Anurag Kashyap’s new film Dev D is an uber-modern, grungy take on the iconic love story of Devdas, Paro and Chandramukhi that has captured the imagination of Indian film-makers since 1928. The much anticipated film already has a Facebook group devoted to one of its kitschy music tracks, Emotional Atyachar. Known for his provocative choice of subject and writing skills, Kashyap’s directorial debut Paanch was banned in 2003 because of its offensive content and is yet to be commercially released. His last film No Smoking (2007), starring John Abraham, was a box-office failure. Kashyap spoke to Lounge in two separate interviews about the Indian obsession with self-pity, working with a big studio and his new find, Kalki Koechlin. Edited excerpts:
Another Devdas, the 10th version. Why are film-makers so obsessed with a hero immersed in self-pity and alcohol?
Film-makers love stories of self-destruction. There are many edges to a guy who is hopelessly in love, is a romantic at heart but is not the one who walks away with the heroine. Although most of our heroes are righteous and brave, Indians love to take pity on themselves. A man holding his whisky glass, listening to Talat Mahmood or Rafi’s sad songs and getting high—this is so common. Devdas appeals to that part of us.
Redux: Kashyap (left) is now writing a thriller set in Mumbai called Bombay Velvet. Satish Bate / Hindustan Times; and the love story of Dev D (Abhay Deol) and Chanda Kalki Koechlin is set largely in Daryaganj, Delhi.
Have you adapted your film straight from the book?
No, I have made many changes. The Devdas trio is just a vehicle to tell the story. Dev D is not just about Dev, but also about Chanda (Chandramukhi) and Paro. Three characters, whose lives intersect, are on a path of self-discovery. I have in some ways subverted the original story. Chanda (played by Kalki Koechlin) is a regular college girl who is a call girl by night. In one scene she is smoking a cigarette and watching Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas on TV. As she’s watching Madhuri Dikshit, she decides impulsively that she is going to call herself Chandramukhi. The story is inspired by young people from affluent families of Delhi that you read about in newspapers—rich city brats who experiment with drugs and alcohol, and end up making mistakes that completely change their lives.
The co-writer of the film, Vikramaditya Motwane, was an assistant in Bhansali’s Devdas.
I know Vikramaditya through Abhay (Deol) since the days I was making my first film Paanch. The idea to do a Devdas was Abhay’s. Both of us were watching a World Cup football match when Abhay said he would like to play Devdas. I have always wanted to do my own Devdas, so it was decided that night. It took Vikramaditya and me about 14 months to complete the script. During the writing, I cast Mahie Gill as Paro and Abhay was already playing the lead role. So the script was written keeping both of them in mind.
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And Kalki Koechlin, who is your find, was cast later?
Yes, she was in theatre then. She had this amazing hybrid Indianness about her—she was equally comfortable in French, Tamil and English. She is born French and (was) raised in Bangalore. I needed a strikingly different face. The two women in Devdas are almost mythical in our cinema, and I needed new faces. I rewrote parts of the script after Kalki was signed on.
Are there echoes from your own life in his story?
Yes, there are some similarities. I have struggled with depression and alcohol addiction, and have experimented with drugs. My self-destructive phase is behind me now.
This is your first movie where music plays a very important role—from bhangra to the already popular Emotional Atyachar.
Yes, after Amit Trivedi came on board as the music director, I thought of the idea of using his music in key transitional points of the film. The music propels the story forward, instead of reiterating what’s already in the film.
According to Abhay Deol, you asked him to be on an alcohol diet for as long as the shoot was on.
Yes, for some scenes I got him to come to a morning shoot after drinking all night so I could get that hangover look of tired eyes and puffy face.
Like you once asked your crew to smoke on the sets of No Smoking to fill it with real cigarette smoke.
Maybe once, yes. Please don’t get me into trouble (laughs).
This is also the first time you’re working with a big studio, UTV Spotboy Films. How involved were they?
They were involved in the entire process without interfering with my creative vision. They are the best producers I’ve worked with so far.
Gulaal, a film you wrote and directed earlier, is finally releasing in March.
Yes, I’m really looking forward to that. It was written just after I made Paanch in 2003. It was a time when I was completely disillusioned with our political system. I was angry and depressed; it’s my angry take on contemporary India.
What are some of the things you’ve had to learn or unlearn after No Smoking flopped at the box office?
I’ve not really unlearnt anything and I don’t consider No Smoking a mistake. I thought it was my most “commercial” film, which it was not. But it was appreciated all over the world. I am now working with a variety of subjects, which is a reflection of my state of mind—less angry and perhaps more in control of things.
Dev D released in theatres on 6 February.