed in a road accident. Both stories have tragic endings. Ultimately both Devi and Deepak leave Varanasi and the movie ends with their meeting in Allahabad.

In this interview, Ghaywan talks about learning Bhojpuri in Varanasi, train journeys, and the influence of the Dardenne Brothers on Masaan.

What was your approach towards the representation of Varanasi?

There were two or three things we were trying to achieve through this film. I and my writer, Varun Grover, hate the way small towns are shown in Bollywood or Indian cinema. Either they are mocked or shown as the Other. There is a demarcation between the metropolis dwellers and small-town folk. We thought we should present an internalised point of view, because nobody talks about the small town from their point of view. There is an objectification of small towns, shown through an outsider’s eye.

For example when they depict Benaras, they show the aarti, the Hindu-Muslim divide. Small-town people are shown as bumbling fools; they still think of mud huts. In fact if you go to villages now, there are more dish antennas (than in big cities)!

The film is a reflection on India. We are reckoned one of the emerging countries after China but at the same time we are pulled down by our own old world rituals, morals and cultural stereotypes. At that juncture, at that paradox, is where we’ve set the film. We are talking about youth who either physically, mentally or existentially want to escape this construct. Hence, we wanted to show the more modern side of small towns, the way they are right now.

How did you do that visually?

In Benaras cycle rickshaws are used for commuting. We have deliberately not shown a single cycle rickshaw in the film. We shot e-rickshaws although it did not make the final cut. We have shown the Mahindra vehicles people use there, we have shown people on Facebook, who meet on Facebook. They talk about their education and ambitions. They are madly in love but talk about Hindi literature. I keep saying the film is not about Benaras but about Benarsis; you see them as characters and not as exotic pieces dwelling in an exotic location.

Benaras is the symbol of small cities and people of small towns, but the story could not have been placed anywhere else. One of the stories in the film needs to be in Benaras, because of Harishchandra Ghat.

How did the idea to set up a story in Harishchandra Ghat come about?

The idea came when I was working at Hindustan Times and one of my colleagues told me about the Dom community whose occupation was to cremate dead bodies. He told me about their practices, how they torched bodies, used bamboo sticks to stoke the fire ... They have cycles so that the ritual fire never goes out and at any point of time, there are at least eight to 10 bodies to be cremated at Harishchandra Ghat. I was listening to him over and over again and it was a long commute to work and thinking about it, I concocted a short story.

These people from the community intrigued me. They work the whole day and night, cremating bodies. What would be that person’s worldview, what would that person go through in their mind, what is their relationship to death and dead bodies? How do they appreciate the quality of life? Do they become immune to death? What happens if somebody close to them dies? Would you still see it as an object or your work? That was the irony that caught my attention and I wrote a story around that but then I forgot about it.

How did you retrieve it?

I started blogging for a website called Passion For Cinema and I quit my job soon after, which felt like complete freedom, as if I was shedding my skin. It was a difficult decision because the day I quit my job, my parents had set up a girl for me and asked me to go and see her. They stopped talking to me, which was understandable as I had done my engineering, then MBA, and had a very good job at a multinational company. I was the highest earner in my entire family but I turned my world upside-down. I felt so empty, so free of all middle class inhibitions.

At that time, I started to write a screenplay. I wrote some 25 pages. It was horrible, but the ideas were there. Thankfully I abandoned it and then went to assist on Gangs of Wasseypur. For two-and-a-half years, I worked on the sets, which was my film school. After Gangs, I made a short film called Shor, which made me confident that I could do something.

It was foolhardy of me to think I could write the story as I did not know North India or its language. That’s when Varun Grover came on board as the writer.

Trains figure as a motif in Masaan. Can you elaborate?

It’s funny that when I was part of corporate life for six-seven years, I was never allowed to take trains. We were always supposed to take a flight, finish the meeting, and come back the same day. But I craved that. Both I and Varun are mad about trains. At that point, we weren’t even sure that we would make a film.

We set out for Benaras by train, a 36-hour journey. I never sat on my seat; I was at the gate throughout. Looking at your entire country pass by is magical. I saw one village that had no power and it was almost lit up by fireflies. I love travelling, it does something to me. That’s why we decided to make travel, bridges, travel a motif in the film. The whole metaphor of the female lover moving as a train and the male lover as the dangling bridge was meant to suggest that love is also a journey. Their lives are also like that. Shalu is self-enclosed in her own sphere, untouched by the madness of the world. She is a pure angelic person. And Deepak is like the shaky bridge because of his social background, his uncertain future, his vulnerability and helplessness in love. He is so madly in love that he feels helpless.

What was your process of research for the film?

We stayed in the hostel of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) because Varun is an alumnus and we went out daily for research. In the process we realised that we could not be backpackers, urban middle class students. We had to be incorporated into their world and become them. It was easy for Varun because he had studied there but for me with my corporate background it was more difficult. But I learned Bhojpuri. Once I was talking to a sari shopkeeper and we were just talking about politics, music and culture. That’s when I realised Benaras is known for death but Benarasis are the most zindadil people in the world.

We also met people of the Dom community through two local journalists. It is a subculture but they are so isolated that nobody knows about them. We discovered simple things but which are unknown and shown the film, like the fact that they only use the fire from the ghat to light their kitchen fires or lamps. They don’t use matchsticks or lighters.

Then there is a painting in Deepak’s house which is shown during a lunch scene when his father is yelling at his older brother. That painting is an ancient mural depicting huntsmen. In our research we found out that the Dom community originated from a huntsmen tribe and that’s why they have murals of huntsmen. Deepak would also wear a lot of blue shirts. Blue is the colour of Yamaraj, and the Dom wear a lot of blue.

We also met a lot of young girls who were part of focus groups and asked them how they live, how do they talk about their boyfriends. Slowly they opened up and admitted to watching porn, which we put in the film. This is the other thing that angers me about our cinema. Whenever a small-town girl is shown, she is either too bold for the place, like she is some chandi mata, or very demure and doesn’t know the facts of life; she is naïve to the point of being exploited. There is never this middle road. Devi is not this powerful figure, she is normal. She knows her maryada; yet she wants to express what she has done and she is not apologetic.

This was the kind of moral we understood from the focus groups. We keep thinking that we city people are more liberal but I found that these people, because of their repressed upbringing, are more sexually liberal than us, so they watch porn, they have sex before

You use a lot of literary references and poetry in the film. Whose idea was this?

It was Varun’s idea and I seconded it wholeheartedly. The film opens with an epigraph from Chakbast: ‘What is life? It’s the delicate arrangement of the five elements. What is death? It’s the disarray in any of these five elements.’ Only recently we found out that Chakbast’s ancestors were cremation workers.

Then there was Dushyant Kumar, from whom we borrowed ‘Tu kisi rail si gujarti hai, main kisi pul sa thartharata hun.’ We also used Bashir Badr’s poetry. One which we could not use was for the character of Sadhyaji, Devi’s colleague at the railway station played by Pankaj Tripathi. That character is inspired by a character in Vinod Shukla’s book Deewar Mein Ek Khirkee Rehti Thi and in the film he is reading the same book. The book is lying in the corner but unfortunately it could not be seen in the frame.

He also talks about escape a lot. There was one scene in which Sadhya tells Devi he’s decided that after his father’s death, he’d board any train and get down at any station, have tea and then go somewhere else. That is his motive and he actually does that one day. We removed this because the story is primarily about Devi and Deepak and the structure meandered because too much attention went to this subplot. The whole film is structured like a Hindi novel. A lot of people tweeted me saying that watching this film was like reading a very good book.

The movie is about the conflict of human desire vis-à-vis social structures of caste and gender regulations, summed in one of the songs: ‘Mann kasturi ... jag dasturi...’ What comes across in the film is that there is no resolution for transgressive desire but death. Isn’t it too pessimistic?

That is the exact notion I wanted to break. Whenever we talk about death there is a pejorative connotation. The feelings associated with death are sadness, misery, yearning. But if you go back and think about the death of a loved one, you can recall that the feelings of loss remain for a month but this experience also teaches you. It makes you wise. Dealing with the loss of someone makes you wise and then you come of age. That transition from misery to this expansion of consciousness is what I wanted to show.

Who were your cinematic references while making the movie?

For this film, the biggest influence was the Dardenne brothers. Most of their films talk about the working class, and the best part is they don’t observe them from socio-political or economical backgrounds. They tend to see their moral conflicts, their existential conflicts, as against their habitation of their social space. That really interests me. You talk about the working class but you don’t get into their economic status but their emotions. How they are questioning life and others through their moral compass.

It’s also there in Gulzaar. In his films you see the characters are so strong that you forget the socio-economic identity. Even in a film like Aandhi, the political backdrop is strong but the story that he is trying to communicate is about two lovers who haven’t met for 20 years.

I was also influenced by one scene in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, which I used in Masaan. There is a scene in The White Ribbon where the boy gets beaten up. He goes inside but the camera stays outside and you only hear the sound of beating. I used that when Richa Chadda goes to her boyfriend’s house.

Also, in Motorcycle Diaries, you remember Gael García Bernal swims across to the leper’s colony. Deepak’s cathartic swim is a tribute to that.

What was your instruction to the cinematographer?

We wanted a natural look and the camera should not attract attention. It should not be exoticised or stylised. It should be observing, so there are no fancy camera angles or crazy tracking. The films are generally shot at wide angle with 16/9 lens, which means your geography becomes more important. For us, our characters were more important, so we chose the 185 format which places the characters in the centre. There is no scope for beauty; there is always a vertical frame. It was the character that was given more space than the white space with unnecessary beauty.

The ending seemed like a big coincidence: two damaged people with similar narratives, same place, come together ... Could that ending be avoided?

It was not a surprise element that we were looking for. For us, our film was about that end moment. All throughout, we were arriving at that moment. It was never like these were two separate stories for us. They were always connected. The entire story is about them. It was not like we were confused and thought ab kya karein? In dono ko mila dete hain ... Two people completely cleansed of their own pasts happen to arrive at the same point and meet each other. In the film we show both carrying backpacks. It was also a motif. They were carrying their baggage on their shoulders all the time till they met. That’s why we read books or write books—for these fantastic coincidences. How everything is so cyclical.

That’s why the film is named MasaanMasaan is the cremation ground where life ends but it also begins from there. The cycle had to be shown and that’s why for me, their meeting is the purest moment. We want the audience to make a film after that.