Masoom Is A Well-Constructed Bridge Between Morality And Parenthood
Director: Mihir Desai
Writer: Satyam Tripathy
Cast: Boman Irani, Samara Tijori, Upa sana Singh, Manjari Fadnnis, Sarika Singh, Veer Rajwant Singh, Manurishi Chadha
DOP: Vivek Shah
Editor: Manan Ashwin Mehta
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar
Distance, in dysfunctional families, is life’s saddest paradox. It starts with love. Parents shield their children from difficult truths – and themselves. Somewhere along the way, this shield turns into a concrete wall. The children, who grow up being denied agency under the pretext of nourishment, project their own insecurities and failings onto that wall. They evolve into messy adults, whose first instinct is to blame – and at times, shame – their aging parents. The cycle goes on, and its wheels span across decades of generational trauma. More often than not, the distance and trauma remain unresolved. And more often than not, these parents are fathers. A father who is inadvertently building that wall, in Tabbar. A father who doesn’t mind being distorted by that wall, in Gehraiyaan. And a father who becomes that very wall, in Masoom. The concept of Indian fatherhood – to nurture at the cost of love, to control at the cost of trust – is a zero-sum game. This six-episode drama, adapted from an Irish series called Blood, asks a question as simple as it is complicated: Are flawed fathers inherently flawed human beings?
Masoom opens with a young woman named Sana (Samara Tijori). She’s upset, preoccupied. She loses control of her car, and it screeches to a halt bang in the middle of a “Go Slow” traffic circle. It’s a sign – because Sana’s mind is going to be working overtime for the next few days. The street is deserted; it’s not the first time Sana finds herself alone, at the crossroads of the past and the present. We soon learn that Sana – who works in Delhi – has returned to her hometown in Punjab, Falauli, for her mother’s funeral. Her mother (an evergreen Upa sana Singh) was ill for a long time, bedridden and cared for by her father, a well-respected doctor named Balraj Kapoor (Boman Irani). Sana is all but estranged from Balraj. From the bruises on her mother’s face, Sana now suspects that Bajraj is directly responsible for her death. There is palpable tension between them, stemming from a history of distrust and damnation. She has seen his volatility before; she has seen things that nobody else has. In her head, the dots are begging to be joined. But his hold over people, including his own family members, is unwavering. Nobody believes her – not her older sister, Sanjana (Manjari Fadnnis), who is on the verge of a divorce, nor her younger brother, Sanjeev (Veer Rajwant Singh), who is tired of living a closeted life under the shadow of a controlling father.
Much of Masoom unfurls from the perspective of Sana, not just narratively but stylistically as well. Sana is convinced that, while she was away, her father‘s toxicity went unchecked. She sees the proof – a broken phone, blood in the garden, a ransacked safe, furtive glances, a story that doesn’t add up. The film-making, too, designs him as a cocky Logan Roy sort of character. It wants us to see him the way Sana does – shadowy, emotionally manipulative and oddly sinister. The first episode tries a bit too hard to paint him as that person, especially with a grating thriller-like background score and a lot of shady dealings. The narrative goes out of its way to be mysterious about him – the way he moves around the house, looks at Sana, speaks to his family, makes phone calls, makes arrangements, or even stands at her door. He doesn’t look stricken enough. His expressions don’t look genuine enough. As a doctor, he seems to be gaslighting Sana into believing that she was the problem child with mental health issues all along. He does this with another patient, too. The message: He is the monster in broad daylight, the kind of man society is hesitant to indict.
Then the series settles into a rhythm over the subsequent episodes, messing with the viewers’ heads while acknowledging the grayness of the father-daughter equation. The writing allows the scrutiny to lie in the eyes of the seeker. Our stance towards Sana is shaped by our own preconceived notions about troubled protagonists: Sana is on anti-depression pills, quits therapy, smokes a lot, misses the only parent who understood her, and bonds with a suicidal friend who seems to be starring in his own parallel film about parental neglect and emotional abuse. Our stance towards the father is shaped by not the treatment so much as our own experiences with the dichotomies of parenthood. For instance, we see Balraj defending his kids when someone accuses them of stealing his money; he means it. We also see him tearing up when his daughter reads out a poem written by his late wife. But not too long later, we see him bonding with Sana, with a selfish agenda: he needs his broken family to put up a united front at his election party. His affection is transactional. We learn early on that he’s been having a long-term affair with a nurse (Sarika Singh), yet even in those scenes – and flashbacks – there’s a sense of integrity about his behavior with both women. Which is to say: Balraj is a typically entitled male, but Sana’s feelings are challenged by his ability to straddle the fence between tormentor and protector. The series, too, softens and hardens its tone in sync with Sana’s thoughts – it exists somewhere in between the words our parents hide us from and the statements they hide from us.
Disney+ Hotstar India is a factory belt of long-form remakes, but Masoom is one of the rare shows that understands the nature of the characters being adapted. Not all the dialogue is expository. Not every moment bristles with subtext. Small-town Punjab is an appropriate setting for the murky-benefactor syndrome, where reputation precedes moral judgment. The predominantly blue shades in closed-door bungalows reflect the deep-set patriarchy – and concealed grief – of the setting. More importantly, the performances straddle the parent-child wall with a sense of urgency. We haven’t seen Boman Irani in a substantial role for ages, and Masoom channels the physical intelligence of the actor who owned the toxicity of flawed companionship back in Ram Madhvani’s Let’s Talk (2002). The (lack of) dialect or accent is irrelevant because of how Irani occupies every frame – as if he were humanizing all those cultural caricatures from Rajkumar Hirani movies that propelled him to Hindi film fame.
Balraj is a difficult man to portray, a harnesser of guilt and sympathy but also sacrifice, and Irani manages to affect the viewer with gestures as little as the manner in which Balraj asks for chapatis on the dining table. At one point, he sits, defeated, at the same table, yet subtly conveys that he is abandoning his children by selling the house – his older daughter’s face falls when he mentions an apartment on rent for her. Even his weakness is inextricably linked to his penchant for power; the dining table is the ultimate showcase of the power imbalance in Indian households. Irani’s is a performance within a performance, one that doesn’t always need the crutch of psychological storytelling. Samara Tijori, previously seen as a daughter of a sociopathic man in Bob Biswas, lends Sana the uncanny balance of vulnerability and courage – she is constantly thinking, torn between pulling on old memories and suppressing them. It slowly emerges that Delhi was her escape and Punjab is her reckoning; the answers she seeks aren’t necessarily related to the questions she’s asking. The secondary cast is mostly convincing, in a way that suggests that Masoom is a story belonging to any of them – Sarika Singh renovates our perception of the ‘other woman,’ Veer Rajwant Singh as the son is suitably tortured and cautious, while Manjari Fadnnis as the high-strung elder sibling furthers the familial denial that she expressed in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. Another thing that stands out is the action that most characters do while speaking, and the way the scenes are composed within spaces – they’re always doing something (driving, working, eating, walking, worrying), as per routine, and don’t just exist to communicate their personalities to an audience. This is an underrated aspect of film-making – and through it, Masoom locates a harmony between moving on and letting go.
The finale reveals what actually happened the morning Sana’s mother – or, more specifically, Balraj’s wife – passed away. The revelation itself works in context of how the series unfolds, but this episode, like the first, leans too heavily to a single side. The treatment didn’t entirely work for me, especially on a behavioral level, where the plot feels reverse-engineered to surprise the viewer. It reminded me of those movie twists where, once the truth is revealed, the characters abruptly change the way they speak or look. Yet, in terms of continuity, Masoom gets that one family‘s ending is another’s beginning. The execution may not be as resolute, but at no point does it feel like the resolutions – tragic or otherwise – happen for the sake of storytelling alone. The title, after all, pertains to an innocence that is both lost and retained. And a chastity which, in dysfunctional families, is doomed to be a zero-sum game.