The Benares Trilogy
Cities have forever been one of the most ideal subjects for a filmmaker to depict their stories on. There are a ton of films that have been made based on a city, be it Roland Joffe’s ‘City of Joy’ or the seminal ‘Cidade de Deus’ by Meirelles and Lund. The idea of cities as a living breathing character in your story has been used in recent times too, with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land using Los Angeles to tell a tale everyone associates with that city. Closer to home, this is a theme that has achieved great narrative acclaim. Delhi 6 and Delhi Belly were great examples in recent times, and the great city of Calcutta has even inspired two love letters in the form of trilogies, called the Calcutta trilogy, one by Satyajit Ray (Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya) and the other by Mrinal Sen (Interview, Calcutta ’71 and Padatik). Recently however, I rewatched three films, unrelated to each other but based on thematic narratives, that convinced me that there was an unheralded trilogy of cinematic brilliance which is best experienced as continuous segments of the same feeling. These films are, Mukti Bhawan, Ankhon Dekhi and Masaan, three films that are all based on small stories in the city of Benares (Varanasi, as it is called now).
For me, the ideal way to experience these films is to watch them in this order: Mukti Bhawan first, then Ankhon Dekhi and finally Masaan. There is a reason for my insistence on this order, because each theme builds upon the other as you watch along these lines. As we see Mukti Bhawan, the very first evident theme is that of death. However, what strikes you is that death is not something that has been bastardised, or villainized in this film, as we have been taught to think of it. Death, like all things, come naturally, and so there is no point thinking about it anymore than trying to prevent yourself from dying from an amazingly stupid cause, earning yourself a Darwin award. Much has been written about the inevitability of the thing, and the importance of accepting it as and when it comes. However, what Mukti Bhawan deftly does, is take the impatient act of having accepted death, and the consequent period of waiting. In Benares, there is a hotel called Mukti Bhawan, where you can stay for 15 days and wait for your impending death. Benares being the holiest Hindu city in the world, is regarded as the optimal place if someone has to die, and thus our protagonist, explaining to his son that he ‘got tired of the world’, decides to go there. It is the story of his son, however, which is more interesting. For the father, accepting death is a spiritual realization, and a path to fulfilment. For the son though, his accepting is a practical inconvenience. This dichotomy between father and son is often hilarious to watch, though it can bring a tear to your eyes at times. The specter of death here is a theme that has been dealt with with far more nuance and grace than in Kapoor and Sons, where this serene and often scary subject has been used as a crass punchline. While you may think death is a physical and practical reality, the film teaches us that death is also something that you have to believe in for yourself, and the film is an experience in learning unlike any other.
Ankhon Dekhi too, deals with the idea of beliefs. An especially relevant title in our present age, when we don’t know whether to believe the people giving us our news or our laws, Ankhon Dekhi asks the all-important question of whether it is enough to live for your beliefs. The story centers on a man who, after seeing that his daughter’s girlfriend, who everyone had convinced him was a good-for-nothing cheat, is actually a good person, decides that from that point on, he would only believe in what he could see with him own eyes. While saying anything else would take away (even spoil) your experience of the film, know that this decision spawns hilarious moments like at a birthday party where Sanjay Mishra, who plays the role with magnificence, says that there might or might not be a Prime Minister, but because he hasn’t seen him, he cannot believe in it. The story goes as far as to make you question your own sanity, and if you have studied subjects like the Imaginary Communities, you would question your physical realities too. If I had to describe the experience of watching this film, I would say it is similar to when you sometimes watch yourself in the mirror, and cannot recognize the entity that exists before you, wondering what put you there. Highly recommended on one of the wild nights.
The final part of my proposed trilogy would be Masaan, the darling of the parallel film movement that spawned a sea-change in the way filmmakers viewed Indian audiences. Just like its multi-threaded narrative, Masaan too does a good job of bringing together the core themes of the previous two films, death and belief, into a symphony of small-town storytelling that takes your breath away more than once. Narrative wise, this is the one film of the three here that relies on tight storytelling with a worthy endgame that the other two, which are more experiential in their focus, cannot match. Thus, the stories of Deepu, Shaalu, Devi and Safhya are something that one must experience for oneself. Having seen the stories though, you can summarise that Deepu and Shaalu epitomize the ‘death arc’ of the story, while Devi epitomizes the ‘belief’ arc. Safhya is a character akin to the sutradhars of Indian plays, someone who gives a grounded basis to the narratives flowing all around him. While I have defined two arcs, there is no tight separation, as both themes also interlope with each other. Masaan brings you closer to pain, separation, loss, longing and acceptance than perhaps any other film you might have seen this year, and knowing the storm that was 2020, I hope the Benares trilogy helps you move forward and look forward to the New Year with a love for life that I hope you and I share together.
Written by: Trayambak Chakravarty