An embodiment of grief through the caste-ist representation of “Masaan”

Masaan and Indian caste system

Ye dukh khatam kyon nahi hota bey? “(Why does this grief not end), asks a shattered Deepak in Masaan. In a sentence, he voices the grief of an entire caste existing on the margins of the Indian social system.

Deepak grieving his situation in Masaan
Deepak grieving his situation

The caste system, since its conception in Manusmriti or The Laws of Manu, has governed Indian society for ages. Through a division in four castes or categories in a hierarchical order, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, respectively, an effective division of labor was aimed at. However, the system went haywire following the exploitation of the lower castes by the higher. Smeared in their elitism, the upper castes turned greedy. They exploited the lower castes for tasks they despised doing by themselves.

The Indian caste pyramid
The Indian caste pyramid

The caste system recurs everywhere from Hindu epic narratives to the contemporary lives of people in India. As a Hindu system, it finds its place in the Hindu epics such as in The Ramayana, where a Shudra is killed off due to his inquisitive study of the Shastra strictly meant for Brahmins. It also manifests in present-day lives through marriage, education, and employment. Caste in India has such prevalence that it does not limit itself only to the Hindu majority but has spread to other religious communities in India as well.

Masaan‘s depiction of the problems of tradition

Masaan is a film by Neeraj Ghaywan, that depicts two of the major problems prevalent in Indian society. As a result of a tradition that went haywire, the film narrates these problems through two events that occur simultaneously.

The first one is based on the taboo of pre-marital sex, something largely frowned upon by a “civilized” Indian society. Such a situation, in turn, has enabled contemporary hotel brands like OYO to benefit immensely from its prevalence in Indian society. The range of “couple-friendly” hotels provided by this brand is ridiculous exploitation of this taboo to the fullest extent. For someone unaware of this taboo in Indian society, the initial scenes of the movie may come off as shockingly absurd and nonsensical.

The stigma and harassment associated with pre-marital coitus showed in Masaan
The stigma and harassment associated with pre-marital coitus

The second one is that of caste, which would be the main topic of discussion in this article. Anyone familiar with Indian society has not been alien to its widely prevalent caste system. However, the picture of the caste system that is popularized, presented in textbooks, or taught in schools, is highly marred and immensely distorted. They deny most of the intricacies present in the obscure corners of this system.

Existence in a caste-ist society (Masaan)

Masaan depicts the relationships of individual members from different castes pretty well. Human individuals, as social beings, often transcend the caste-ist barriers knowingly or unknowingly. The caste system, even with its restrictions on intermingling beyond a formal framework, often cannot stop the development of social bonds across castes.

Devi‘s father, Vidhyadhar Pathak was an upper-caste Hindu Brahmin, who, by the end of the movie, could not help himself from building a personal bond with his Shudra helper, Jhonta. Despite using Jhonta for selfish betting, the human sensibility blind to caste aroused in Pathak when the former almost drowned. The latter rushed him to the hospital -an instance contrary to the frequent carelessness displayed by the upper castes towards the lower.

A grief-stricken Vidyadhar at Jhonta's bedside in Masaan
A grief-stricken Vidyadhar at Jhonta’s bedside

Such relationships are often commonplace in casteist societies, and casteist categories often do not stay fossilized within devised boundaries.

The love relationship of Shaalu and Deepak

Another instance of such a relationship would be the bond that developed between Shaalu and Deepak. This bond developed with no prior knowledge of Shaalu about Deepak‘s caste. In a place like Banaras, where the events of the film unravel, caste distinctions still ring out loud. It presents itself as a matter of grave importance among the people.

Deepak‘s caste presented itself as a greater barrier to his relationship with Shaalu than Jhonta‘s did to Vidhyadhar. It is because of further distinctions amongst Shudras or the low castes themselves. According to the caste pyramid, the caste that finds itself situated at the very bottom-line and at the most down-trodden position of society is that of the “untouchables”. Deepak belonged to a family that is traditionally considered as “untouchables”. They found themselves as outcasts because of their profession of tending and disposal of corpses at burning ghats. More than “good” or “evil”, what dominates the socio-cultural lives of the Hindus is the notion of “purity” and “impurity”. Burning ghats, corpses, and those who tend with their cremation are often regarded as “impure”.

Deepak's dwelling place, adorned by a mural of traditionally lower-caste hunters on the wall (Masaan)
Deepak‘s dwelling place, adorned by a mural of traditionally lower-caste hunters on the wall

Deepak was reluctant about revealing his identity to Shaalu -an upper-caste Hindu girl- and was even more disturbed by the fact that they had kissed. The social stigma associated with the forbiddance of intermingling stung him immensely. This manifested itself in the anger that he let out on Shaalu upon her repeatedly asking him his address.

An angry Deepak revealing his caste identity to Shaalu in Masaan
An angry Deepak revealing his caste identity to Shaalu

However, even in this instance, their personal bond surpassed their social stature. Shaalu assured Deepak that she would even elope with him if required.

An attempt of transcendence of the Indian caste system

The movie repeatedly highlights the notion of transcendence of barriers for lower-caste individuals through the acquisition of jobs other than those assigned in accordance to inheritance in a respective caste. Such is believed to be a way out of the caste system. It is because the caste system is largely hereditary. This is why Deepak works hard to secure a job in engineering. He believes that it would pave a way for him out of his family profession.

This is another portrayal of the social life of India, where the ranking of professions, too, takes place in accordance with social stature. The stress on the need for social regulations and adherence to society is so immense, that it appears both as a boon as well as a curse. Where, on one hand, the conception of society is believed to strengthen familial bonds, the division of the same in terms of labor on the other eradicates individual sovereignty. Climbing up the social or caste-ist ladder often results in the segregation of further lower castes. This goes on and on in a cycle, validated by the concepts of karma and samsara. It is because of this perpetuation that Ambedkar, the notable fighter of the lower castes, converted to Buddhism. He saw the Hindu religion itself as the root cause of misery resulting from caste.

Ambedkar on his conversion to Buddhism
Ambedkar on his conversion to Buddhism

Conclusion (Masaan)

Masaan ends on both a tragic and a hopeful note. The death of Shaalu makes Deepak confront his commonplace reality in a pretty distinct way when tending her corpse. Love intermingles with death to distort the dimension of familiarity. On the other hand, his meeting with Devi in the very end strikes a hopeful chord, again of a possible transcendence of the barriers of caste.

Newer attempts of transcendence of casteist barriers (Masaan)
Newer attempts of transcendence of caste-ist barriers

Masaan reflects the grief resulting from caste division with sheer perfection. An unaware viewer will get a pretty decent idea of how caste, and other taboos for that matter, function in Indian society.

The movie, however, fails to provide a solution for this problem. Maybe it does not aim to do so, anyway. It only reflects how the constraints of caste often fail and that itself is a beacon. In a society as blindly traditional and largely ignorant as India, it is perhaps not possible to eradicate caste entirely. A hope for utopia may only backfire. However, attempts made by individuals always challenge prevailing traditional norms. It is needed that more and more people learn to critically analyze prevalent norms, challenge them and pave more ways than one towards a brighter future.

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