Neeraj Ghaywan: The Middle-Class Boy Who Breathed Life into Bollywood’s Masaan and Sacred Games

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Neeraj Ghaywan: The Middle-Class Boy Who Breathed Life into Bollywood’s Masaan and Sacred Games

Illustration: Arati Gujar

A pyre burns on the banks of the river Ganga. Flames flicker, forming a silhouette of a man standing with a long pole in his hands. He swatches unruffled and occasionally stabs at it with the pole. Sounds of bones crushing emanate, but the man stands there unmoved and watches the pyre burn to ashes. The man is Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) and he is from the Dom community, a stigmatized “low-caste” section of corpse-burners in Varanasi. We are watching Masaan and the visionary behind this film was debutant director, Neeraj Ghaywan.

The 109-minute drama captures some pretty brutal truths of Indian society – sexual repression, intractable caste divides, and life on the barely genteel edge of poverty, intertwining into a tale of love, loss, and grief – a narrative quite unheard of in many mainstream Bollywood films. 

Masaan marked Ghaywan’s personal journey to success – the film was screened at Cannes and went on to win many accolades at home and abroad. To be screened at Cannes is remarkable, where a film competes with about 7,000 odd entries from 250 different countries. It snapped up the prestigious FIPRESCI (International Federation Of Film Critics) award and the Prix de l’Avenir at Cannes 2015, joining the small but proud list of other Indian winners, including Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) among others.

Hyderabad-bred Ghaywan’s journey to Cannes is no less enchanting. He started life afresh at 30, after quitting his day job to follow his passion. From being a manager at UTV, he lugged lights and cameras and worked 4 am shifts, assisting Anurag Kashyap on his magnum opus Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).

Masaan marked Neeraj Ghaywan’s personal journey to success – the film was screened at Cannes and went on to win many accolades at home and abroad.

Just like the characters in his films, Ghaywan too was brought up in a middle-class Indian family where – like most middle-class Indian families – success was measured by a professional degree and secure salary. Plus, he is the family’s only son. To escape those pressures, he turned to films – a world he could disappear into whenever his became too stressful. The classics of Bimal Roy and Shyam Benegal that would play on Doordarshan every Sunday, were his early introductions to the diversity of our cinema.

After graduating from Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, he was hired by Tech Mahindra. But the cinephile inside him refused to die, and he started writing for the now defunct film blog Passionforcinema.com. The crowdsourced blog became the film school he never went to, where he would write reviews of his favourite films like Bandit Queen (1994) and Nadiya Ke Paar (1982). One thing led to another, and Ghaywan became close friends with Kashyap.

Ghaywan’s corporate life, however, soon started to get to him. He began doubting if he would ever be able to make his mark in the industry. But eventually he decided to quit his job at UTV and follow his passion, and started working with Kashyap on Gangs of Wasseypur. But this choice came at a cost, from earning ₹16 lakh per annum at his corporate job, he was barely making ₹2 lakh, and struggled to make ends meet. But he didn’t lose hope and continued working to achieve his dreams.

And finally his efforts paid off, when he shot to public notice with his short film Shor (2011), a tale about a couple from Varanasi struggling in city lives. He also started working on his own script with Varun Grover in the meantime, which eventually became Masaan.

The film, unlike most Bollywood outings, tackled the caste system in a small-town of Varanasi. Ghaywan tied together the various narrative skeins in the film with confidence and sensitivity. Varun Grover’s philosophical lyrics elevated Ghaywan’s simple storytelling, and deeply resonant songs by the band Indian Ocean added to the overall impact.

Neeraj Ghaywan has never shied away from sparking conversations and portraying harsh realities of our society on screen.

After the success of Masaan, Ghaywan was struck by what is called the “second film syndrome” – the pressure to make as good a second feature. He was offered films by various studios, which he didn’t want to do. But Ghaywan decided not to play by the rules, and instead directed another short film titled Juice (2017). In an industry which places little value on short films, Ghaywan asked hard-hitting questions on internalised patriarchy and misogyny in a household set-up through his 14-minute short. Juice is a snapshot of what every middle-class Indian home is like, where drunk men ramble about issues they know almost nothing about and women are expected to give up their careers to take care of the family.

Ghaywan has also directed many commercials. The Vicks commercial which he directed in 2017 spoke about a beautiful relationship between a transgender mother and her adopted daughter. The commercial sparked a conversation on the internet about the discrimination the trans community is often subjected to because of their misrepresentation on the screen.

What makes Ghaywan’s films different and unique is that the characters in his films don’t break into elaborate song and dance sequences set in exquisite foreign locations. His characters develop their own arcs, accompanied by poetic interludes that ease the transitions between drama, romance, and tragedy – which has become his own distinct style.

Last year, Vikramaditya Motwane offered Ghaywan the opportunity to take on from where he had ended with the storyline of Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan) in Sacred Games Season 2. Ghaywan drew some criticism for a scene featuring a young Muslim boy getting lynched by a mob – some people even labelled it an “item number” and accused it of having no connection with the storyline. Still, it was a bold move, considering the severe controversies that plague independent filmmakers who choose to depict reality. And Ghaywan has never shied away from sparking conversations and portraying harsh realities of our society on screen.

In a Bollywood populated with big-budget over-the-top productions, Ghaywan has always strived to make films which are backed by simple storytelling and have authentic character portrayals. Despite being an outsider, he has left a mark on the back of his own signature style.

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