There’s a moment in Dev.D when you suddenly realise what the background song is saying, and how damned relevant it is. What am I saying? There’s one every ten minutes. The movie was directed by Anurag Kashyap, one of the new wave of Indian ‘independent’ directors. These guys, they aren’t really independent in the American sense of financial independence, bt in a sense of artistic independence. They are all involved in some big budget studio-produced movie now, but they don’t make studio movies.
Each one has a different style. For example, there’s Navdeep Singh who made a masterful noir set in the Indian rural areas called Manorama – Six Feet Under, which was a copy of Chinatown (mainly in story; what I’ve seen of the older movie is rather different from the newer one). Doesn’t sound very good, I know but he’s my favourite of this wave (I’m not comparing to the French and Mexican new waves; there’s some way to go before that), because he showed how well traditional noir adapts itself to Hindi, making use of the fact that Hindi speakers speaking Hindi have a certain frankness in their sound and look. Then, there’s Dibakar Bannerjee, a sort of Indian Jason Reitman, who makes light-spirited but serious movies(Khosla ka Ghosla, meaning Khosla’s Nest, and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!). There’s Vishal Bhardwaj, who specialises in Shakespeare flicks (Omkara from Othello – a review – and Maqbool from Mac… you can guess; both are character’s names, like the originals), dark children’s movies (Makdee meaning Spider – a review – and The Blue Umbrella, possibly his best movie, a review) and a great-looking tribute to Tarantino(Kaminey, meaning Scoundrels; a review), all of which are, more than anything else, visual treats.
And then there’s Anurag Kashyap, the case in point. He started off with a crime drama called Paanch (Five) that the censor board didn’t allow. Then, there was a sensitive look at the terrorists who participated in the 1993 Bombay bombings called Black Friday, which I remember watching and being affected by but nothing more. Then, he made the Lynch-ish No Smoking which had similarities to the Stephen King story ‘Quitters Inc.’ but was not based on it (Kashyap added in stuff from the other end to make it look more like it was when he realised how similar his script was to the story). It was a parable about freedom, which was actually much more linear and coherent than a Lynch movie is (I talk about Lynch only from reputation). Then, there was Dev.D this year, which is the case in point but coming to which I’ll delay for a while. Then, there was Gulaal (it’s the name of a red powder used to colour the skin), which was political… something. It was structured like a play, not in terms of its scenes and setting but in terms of its characters, the way they faced off against each other and the way tehere was a Shakespearan jester chock-full of wisdom… you know what I’m talking about. This last one or Black Friday would be my idea of a good introduction to Kashyap.
My favourite thing about Anurag Kashyap is the way he seamlessly combines madcap elements of popular Bollywood with the gritty realism and silence of ’70s Hollywood with the stream-of-consciousness imagery of Godard (I think) and the like. As I’ve already said, there’s a moment every ten minutes in Dev.D when you suddenly realise what exactly the music is saying. And there’s a lot of it, I tell you: it was a big thing when it came out that it had eighteen songs, none of which, however, play full length. I don’t think anyone counted the excerpts of songs from other movies.
Dev.D is based on Saratchandra’s classic Bengali novel Devdas, which there have been either twelve or twenty-one screen adaptation of. In fact, I as of now have a disk of the classic nineteen-fifties Bimal Roy version which I’ll get down to next week. The original novel is the story of Devdas, a Bengali landlord’s son who is in love with the manager’s daughter Paro (short form for Parvati). His parents force them not to marry because she is of a lower caste, and he loses it, drowning in his unrequitable love, and drink. During this period, he meets a dancer Chanda (short for Chandramukhi) – during that time, that was a disreputable profession – and her ringmaster Chunni. I’m slightly hazy on what happens now, but I know it ends with Devdas dying.
Dev.D is the story of Devendra Singh Dhillon (Abhay Deol, nephew of legendary Dharmendra), son of a sugar mill owner in Punjab. Paro, yet again, is the manager’s daughter. He comes back from London, where he went to study. Then, he and Paro (beautiful, beautiful Punjabi actress Mahie Gill) have a series of sexual encounters which just refuse to end up in sex. At this time, Dev’s brother Dhwij is getting married. Here, Dev meets Rasika who lures him out for a drive. They start making out but Dev has to stop, because she’s not Paro. He comes back, and almost immediately is told by a worker who loves Paro that she sleeps around with anyone who wants. So, Dev leaves her, and overhears a confession of the lie during the marriage. Soon, Paro is getting married to someone else, and there’s a song when she is getting married (two madcap Bollywood elements right there: a song, and the fact that an adult-material song is playing at an Indian marriage). Here’s a video of the song, called ‘Emosanal Attyachar’ (Emotional Torture). The drinking man is Dev, and the woman madly dancing in a red dress is Paro. Sorry, non-Hindi speakers, I couldn’t find a version with subtitles, but watch it for the music anyway.
Anyway, this guy starts going downhill, meets hooker Chanda (French-descended theatre actress Kalki Koechlin), who has her own back-story, and… well, I won’t tell you what happens then, but it’s different from the original.
The movie is divided into three segments: Paro, Chanda and Dev.D. The first is about Paro, which I’ve described above. The old Paro was the perfect woman by early twentieth century standards, respectable as they get, and effusively in love with Devdas. The new one is the perfect woman by today’s standards; sexually alive, madly in love, and the real wearer of the pants in the pair who makes the other think he is. At one time, after many unsuccessful make-outs, Dev asks her to do something, anything. She says, “Why? You’re throbbing?”(pardon me, I’m not a very good translator, so I just do literal) “Yes.” “Good!” And she runs away. In normal playfulness, it’s the guy who’s complacent. Also, there’s Abhay Deol’s body language. So, it ands right after the song I posted up there.
The second part, ‘Chanda’, is about the back-story of Chanda. She was a half-French half-Indian twelfth-grader in New Delhi called Leni who loved Hindi movies when her lover publicised a video of her giving him oral sex. Her father kills himself, she’s generally feeling quite unsupported by her family, her paternal grandmother accuses hr of killing her father… and she runs away. Back in Delhi, she’s picked up by a brothel owned by Chunni (well-played by Dibyendu Bhattacharya, who wasn’t given too much to do anyway), who allows her to finsh her education as long as she has real and phone sex and stars in pornographic movies. She has to choose herself a hooker name, and she chooses Chanda while watching the great-looking 2001 Sanjay Leela Bhansali Devdas movie. One day, a semi-conscious man is hauled into her room, and he, while still in the daze, murmurs “Paro”.
The third segment ‘Dev.D’ is about Dev’s further decline, relationship with Chanda (the title is an exchange between Chanda and Dev), and the eventual (eventual) end. This is a man who only feels in a flat, undistinguished way. His elation is reserved, his sadness is angry, his depression is an emptyness rather than a negativity. It is this emotional rut that he gets out of in the movie.
The two best things about this movie were the colours and the acting. You see the screenshots of the faces? That’s only part of the variation of the colour palette in the movie. And the acting: all three actors have amazingly honest faces, and all they need to do to draw us in is feel what the character is feeling.
Okay, now I’ll stop. The post is already way too long. I’ll just say that this is in true bollywood style as given by this quote from Ebert:
Bollywood musicals are the Swiss Army Knives of the cinema, with a tool for every job: comedy, drama, song and dance, farce, pathos, adventure, great scenery, improbably handsome heroes, teeth-gnashing villains, marriage-obsessed mothers and their tragically unmarried daughters, who are invariably ethereal beauties.
It is hilariously funny, a great musical, has some though not many unplumbed depths, has some gritty reality, and has Arronofsky-sequences. What more can we ask? Well, it’s not perfect. It has a substantial number of sticking-out-like-a-sore-thumb shots, and it often glosses over real sadness, perhaps in an attempt to make us feel Dev’s flatness of emotion but which results in a sort of apathy.