Shaken, Not Stirred

Dev D: Shaken, Not Stirred (pic: Sify)

Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D begins with a special thanks to Danny Boyle. Poor Danny Boyle has been tormented for some time now for supposedly attempting to expose the “underbelly” of the nation. But if the people are fair and they are able to see what Mr. Kashyap is attempting here, Slumdog Millionaire is going to look like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)! But wait, Anurag Kashyap isn’t a foreigner and so Dev D is just a film, right? Dev D has already created much hoopla thanks to the bizarre promos, “Emosional Athyachar” and Kashyap’s own blog. With one universally praised and one universally panned film behind it, Dev D is more or less a litmus test faor the director. 

The classic Devdas story is a ready made platform for endless psycho-analysis and study of social framework of the age. How does the revamped version fare? Quite well to start with I must say. The original tale relied on the notions of platonic love whereas Dev D is all about physical love. Devdas is a coward who succumbs to social prejudices and carries over the guilt through out his whole life without a chance for atonement. He drinks in order to forget his cowardice. Dev D, on the other hand, isn’t hampered by the social norms. As a matter of fact, none of the characters in the film are. Even Dev’s father Satyapal has thoughts of Dev’s betrothal with Paro (totally opposed to the original story). Dev’s only inhibition is himself – his bloated opinion of himself and his excessive narcissism – a point that Kashyap reinforces regularly. Caste becomes a lame excuse and a sheath to hide from one’s own insecurities. In fact, the society is completely devoid of control on the character’s decisions unlike the book. Dev drinks to hide from the guilt of his hasty decision. This alone, in my opinion, is where the script scores. 

Dev is played to near perfection by Abhay Deol, thanks to Anurag Kashyap who managed to elicit an impressive performance even from John Abraham in No Smoking (2007). His performance is quiet and confident. Consider the scene where he listens to the servant maid Sunil. Mr. Deol does not widen his eyes or show signs of shock. He keeps shaking his feet till he gets uncomfortable. And then, bam! This one scene can show how far this guy can go. Paro’s character (Mahie Gill) isn’t as much revamped as Dev’s although she is no more the sacrificial damsel who lives physically and mentally with different men. And Chanda’s (Kalki Koechlin) isn’t either. She is still the hooker with the heart of gold. And the writing further suffers in the end stages of the film. The script tells us that Dev has finally realized his mistake and turned over a new leaf. But how? A lucky escape from an accident can work for an anti-drinking campaign (which could well have made its way into the film), but not for one’s guilt. There’s more, but I’ll stop, for cinema isn’t just about the characters

Dev D is produced by UTV Spotboy and is presented in three parts – one dedicated to each of the characters. The first section titled Paro is the brightest of them all and is shot almost entirely in rural Punjab. The second one is called Chandra and grazes over various locations of the country. And till the end of this section, the form of the film remains conventional and Mr. Kashyap’s weaknesses lie open. The second part is the weakest of the three in the film and he goes over the top with his ideologies. It is only at and after the end of this part that Mr. Kashyap feels completely at home. He now can happily use his “tools” – the bleak production design, gothic soundtrack (a pretty snazzy one at that) and the Wong Kar Wai colour palette that we have seen in No Smoking. Mr. Kashyap maintains the audience’s distance from the characters with the help of their actions and behaviour. He never asks/expects/allows the audience to empathize or sympathize with the protagonists (even if he intended to in some scenes in the first couple of sections). And that serves as one of the very few strong points in the film I could struggle to come up with.

[Video: Emosional Athyachar, The best part of Dev D]

In engineering parlance, there is a word “library”. It refers to a set of already developed subsystems that is utilized for the design of custom systems. These entities are taken by faith and are employed without questions in the super-design. What Mr. Kashyap has got here is an engineering marvel and mind you, that is not exactly a compliment. He generously uses the groundbreaking technique from Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) to generate the same kind of atmosphere. There is the A Clockwork Orange (1971) written all over in the way he designs his indoors in the film. His use of soundtrack that conflicts with the imagery is a regular trend in world cinema. And mind you, these are not signals of plagiarism or of homage but of considerable knowledge of world cinema – Knowledge that has been obtained by one of the biggest cinephiles of our country. Unfortunately that is the biggest problem for Dev D. 

I believe there are three facets of creation – science, engineering and art. Science is purely a product of the brain. A supplier of perpetual innovation. Directors like (early) Spielberg and George Lucas are great technicians. They make up for the one-dimensionality of their scripts with their sweeping visuals and methods. Art is something that is very personal and one that should come from deep within. Scorsese and Cassavetes aren’t what they are just because they shot on the streets or because they took the camera in their hands. What they portrayed on screen was an extension of their own personalities. And in between these two lies the clever device called Engineering. Assembling the innovations provided by scientists to “assemble” a customized product. And that is why Mr. Kashyap comes out as an engineer at the end of Dev D. 

So what does Mr. Kashyap want to “design” here? Well, from what we get from it, it looks like Mr. Kashyap is making a broad commentary on our obsession with sex. That every gesture and action oozes with what has been considered a taboo for long. Of course, there is considerable inspiration from L’Âge d’or (1930) here. And perhaps even from the subtle undertones of Dr. Strangelove (1964). But neither does Mr. Kashyap drive home his point explicitly like the former film, nor does he tease the audience with whatever they make out of it as in the latter. The gestures and innuendos that he presents are forced and inserted out of place. Consider the scene where Paro, in a fit of rage, starts out on the hand pump. Now, obviously, there is no reason for the inane sequence to be there other than to reinforce the obvious (which the audience easily did get). Or the numerous sign boards presented as double entendres. The camera sacrifices a pretty good conversation or comedy in order to accommodate Kashyap’s “subtle” allusions. So do his metaphors. The whole film, as a result, seems like carefully engineered and assembled to look like an allegory. Only that it is neither subtle nor effective.