“Daas Dev”… An energetic, entertaining mashup of the pulpier aspects of ‘Devdas’ and ‘Hamlet’

Posted on May 2, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

The world doesn’t need another cinematic adaptation of Devdas, and the world doesn’t need another cinematic adaptation of Hamlet either – but look what Sudhir Mishra has done! Daas Dev is what kids today would call a mashup – and the mind bristles with possibilities. A Suitable Boy meets Pride and Prejudice: you could call it A Groom with a View. Or even, heaven forbid, Arthur Conan Doyle meets Amish: The Hound of the Vayuputras. The premise of Daas Dev sounds equally farcical – until we remember that both Hamlet and Devdas are callow men manipulated by their fathers. In Mishra’s version, Dev’s (Rahul Bhat) father dies early on, so even he is visited by the ghost of his father (through a video recording). At an election rally – the story is set amidst a political dynasty in the UP hinterlands – Dev is seemingly possessed by his father’s spirit: he repeats the same slogans his father did many years ago, when Dev was still a child.

Mishra and co-writer Jaydeep Sarkar don’t go the Vishal Bhardwaj route, where, despite the change of names and places, we find a fairly rigorous one-to-one correspondence between source and adaptation. (Hamlet becomes Haider, Gertrude becomes Ghazala, and so on.) Theirs is a fascinatingly diffuse and drugged-out approach, one that seems pieced together instinctively rather than logically. Dev loves Paro, but he doesn’t pine for her agonisingly, self-destructively. Search for approximations of Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia – and you may not find them. But if you consider Ophelia a madwoman whose life is destroyed by the actions of men around her, then we do have Paro’s (Richa Chadda) mother, mad at the injustice done to her, and ranting at a group of journalists. You might even sense the all-knowing ghost of Hamlet’s father in the spectral presence of Chandramukhi (named Chandni here, and played by a deliciously sly Aditi Rao Hydari; watch her confront the Dalip Tahil character and accuse him of lying) –she’s a political fixer who lurks about in the shadows, apparently everywhere at once..Her first appearance has her out of focus, like a formless phantom, and then she slowly corporealises.

Chandni narrates this story of love and power (and, of course, the love for power). At first, her voiceover is indispensable because  there are so many characters to keep track of. It took me a good thirty minutes to hack my way through this thicket of people. But gradually, Chandni’s off-and-on voiceover becomes a kind of poetry, a musical counterpoint to the ugliness of human behaviour around her. When Dev’s mother becomes the leader of their party and is hit by a stone during a speech, Chandni murmurs, “Ek kamzor maa… dheere se neeche giri.” Later, this is how she mourns her famously unrequited love: “Main jaanti hoon aap mujhse pyaar nahin karte, par aapko mera ishq mubarak.” These filigreed phrases are far more tuneful than the snatches of Sufi-rock that flare up frequently, neither underlining emotion nor proving particularly useful in taking the plot forward. I kept thinking of Dev.D. Some filmmakers know how to use music. Some don’t.

But with so much going on (and not always coherently), this was the last thing on my mind. With adaptations, it’s always fun to spot the similarities and divergences from the source(s). Daas Dev is dedicated to Sarat Chandra Chatterjee and William Shakespeare, the former because Devdas is a metaphor for the Indian lover and the latter because of the darkness that envelops those in power – and some of Mishra’s choices are frankly nuts. (For instance, the snake that gleams in the night, in the vicinity of Dev and Paro. A reference to Shakespeare’s text, perhaps? “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life…” Or for a translation that hits closer home, aasteen ka saanp…) But even this nuttiness is entertaining, because Mishra doesn’t seem to revere Devdas or Hamlet. Despite (I assume) his loftier aspirations, what he’s ended up with is a playful amalgamation of the pulpier aspects of the two texts.

Most versions of Devdas play out as melodrama (which wrings the heart), but Mishra’s approach is colder – even the bleeding-heart social angles (farmers’ rights, illegal mining, nepotistic dynasty politics) come off like afterthoughts. It’s hard to pin a genre on Daas Dev, but that’s part of the fascination. (Comic political noir, perhaps, with Chandramukhi as a sort of femme fatale who strings Dev along?) The film is darkly funny, and a refreshing change from the staid classicism that undermined some of Mishra’s recent work. Even Dev isn’t the “classical” loser. He’s still weak – he won’t speak up for Paro when his career is at stake. But he’s defined less by drug use and alcoholism than the political shenanigans around him. It’s a terrific idea to minimise Devdas’s self-pity by imbuing him with the questing restlessness of Hamlet. He’s campaigning. He’s after his father’s killer. Where’s the time to mope?

Rahul Bhat and Richa Chadda don’t give us a Dev and Paro to root for. We get a scene where Dev understands Paro’s silences, as though they are telepathically linked – but these character-establishing stretches are unnecessary because the film deals with archetypes rather than characters. (We already know Dev and Paro from earlier films. We don’t need to be shown, in the context of this film.) Mishra is right to place more emphasis on Chandni/Chandramukhi, who brings the Dev-Paro story to boiling point. When Paro breaks away from Dev, he does pick up the bottle, but Mishra doesn’t dwell on the sentimentalism of the moment. Instead, he gives us a scene where Dev (from his balcony) watches Paro (in hers), as she paces about. It’s a great shot, suggesting both their closeness and the current distance between them. The frame keeps them together; the plot keeps them apart.

Mishra’s staging is startlingly energetic (some shots are positively Mani Ratnam-esque). With cinematographer Sachin K Krishn, he goes positively gonzo, revelling  in shadows and canted angles. In an astonishing moment between Dev and Paro, we move from their real selves to their reflections in a mirror, and a subsequent scene between Paro and her husband (Vipin Sharma) moves from their shadows to their real selves: the tangible is lost, the intangible turns true. Elsewhere, a camera tracks Paro as she walks into a room and closes the door behind her, stays with her, and follows her back outside. Imagine this: during the narration of a flashback, what takes us back in time isn’t an image (which is how flashbacks usually operate, with scenes from the past) but the sound (of a helicopter that’s part of the story being told). Mishra is having fun mucking around with two legendary tragedies, and it’s infectious.

Several portions made me laugh out loud, like when two men argue over a wall of women, or a crazy shootout that looks like a Godfather bloodbath crossed with a Marx Brothers pie-fight. The superb supporting cast seems to be having fun too. In a memorable scene set amidst the baraat procession before Paro’s wedding, Milan (Vineet Kumar Singh) orders the band to stop playing because Paro’s father has just died. Over pin-drop silence, the groom proceeds in his car, with a frozen expression somewhere between a grin and a grimace. Saurabh Shukla is a riot as the Claudius character. His first scene shows him pulling on a hairpiece (you know what Shakespeare said: uneasy lies the head that wears a wig), and he’s perpetually exasperated that nothing is going as per plan. But there’s also an undercurrent of menace. Everything Shukla does pumps the character with life – which is something you could say about the film as well. It doesn’t always come together, but it’s always alive.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi