First, the firsts. Never on Indian screen has the hero curiously whispered to his childhood sweetheart over a long distance telephone call, “Paro, do you touch yourself?” Never has the childhood sweetheart photographed herself nude, scanned that photo in a cyber café in her hometown Chandigarh and e-mailed it to the hero. Never has she secretly shared a joint with him, not choked on it and hoofed it out like she has suddenly contracted tuberculosis.
The characters of Dev and Paro are set in modern India
Yes, these stray scenes don’t say much about the merit of a film. But they are crucial pointers to understand why Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D is an important film. It has the ability to permanently alter the perception of a hero and a heroine in Hindi cinema. More specifically, it will alter the perception of Paro and Chandramukhi, two iconic film heroines in Indian cinema, portrayed by actors such as Devika Rani, Suchitra Sen, Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai ever since 1928.
Here, Paro and Chanda are overtly sexual creatures, and they are unapologetic about it. They make unsavoury decisions and have the courage to live by them. Dev, the hero, is their puppet. Thanks, Anurag, for giving us women we can relate to.
Kashyap and his co-writer Vikramaditya Motwane have set Dev D in modern India, where small towns are flush with cash and foreign cars, and where the skylines of big cities are being permanently altered. The film begins in Chandigarh, where Paro (Mahie Gill) is waiting for Dev (Abhay Deol), her childhood sweetheart, to come back from London. Dev is a brat—spoilt by a credit card powered by his father’s bank account. He loves his vodka and his spliff and holds on to the naïve belief that he possesses Paro. Paro and Dev part ways not because their families are not of the same social standing, but because Paro, hurt and disillusioned by Dev’s hypocrisy and aggression, decides to marry a successful man from Delhi and embrace a new life.
Dev, true to Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s original Devdas, isn’t brave enough to admit his mistakes and lets Paro go. His destiny thereafter is “emotional atyachar”. In Delhi, where he goes to live, Dev spends all his time trying to escape reality with cocaine, charas and vodka. The parallel story is that of Chanda (Kalki Koechlin) who is a Delhi teenager permanently banned from the high, “respectable” society she belonged to after becoming the subject of a lewd MMS video, filmed by one of her boyfriends. She finally lands up in a brothel in what looks like Paharganj, where she is a college student by day and an expensive prostitute by night. Dev, loaded with cash and numb with addiction, is a victim of Chanda’s pimp, Chunni, who takes him to Chanda. Does Dev meet Paro again? Does he fall in love with Chanda? Does he die?
The painfully long (3 hours!) film takes you to these answers.
To start with, Dev D is a musical. There are 13 songs composed by newcomer Amit Trivedi. Every scene, sometimes even dialogues are broken up by songs in the background—the music is supposed to give the story narrative propulsion. But because of its length, eventually the brilliantly experimental score loses its punch, and becomes headache-inducing.
Kashyap straddled the surreal in his last film, No Smoking (2007). Here he treads the fine line between the real and the surreal. In both, unlike his perfectly-pitched first film Black Friday (2004), his self-indulgence gets sorely in the way. Dev’s alcohol and drug-addled head finds visual flourish through psychedelic colours, jagged camera angles, jump cuts and fast movements. The film begins with a special thanks to Danny Boyle—in style, this is Kashyap’s ode to Boyle’s cult classic Trainspotting.
If you have never experimented with drugs and have no idea what an ecstasy-combined-with-neat vodka trip is like, you can be tortured by the second half of the film. In any case, it’s a 2-hour film stretched to a 3-hour one.
But Dev D should be watched because of its audacity and heart. There are rich brats like Dev who refuse to learn mistakes because he has a free credit card in his pocket. Kashyap’s Dev is insolent and amoral, but he has an emotional center that you are likely to sympathise with. Kashyap gives him humanity and suggests that he deserves a second chance.
Abhay Deol proves once again that he is an extremely skilled actor—Kashyap has said that he made many demands on Deol to make him look the part. To Deol’s credit, he looks, talks and gestures the part throughout the film. It helps that the best and the most maliciously funny lines of the script are written for him. Mahie Gill is a skilled actor too and delivers a pitch-perfect performance. Kalki Koechlin has a sophisticated seductiveness because of the way she has been groomed for the part, but is the weakest of the three lead actors. Her dialogue delivery is awkward and stilted.
Awash in attitude, brimming with terrific energy and aggressively stylish in parts, Dev D is a shot-from-the-canon youth movie. No other Indian film has come close to portraying the life-consuming power of addiction in all its complexity. It’s not great art, but Kashyap’s work is the best of pop culture we have.
Dev D releases in theatres on 6 February