The character of the lonely, alcoholic and bitter Devdas has always been a filmmaker’s delight. Many a matinee idols ranging from P.C. Barua in 1935, K.L. Saigal in 1936, Dilip Kumar in 1955 and Shahrukh Khan in 2002 have won accolades for their portrayal of this melancholic character on screen. This creation of the Bengali wordsmith Sharatchandra Chattopadhyay has always evoked dominant emotions of pity and sympathy.
What sets apart Anurag Kashyap’s February 2009 release Dev D, a revamped take on the character with a touch of postmodernist gloss, is the treatment of the story and the much deeper psychological analysis of the characters taking cue from the very day to day breaking news portrayals of MMS scandal in schools or Hit and Run cases. The paradigm shifts portrayed in the movie are both societal and cinematic, running hand in hand.
The first major shift is the transfer of the backdrop of the story from 19th century rural Bengal to a modern day semi urban Punjab and shady by lanes of Delhi’s Paharganj. The constant follow up of the three headed conscience of Dev brings a new way of storytelling in Indian cinema. Cinematically these add to being a distinct film.
The portrayal of the drinking bars which shut doors after the prescribed hours, but operates in the inner chambers, the shady hotels backing up as prostitute quarters or the quick deal between the drug peddlers and customers realistically brings to the fore the alternate path of law. The majority of the interactions here are self regulated as portrayed from the scenes of Dev purchasing drugs from the hippies or the clients Chanda has, whose medical and physical details are checked beforehand along with their photographs. The choice of backdrop also sets the tone for the interplay of Economic interactions in the feudal set up of semi urban Punjab. While in the erstwhile Devdas, consideration of caste was of significant importance, in this movie Dev rejects Paro’s proposal of marriage not only because of the rumours he had heard about Paro’s fiddling ways but also because she was the daughter of the manager of their business concern, while they were the owners. Both show the male dominance in the society. The position of Paro’s dad as being much lower in the economic ladder, contributed to Dev’s decision making and he acknowledges it in his dialogue with Paro while rejecting her proposal.
The second major cinematic shift happens with the humanization of the characters. The previous lachrymose Devdas was perceived as a misunderstood and sentimental man to be empathized and pitied upon. The sense of melancholy and tragic love penetrated deep. Abhay Deol’s portrayal of Dev makes the audience grow apathetic to the idiosyncrasies of a grown up adult who refuses to come to terms with his life. In stead of acknowledging responsibility for his lack of mature decisions, this Dev indulges himself into a world of drugs and alcohol in his pursuit to get back in touch with his lost lady love. This Dev is selfish and egoistic. He does not mind being a peeping tom in the house of Paro while she enjoys domesticity after marriage, calling her up in the midnight or manipulating her vulnerable sister in law. Dev does not bother to trust Paro, rejects her because of her allegedly fiddling ways but does not mind to indulge in the same throughout. In fact he commits the same mistake all over again when on the day of his realization of his love for Chanda, he faces one of her clients and unable to cope with that and egged by a phone call by Chunni, he walks out from her life. The complexity of these misunderstandings and unabashed portrayal of the male ego is the hall mark of this re interpretation of the old story.
The strong characterization of the two female protagonists Paro, Dev’s childhood sweetheart, and Chanda, the prostitute is something refreshing. Different from the original the heroines have moved from being coy and shy to woman whose portrayal reflects the new trend in cinema that does not only show women as object of desire but also who are in touch with their needs and desires.
Paro eventually marries Bhuvan and settles down happily in the domestic life. While she responds to Dev’s calls and comes to meet him in his hotel, she pities him. Remarkably both the female protagonists show Dev his touchy egoist reality, which he runs away from, and urge him to face that.
Chanda’s character is much more fleshed out than the character of Chandramukhi with a background story attached to her life. Chanda was known as Leni, the lively school going daughter of an important government official father and foreign mother. In a moment of intimacy her boyfriend shoots a sexually explicit MMS clip which transforms her into a ‘slut’ in the eyes of her friends in her renowned school and to those who downloaded the video and devoured it. A media trial of the issue ensues whereby a very private moment of her life is made the fodder of breaking news on national television. Her father commits suicide, unable to cope with the trauma and her mother disowns her. It is after that she meets Chunni, the pimp and chooses to be a prostitute.
The Third and the most interesting cinematic shift happen with the ending of the story of the modern Devdas. Unlike the original and other versions, here Dev does not succumb to the glory of immortal love and die a pitiful death on Paro’s door. He survives and he comes to terms with his ego. In the original, Chandramukhi was always a passing phase in Devdas’ life. He in fact could never love her and hated her because she was a prostitute. But unlike the original here Dev realizes that he loves Chanda and goes back to her. In fact he realizes that it was Paro then, who was a phase of ego fetish in his life, one which he needed to out grow.
It will be too early to say that Dev D is a path breaking film in the horizon of Indian cinema. It is yet to pass the test of times, taste and culture. But it can definitely be said that Dev D heralds a new way of film making in Indian cinema. Though often tagged as another ‘multiplex movie’, the film sufficiently problematizes the happenings around one and makes the characters believable and very much identifiable.
For me the significance of the movie remains twofold. As a movie buff this film heralded a new way of enjoying commercial Hindi cinema, but the significance lies more as a law student as I was made to sit up and think about the functioning or the lack of it in both public and private spheres. Cinema still remains an interesting and important medium to reach out. It is an earnest request to Mr. Deol to come up with such concepts in future and Mr. Kashyap to portray them beautifully on screen.