Wednesday, 4 March, 2009

Dev D: A New Avatar of Devdas

Much has been written about Dev D but writing uniquely about a unique film is a difficult task, as the 'USP', so to speak , is so glaring that after a while most reviews sound repetitive . Also, when a film overwhelms your senses it is difficult to put together lucidly what exactly was different . The review below, written by a friend, Manash Bhattacharya interested me as it brilliantly explains the idea of sexuality portrayed by Anurag Kashyap and touches upon 'technical voyeursim' about which I think not enough had been mentioned. The second half of the review especially turns the film inside out.


The story of Devdas, written in the early 1900s by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, is about the failure of a feudal, young man to stand up for his childhood lover against the wishes of the family. It’s a story of the fall from grace of the man who never recovers from his failure in love and embraces alcohol, and later, a courtesan, who falls in love with him. Against the powerful characterizations of the two women, the story portrays the man as a weakling, forever failing to reconcile his contradictions and taking recourse to emotional excesses.

This story became an obsession with PC Barua who made it thrice, twice in Hindi and once in his mother tongue, Assamese. Later Bimal Roy and more recently Sanjay Leela Bhansali tried to re-create the drama. They all tried to remain faithful to the plot and ambiance of the novel. But faithfulness to a story is not always the best way to re-make it. To regard a certain plot to be relevant to the present shouldn't end up in taking the present back to the notion of a fixed sense of past, where the whole story is merely repeated for romantic effect. Such a repetition holds no new clues to our current social and cultural life. This is precisely where the previous makers of Devdas failed. Their romanticised affinity with the story neither had the quirkiness of a different sensibility, nor was it a creative overcoming of the limits of what Anurag very correctly identified as a mediocre novel having cinematic potential.

Anurag’s D isn’t an idealistic rich guy coming back home from London to reclaim his village love. He treats the body of his lover, through the hyperrealist pleasures of the internet, like a literally naked tool meant for visual consumption. His lover, Paro, lives in a village where the latest lures of technology has had an equal, reverse effect, where indecent proposals from London based lovers are a temptation to click and frame one’s nakedness and market it for love. But this expectation of lewd boldness doesn’t mean D’s sense of sexist morality has come of age. He is quite willing to believe in male gossip in the village when he comes back, about Paro having slept around. D is shattered by two things at the same time: the lost promise of Paro’s virginity and the news of her supposed promiscuity. What starts off with an auto-erotic query on the internet – “Do you touch yourself?” – ends up with the collapse of that fantasy. What intervenes between love and sexuality for D is fantasy. A Bollywood film finally catches up to its contemporaneity and shows what’s going on in the dungeons of desire. When an angrily frustrated Paro releases her spurned sexual energy by labouring on the flowing hand pump, one is amused by the contrast in all seriousness: the male lover becomes the symbol of a dysfunctional hand pump!

Even Chanda, or Chandramukhi, can’t escape the violence of technological voyeurism. She allows herself to be MMSed during fellatio and that unsettles her fate. Her conversation with her dad raises the issue of how the dichotomy between morality and sexuality is often a flawed dichotomy. Chanda’s easy and gullible sexuality is contrasted with her dad’s moral perversion of not being able to resist watching her daughter in a sexual act.

Even before Chanda reaches Chunni’s glitzy underworld of porn, she knows what the world outside is about. So not only does she not seem to care much about the difference, she quite deftly makes her way into the pornographic underworld where sex is game, not fraudulence. The porn industry is shown as another world, where sex is business, matter-of-factly, and where one need not be haunted by moral condemnation. But it is also a place where one has to de-personalise oneself. Chanda re-creates her aura through the numerous fetish and role playing items which are symptomatic of her goodbye to conventional reality. She chooses her screen name, Chandramukhi, from the prostitute, while watching Devdas. It is a subtle move by Anurag to de-signify the authenticity of the character’s name.

In order to turn into a sex drug herself, the third thing Chanda has to choose to make her place in her new world is cocaine. It is precisely at this juncture that she meets D, who’s also deeply into alcohol, having lost Paro to a divorcee. Their personalities clash and match: Chanda is playful and D, moody. But D’s metamorphosis is what takes place through the rest of the film. Paro visits him like an unfinished tryst from the past. But she has outgrown her desire for him and is quite content cleaning up his room like a faithful nurse. Chanda, in contrast, offers him her body, her concern, and with coquettish irony, calls D a slut. Between them, D drugs himself like an addict of hallucination, and fashions himself – both as victim and lover - like the phrase in the song, emosional atyachar.

So much for the story. The most unique aspect of the film is how it deals with the question of sex by stripping (and critiquing) the codes of morality. On the other hand, the film sexualises morality. It is beyond a humanist understanding of the relationship between love and the body. The three main characters both lose and retain the ownership of their body by displacing it from the centre of their emotional being: the heart. Their body and their heart seem to reside in different time zones. The notion of fate in their lives seems to be not only coincidental, but ultimately ordinary. What is exemplary about their lives is however their intense proclivity towards unbridled sexual desire.

The film is particularly brilliant in capturing the jerky and hallucinatory effects of drugs. The de-stabilization of the mind along with the de-organization of bodily sensibilities is captured with excellent shots of instability. The hand pump scene where Paro flushes out her thwarted sexual feelings is uncannily innovative. Another unforgettably poignant shot is when Chanda stands in the balcony of Chunni’s suite, wearing a nurse’s uniform, watching the dawn appear. It is the most surreal moment of the film in its flurry of contrasts: the balcony appears like a bleak interstice between night and day, dream and illusion, hope and hopelessness, desire and freedom.

The film is also a musical, but unlike other song-and-dance musicals, here the songs blend into scenes, and are more about the state of mind of the characters. There are also the three break-dancers who, as partial tropes of the sutradhaar, act as occasional intermediaries between the audience and the characters. Like the rest of the film, the introduction of these dancers, and their peculiar dressing style at various moments, are highly experimental.

Finally, what about the D in Dev D? Even though we come to know of the protagonist’s full name when the charge sheet against him is made much later in the film, the use of D instead of Das carries significance. By initialising Das as D, Anurag wants to steer clear of Devdas. So D can be seen as Anurag’s shorthand of Devdas. It is, in other words, Anurag’s de-construction of the identity of Devdas. D has a touch of a unique anonymity of a character. It is also the first alphabet in Desire, Decadence, Drugs and Death.

-Manash Bhattacharya