Review: Dev D

Posted on February 7, 2009


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Everyone’s favourite literary loser turns to drugs in a beautifully textured, audaciously crafted drama.

FEB 8, 2009 – ANURAG KASHYAP’S MADLY STYLISED TAKE on Devdas begins with tongue firmly in cheek, as a title card informs us that Dev.D is “loosely inspired” by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel. This is the understatement of the year – unless Kashyap somehow inveigled access to the attic of the Bengali writer’s ancestral home, and stumbled upon a cobwebbed early manuscript where Chattopadhyay, possibly inflamed by his contemporary DH Lawrence, wrote cheerfully and fearlessly of fellating schoolgirls and multilingual phone-sex providers and girlfriends whose toes curl in orgasmic release upon listening to lurid entreaties from distant lovers. Despite its sadomasochistic subtext, Devdas is a largely chaste drama, and Kashyap (working on a concept from leading man Abhay Deol) reimagines the story by brushing aside its chastity and burnishing its kinks.

Even as a youngling with the barest wisp of a moustache, Dev shows healthy signs of both the sadism (pushing away the woman who loves him) and the masochism (pining for the woman whose love he cannot have) that will define him as a grownup. “Kaat loonga,” he warns a young Paro, who taunts him with her sass. “Noch loongi,” she retorts. This is how the deep love between them finds expression, through quasi-sexual threats of biting and clawing. Even the relationships are defined through a charmingly kinky conceit. Chanda (the Chandramukhi character, beautifully played by Kalki Koechlin) is, of course, literally a prostitute, but Kashyap contends that, metaphorically, everyone else is a slut too, an emotional whore who can be bought by the first person who showers loving attention.

Kashyap can get away with these scribblings on the margins because – as with Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar films – we know the barebones of the plot at the centre. And like Varma’s take on the Godfather saga, Dev.D is a series of punchy highlights, glossing over what is familiar, dawdling instead on whichever idiosyncratic grey area catches the filmmaker’s fancy. The lengthy flashback that details how Dev ends up in Chanda’s bed is a case in point: even as we wonder if we needed so much information about Dev’s descent into drinks and drugs, there’s a corner of the mind that delights in the carnival attractions of this virtuoso sideshow. (And who’s to say that the apparent aimlessness of this sequence doesn’t intentionally mirror the louche laxness of Dev’s life at that point?)

If nothing else, Dev.D is a breathtaking demonstration on how to render the most static of stories irresistibly dynamic. Kashyap lays his story out in loosely plotted chapters – first Paro’s, then Chanda’s, and finally Dev’s – and Amit Trivedi’s score (which is so astounding, it’s certain to go unnoticed at next year’s awards) glues everything together. At times, Dev.D appears nothing so much as an extended, psychedelic rock musical like The Wall, where the point isn’t narrative continuity or coherent character graphs but vivid existential videos set against simpatico music. Paro’s delight in Dev’s impending arrival from London finds exquisite expression in Dhol yaara dhol (in the lyrics, Man mein more hoonk uthi hai, koyal jaise kook uthi hai), while the truth that Dev still yearns for Paro is underlined as the wails of Nayan tarse fill the soundtrack.

The chapter about Paro (Mahie Gill) is the film’s emotional highlight. “Khatarnaak garmi hai uske andar,” a neighbour smirks, and Gill paints a stunning picture of this unapologetically passionate woman. The first time she tells Dev that she loves him is when she’s in heat, when he has her pinned against a wall within shouting distance of her conservative father. In an earlier era, Paro’s love for Dev would have been conveyed merely in emotional terms, but now, she lays out a mattress in the middle of a field so they can tear each other’s clothes off. And in the memorable scene that follows, the way she vents her frustrations on a handpump takes you back to academic discussions of films of the sixties, where no discourse was complete without a reference to possible phallic symbols. (Even the screen name she uses to chat with Dev is a leering come-on: Chammak challo.)

Chanda, in contrast to the excitable Paro, is preternaturally self-possessed for a girl still in her late teens. Again, in an earlier era, Chanda’s induction to a life of prostitution would have entailed the crafty wiles of a sweet-talking pimp, but now, someone who works at a brothel accosts Chanda and frankly informs her, “We have women from all over the world. Easy money.” That’s all it takes, and there’s not a moment Chanda bemoans the fate that’s befallen her. In that respect, she’s like the women around her. When Paro is married off to a widower, she barely registers the loss of a life with Dev. When the band hired to perform at the reception breaks into the long-anticipated Emotional atyaachar number, she begins to dance with such lusty abandon, her husband is taken aback by the firecracker he’s married.

Dev, meanwhile, is sulking upstairs, drinking straight from the bottle. If the women in Devdas are mature beyond belief, the man is an infant (never mind that he rolls his own cigarettes). It isn’t just that when he needs to go, while inside a bar, he rises and holds up a pinkie, like a little boy asking permission in class. And it isn’t just that his petulant rage is like that of a child who can’t bear to see his pet toys in the hands of anyone else. (He moves away from Paro when he suspects her of sleeping with someone else. He moves away from Chanda when she’s visited by a client and he realises that, this plaything too, isn’t fully his and his alone.)

Dev is an emotional infant because he needs, above all else, to be mothered. In one remarkable sequence, Paro storms into Dev’s dingy hotel room and transforms, in the blink of an eye, from paramour to parent. She clucks at the mess, orders him to bathe, replaces his dirty linen, cleans his room, and washes his clothes and hangs them out to dry. Elsewhere, when Dev drops off in Chanda’s bed, she unlaces his boots and looks on indulgently as she strokes his hair (thus, very literally becoming some sort of Madonna-whore). We’re informed that, as a child, Dev was coddled by his mother, and frequently in Dev.D, it appears that he’s merely looking for a replacement bosom in his lovers.

Is it any wonder, then, that Dev gradually becomes impotent? He checks into the room of a prostitute, and when she begins to disrobe, he enquires why she’s taking her clothes off. Drinks and drugs are all the excitement he can handle. Even his love is impotent. He whines to Paro about wanting to love her, and she shoots back witheringly that perhaps instead of simply wanting, he should go ahead and do something about it. (The line stings like a whiplash: “Log pyaar karte hain. Karna chahna kya hota hai?”) With his little-boy whine and that slow-spreading smile suggesting a head filled with naughty thoughts, Deol is perfectly cast as Dev. Even his lethargy as an actor suits the part (though it will be interesting to see what he’s capable of once he finally lands a non-slacker character).

And yet, perhaps it’s a bit much to expect uninterrupted audience investment when a lethargic actor settles a little too comfortably into a lethargic part. About two-thirds of Dev.D works marvellously, but once Dev is cut loose from his heroines, once he hits the road in vaguely introspective voyages of discovery (in other words, you could say Dev is battling his asuras), it appears that the film itself has been cut loose.

On their own, these portions constitute a significant chapter in the story of a man whose life is on the fast track to nowhere. But soon, Kashyap tethers these free-floating vignettes to disappointingly tangible motivational ends. At this point, he tweaks the original story structurally – earlier, the tweaks were more conceptual – and I didn’t buy these changes. I could go along with the public accident that Dev causes and his subsequent conviction – where, earlier, Devdas was a menace merely to himself and the ones he loves, Dev is now a menace to society – but the wake-up call, at the end, is an insult, a dreadfully inappropriate encroachment of morality and responsibility in a movie that was faring so well without these patronising qualities.

But despite these questionable choices – along with the occasional longueurs and the oddly rom-com-like will-Boy-and-Girl-get-together plotting – Dev.D is a very satisfying and engaging work of cinema. Like any self-respecting art film, it plays mystifying mind games with you. (The origami birds, the three men in hats, the face painted like a clown, the dog named after a brother, the nod to Alberto Moravia’s Contempt, which formed the basis for the Godard film – I’m sure all these mean something; I just haven’t decided what!) And like any self-respecting commercial film, it understands that it’s the emotions that are going to pull us into a story, and it doesn’t stint with scenes that make us feel. Despite the cold cleverness of its craftsmanship, Dev.D is suffused with warmth – not just from the loins, but also the hearts that lunge so nakedly at love.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi