Anurag Kashyap has not adapted Sharatchandra’s Devdas. He has set it free from a gas chamber of confined meanings where it fought long and hard to survive.
The film has a bit of a journey left before it makes it to its final destination so this is not a review, in the technical sense of the word. But it would be too much to ask of a critic to see a film like Dev D. and not brim with thoughts that might just take their toll if not channelized into expression. There is of course a parallel urge to refrain from writing about something that moves you that much until time has brought in a little clarity to the heady impressionism. But a road must be taken, and so I write.
There are a lot of levels on which Dev D succeeds. As a work of cinema it is cutting edge- the sound design, a soundtrack that gets the beat of a generation right, the reworking of the Indian musical genre to give it a contemporary and universal appeal and significance, savoury dialogues, visuals balanced deftly between the real and surreal, honest, evocative and satiating at once, a very involved camera and a slickness that is utterly charming only because it does not compete for attention from the heart of it all. I suspect in the months to follow there will be a lot of commentary on the actors, filmmaker and writer’s craft but since this piece begins with a disclaimer about its reviewing aspirations, I am going to be content in making a couple of observations about the politics of the film.
If this film were literally political, it would be liberal, left wing, inclusive and humanistic, which is an impossible ideal in the macro sense but duly implanted in the personal politics of this film. Anurag’s Dev is not a larger than life, arrogant, beautiful suffering hero. He is a sharp regular guy from a generation in India that is at the cusp of extraordinary contrasts. He is cursed with that not so irregular phenomenon of a heightened consciousness and perhaps even a little genius is imaginable in the context. He is not a man undone by his great love but an unassuming boy-man trying to find his way through a maze of telling emotional and intellectual quests. Dev’s story is a coming of age story in that sense with a hope of redemption that is not even mildly saccharined. Never before have you known Devdas nuanced so well and yet on some level he is but a representative of those who seek their own way but are never given a well deserved second chance to get back into their life if they lose the track briefly. He is not simplistically and pointedly self destructive, nor does he thrive on pity from himself and his audience. He is a seeker trying to make sense of the world, holding on to what he can, trying to inch his way back into a world he can accept, but rejected by the circumstance of existence and society at every crossroad. For the phenomenon of ‘atyachaar’ is largely emotional and cannot be neatly divided into groups of man-woman, rich-poor, dalit-brahmin. We hurt each other irrespective and outside of our categories- sometimes, irreparably, and even when not, a lot goes into repair work.
This is where the substance abuse comes in. Unlike Devdas, Dev is not a puritan converted to the evil of alcohol by a fallen woman. He always enjoyed his beer and perhaps a doobie or two like regular people; thereby taking away the tricky morality out of the condemnation of excess and escape which he later falls into. Even in the original alcohol was a metaphor of destruction, poignant at a time when there was little else available as a tool for the same. Dev slips in other ways as well as he watches one betrayal after another ill equipped to walk through on his own steam. Kashyap has stretched the metaphor to include other incidents, some touted by the media, others shoved into the unseen underbelly despite their epidemic proportions, both altered in translation by a fourth estate that serves only its own needs now.
The trick here is to look at the film without the defense mechanism of pseudo morality because it concerns all of us. Substance is Dev’s desperate attempt to escape a reality that is not relenting in its harshness, his need to believe in something else. On a literal level this transcends the lifestyle barrier that usually hinders our understanding of abuse so much so that we treat Cocaine abuse in nightclubs as a phenomenon distinct from the railway station addictions of homeless juveniles. On another level, we celebrate Ginsberg and Huxley for their unabashed quest of the hidden corners of the mind treating it hypocritically as an intellectual and therefore higher purpose. The truth about substance is that it is rampantly available through and through due to a system of corruption that we cannot even begin to shut out as easily as we can the acknowledgment of its existence through self censorship mostly. And that dysfunction that we as a society create and refuse to be responsible for, will thrust dregs and disturbed from every strata of society to look for a runaway train, more so when we shun them for it. Then there is also a need to step further back and ask, are we all not subscribing to some form of addiction or the other, sufficiently opiated at any given time by prejudices, pride and lies in order to continue in the comfort of our burrows?
And Kashyap has not just got the story and its protagonist out of fossils, he has also reconstructed its two heroines, who despite their popularity in pop culture, have largely remained foils and incidents in the life of Devdas through the history of its interpretation. So much so that commentators saw them often as simply one single bifurcated character representing good and bad. Kashyap’s Paro and Chanda are not one stereotype or the other, both women from two different Indias perhaps, united in their struggles and self-expression of rebellion. They meet, like in SLB’s but not to create a spectacle of grandeur only to suggest subtly a crossing of destinies and journeys. To begin with they are fully formed characters that rise above their ‘beauty’ and ‘social placement’ and yet embody both completely. They are fiery and independent, in love with their lives, believing in the changing status of the other sex as projected by the times. They have a sexuality (yes they do!), they have desires and opinions, they have anger. But the layer of equal opportunity painted over by education and such is punched through when they become hapless victims of prejudice and exploitation, judged and betrayed by a psychological morality and perverse cocktail of possession, exploitation and weakness that men throw around when they are not using real acid- crucified for a naïve and natural sexuality that cannot belong to them because it has been usurped by self appointed moral police for double use as pleasure and power.
This is not to say that Kashyap’s film is more ‘sexual’ than the original novel. Saratchandra’s novels were bubbling under with sexuality expressed in the fashion of those times with key symbols. It is only in later adaptations that the sexuality was deliberately under-read or lost due to a failure to revise those symbols. Kashyap brings the sexuality out, only as out as it is in real life but out-er than it is allowed to be in cinema and other mass media. He treats it organically, not giving it more importance than it should get because it is a rare sighting in our constructed collective consciousness. But he is not willing to let it pass as a disconnected, dirty, secret thing that has nothing to do with anything in the outside world. Sexuality is key in man woman relationships, love, desire, jealousy, gender games and bias. It is an oft use tool for deceit and power with an uncanny ability to guide our actions outside of the bedroom too. But then again, when Freud says this he is a genius who must be celebrated in classrooms and debates without asking what repression is doing to our own psyches.
Kashyap’s heroines are not devotees of Dev. They make their choices in the face of adversity, they have an extraordinary capability to love, and their self-respect is not threatened by the loss of their hymen. They are stronger than Dev in every way and treated with a lot of sensibility and sensitivity in the story.
Actually no character in the film is given an excuse for their being where they are. Their circumstances guide their choices but never impose them, painting thereby an open landscape of the minds of the characters. Relationships don’t fail because parents object or social status intervenes. They fail in the film as they do in real life because we fail them. That truth and pain of relationships that are so fragile they cannot be cemented but by external bonds, so elusive they cannot be explained fully at any stage, reflects itself in moments that sadly cannot be elaborated here before the film is up and running.
Kashyap does not judge either of his characters. He refuses to separate them morally and delineate them in black and white. But what he does do is redefine ‘slut’ as a meaningless descriptive word. All his characters are ‘sluts’, they all at some point or the other sell themselves cheap for security, power, revenge or want. But then who doesn’t? Then again, prostitution is not all Kashyap reexamines.
He has woven into the story two events that received tremendous media attention in the last decade, observing that these ‘accidents’ are not incidental but integral and representative of the state of things. There is a need to see them unaided by media hype, blitz and sensation, in a human way. There is a need to reconsider how we understand them and why they slip off the mind because they are off air. There is more to be done than light a candle for Jessica (no, that is not the event referenced in his film). We are also responsible for the Manu Sharmas in our society and their genesis is as much our problem as Jessica’s justice. The suitable end to a rape saga is not in the jailing of the perpetrator, just as rape is not just its legal definition of ‘non-consensual penetration of the physical body’.
Every critic is innately capable of criticism in the lay sense of the word. This film like its energy, conviction, petition and protagonists, is not incapable of being better than itself. But one is leaving that debate to others simply for an opportunity to stand up for something that feels right, in an impulsive sort of way (which is really the only way anything can ever feel completely right.)
Finally, believe it or not, Dev D is a lot of fun (some scenes might play out after the film and make you laugh for days even!), only without offending the intelligence. Not an ounce of aforementioned urban or intellectual angst weighs on its breezy watchability. It is unusually accessible from everywhere. With a warm sense of humour that changes various shades of irreverence and black, Kashyap puts forward a case for his generation. He asks for chance for them. It will be ironic if his film doesn’t get a fair one. It deserves to because beyond the ever-open debate of good and bad, it is honest. Atleast it was when I saw the director’s cut. And in an ideal world he should be the only one calling cut.
(First appeared on http://www.passionforcinema.com)