Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Citizen D

A few weeks after Slumdog Millionaire released in India, Dev D, a film loosely based (as the credits state) on the original Devdas by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and directed by Anurag Kashyap, hit the theatres. The phrase has not been used loosely - it actually hit the theatres. From the start of his career, Kashyap has proved an expert at ruffling feathers. Paanch, his maiden venture, was a searing look at upper-strata violence in suburban India, which no one managed to see because it never got past the censors. Black Friday, a docu-drama based on the Bombay blasts, was also banned, buried, finally released and promptly whisked off. And though his last, No Smoking, had a smooth release (discounting minor problems with anti-tobacco lobbyists) it underwent a critical savaging and achieved little commercial success. So suffice so say, for Dev D, all bets were off on Anurag Kashyap.

Indian audiences first heard of the movie through its audacious trailer, easily one of the most provocative teasers to emerge from the Indian film industry. It then took a disconcertingly long time to release, and Kashyap fans began anticipating another ban. But somehow it emerged in what appears to be an unscathed form, which is very strange, because Dev D takes risks like no other Hindi film before it. To start with, Devdas has been remade so many times, and is such a sacred cow of Hindi cinema, that it has reached perilously close to existing as a caricature more than anything else. Then there’s all the cussing (Kashyap has unearthed an interesting loophole – as long as you swear in a language other than Hindi, it gets passed), drinking, sexual high-jinks, pill-popping and hard drugs (not to mention promiscuity, prostitution, suicide and the perversion of the justice system by the rich). And these were just the surface – the stuff that the critics caught onto. They praised its daring, its invocation of night time Delhi, the strong performances from the two newcomers and industry anomaly Abhay Deol – but few stopped long enough to peer into the movie’s dark soul. As a result, most of them missed the many ways it departs from the genre constraints of a typical Bollywood movie, and in the process becomes a viewing experience that is both unique and path-breaking.

Consider the titular character of Dev. Previous Devdas’ have drunk themselves to death over their love for Paro, and have been largely melodramatic in the process. Abhay Deol’s Dev also drinks (and does drugs, and goes for long pointless trips) - but not out of love. When the enigmatic call girl Chanda advises him to accept that he cannot love anyone and should just get used to it, it is also the director asking us, the audience, to accept a character like that. Self-pity, hate and masochism have been constants in the character of Devdas, but have always been triggered by his love for Paro. By the end of this movie, however, both audience and character alike are left wondering whether he really loved her at all. Incapable for most of the film of any emotion that could be called real, Dev as a character is not only atypical, but almost unheard of in the cinematic history of this nation. I can think of no other character who does not care as totally and completely as he does not care. Never is this more evident than the scene in which Dev is reunited with a cab driver who drugged him and stole his money. Kashyap allows him one small sarcastic smile before the cab driver is hired again, without reproach or melodrama. It tells us volumes about the character, and also proves how sure Kashyap’s direction has become. In a movie that is often very loud, the quieter moments are equally revelatory.

Kashyap’s determination to keep his characters true to character is also what makes this a very unique Hindi film. For most movies made in India, screen time can be divided into heterogeneous scenes which have ‘comedy’, ‘drama’, ‘romance’ etc written over them in broad shades. Each of these elements is seen as ingredients that contribute to the unique ‘masala’ that is Indian cinema, but few movies take pains over the mixing process. Viewers in India have grown used to seeing characters lurch awkwardly from light-hearted family scenes to grandiose romantic scenarios to handing out beatings. Dev D takes no such shortcuts to achieve its ends. There is no comic relief. There are no heroes, no villains. There is no gap between what the characters are presented as and their actions. Every scene subsequent to their introduction simply adds another layer or provides another confirmation.

The film also has a level of studied self-awareness that erects an unseen barrier between it and the more organic, spontaneous fare that Bollywood is associated with. The use of the uber-cool Twilight Players and the uber-cliched ‘Presleys of Patna’ for the musical sequences is entertaining in its own right, but also gives one a feeling that the director’s intent is to provide the viewers with a subversive ‘meta-experience’ rather than a more direct ‘experience’. A popular example of a similar ‘meta-experience’ is the Jack Rabbit Slims sequence in Pulp Fiction, in which Tarantino plays on our collective pop culture memories of ’50 rock ‘n roll, French New Wave and Travolta in Grease and Saturday Night Fever. Even as we are enjoying the dance (on a direct level), we are also experiencing a meta-level of thoughts and feelings about the experience we are having. Similarly, the contrast between the impossibly slick dance moves of ‘Pardesi’ (which would definitely have been highlighted in a regular Bollywod movie) and its setting (a seedy bar, with no one really watching) is not just another exercise in random. Neither is the sight of two Indian Presleys singing about ‘Emotional Atyachaar’ at a wedding. Kashyap lures us in with things familiar (songs and dances, weddings and bars), and then before we realise that the (Bolly)world we know is askew, he cuts us loose.

It helps that Kashyap now has the visual props to back the extreme moods of his story. Initially, the cinematography is simple and earthy, the only radical element being the unusually quick, but sure, cutting, and the boldness of some of the visual metaphors accompanying the brazen speech of the characters. It then becomes white and dreamy for Chanda’s back story, almost as if it were a twisted fairy tale. Finally, in Delhi, as the drugs and alcohol take over, it alternates between trippy kinetics and grainy impressions of the seedier parts of Delhi. Interestingly, Slumdog Millionaire's director Danny Boyle gets a thank you in the opening credits. Kashyap has specified that the help received was with some of the visuals, but without prior knowledge it is almost impossible to separate the Boyle-influenced visuals from the others, which is a huge tribute to both Kashyap and his trusted cinematographer Rajeev Rai. Very few directors in India can claim to have a unique visual style of their own. And almost no one has displayed the ambition (or felt the need) to create multiple visual styles for the same movie.

The end has been seen by many here as a compromise by the director, a typical ‘happy ending’. It is anything but. At best, it could be called cautiously optimistic - Dev is going to surrender himself to the police and will probably have to go to jail, but he has also realised that he really likes (one still hesitates to associate him with the word ‘love’) Chanda, which is more than he has felt for any other character in the movie. Previous adaptations have ended with Devdas dying melodramatically at Paro’s doorstep. Here however, he rejects his love for her as an illusion, and in doing that gives himself a chance at true happiness, something which no previous Devdas was seen as deserving of. Turning the accepted ending, the ‘only possible ending’, on its head is truly daring. It is a victory, redemptive and unexpectedly touching, for both Dev and Chanda. Paro, in another clean break from tradition, already has some measure of domestic happiness - and a chance to put Dev in his place after all these years (which of the two makes her happier?) It is also a comprehensive cinematic victory for Kashyap. He could simply have gone on autopilot and made another Devdas die at Paro’s door. Like every other easy solution he could have taken, he rejects this one too, and it is this attitude on the part of the director which makes this movie so uncompromised and unique.


hopscotch said...

Loved reading Slumdog D...

a fan apart said...

Thanks Hopscotch. What a crazy movie Dev D was. Seen it twice and still haven't got it out of my system.

Angad said...

Read it again now. I hadn't recognize the visual changes till now! New wave... new wave!

It's a fantastic ensemble of all that goes into film making. The other Hindi movies that I think have been able to do that are Maqbool and Omkara... but Dev D is just path breaking!

Anonymous said...

Cracker of a review!