NOTHING, not even the quirky intelligence of Anurag Kashyaps earlier works, could have prepared us for the stunning beauty of his latest film, Dev D.
The film is based on Saratchandra Chattopadhyays doomed young man who drinks himself to death: Devdas, the quintessential loser protagonist who, blinded by a haze of alcohol and ego, is unable to marry his childhood sweetheart. Like Vishal Bharadwajs Omkara, based on Shakespeares Othello but intelligently transplanted into the badlands of 21st century Uttar Pradesh, Dev D is an example of an imaginative and meaningful adaptation, reinventing the early 20th century novel to tell us a beguiling story about the times we live in.
Kashyaps Dev is The Dude. Perched in London with a jaunty cap on his head and his laptop before him, he is engrossed in a chat with Chamak Challo, his childhood sweetheart Paro back home, asking her intimate questions. Do you , Dev begins to ask her on the phone, sitting in a cab continents away. This is the 21st century, and he is not about to ask whether she loves him. Does she touch herself? When she sends him a JPEG of herself naked, he smiles with relief: Paro, mein aa raha hoon.
It is a risky little joke in a film tradition that has always been coy about sexuality, but it is part of the riskiness of the whole enterprise, which is a painfully honest exploration of our notions about sexuality and morality.
Dev has always been a brat. He is after all the son, the scion, the young Punjabi male. He is the sugar factory owners son; she, the managers daughter. As teenagers sitting by the canal, Paro would bring him parathas, and he would demand achaar to go with them. Devs mother spoilt him then, and his father indulges him now. Sent away from home to London overnight, he will soon return as a young man to be received at the airport by his father, and escorted home by a brass band in a tractor.
Familiar vistas of mustard fields, with their bright yellow flowers, and Paro giggling: the standard Hindi movie routine with the heroine dancing joyfully as the pardesi returns. There is an especially lovely moment when we see the plane descending, with Paros laughing face superimposed against it. The background of the wedding, against which the drama of Dev and Paros meeting will play out, is another old favourite. We expect to see the lovers meet, and we know that there will be misunderstandings, that is what the Devdas story is about, but what we do not expect is Paros blazing outspokenness.
First Paro taunts a factory employee who claims to be in love with her, reminding him of his aukaat (status); then, after a misunderstanding, Dev taunts her with the same word for being a managers daughter. Never far away is the great darkness of the factory, with its crushing machinery and its blazing fires the source of these implacable distinctions.
Told a lie about Paros sexual appetite, Dev is driven to rage. According to him, his woman must retain her virginity for him, even if he has been at it in the chicken coops with someone else. Paro points out this hypocrisy to him with some choice words of abuse and liberating candour. Based on their angry exchange, they part ways. Paro gets married to a rich widower from Delhi; Dev grabs a bottle of vodka and drinks himself into a senseless stupor. He runs away to Delhi where he ends up in a seedy hotel room strewn with empty liquor bottles and half-eaten sandwiches and then, helped along by a pimp with an instinct for good business, on the frilly pink bed of a sex worker named Chanda.
Like everyone, Chanda has her story. She was a schoolgirl in Delhi named Leni, the daughter of an Indian father and a French-Canadian mother. When she unwittingly got caught in an MMS scandal, she was condemned as a slut (of course, those who called her that were the same people who downloaded the MMS and watched it with voyeuristic fascination). Even her father watched it and when Leni confronted him to ask how he could have done so, he killed himself. Adrift first in the icy emptiness of the Canadian landscape and then in the teeming streets of Delhi, Leni has drifted into prostitution.
Leni and her stoic sadness are at the quiet heart of the film. She completes her board exam, and one of the memorable scenes in the film shows her celebrating with the pimp and the other sex workers. She goes to college by day, living her other life by night, wearing her brightly-coloured wigs like the plumage of an exotic bird, her face painted anew each time, acting out the kinky fantasies of her clients. None of her clients, she tells Dev with an ironic smile, likes to use the word randi any more. It is out of fashion.
Devs Delhi is a city of drunken, stoned transients, where danger lurks in street corners. Chandas room, filled with colour and light, becomes a refuge from the darkness outside. In one of the many quietly beautiful moments in the film, Chanda paints the sad, empty smile of a clown on Devs face. They go swimming that night: their laughter is purifying, and as they share their stories there is a possibility of redemption.
And yet, Dev fails again. First unable to handle Paros imagined promiscuity, and now the realities of Chandas profession, he spirals rapidly into self-destruction. Paro accused him of being incapable of caring for anyone other than himself, and of loving only his reflection in the mirror. Now, unable to see anything clearly, least of all himself, Dev ends up crashing his new BMW, killing several others but emerging alive.
Amit Trivedis superb music is integral to the film, the 18 compositions add layers of texture and mood, from wistfulness to rage to detached irony, in a way that few other works have done. Emotional Atyachar in its first band version is raunchy and hilarious; but it is the haunting rock version that accompanies Dev on the road to self-destruction, which remains with us. The three sutradhars who narrate the story of his decline in moody song and hallucinatory dance, watch bemusedly as he lurches and spins into the abyss.
Rajeev Ravis camera films Devs decline with honesty, but also with compassion. We first see a man who has only himself to blame: an unlikeable hypocrite, too full of his ego to go up and apologise to the woman he claims to love. But then, in Devs lurching zigzag walk, as he roams the Delhi underground, in the shadowy half-lights of his hotel room, and even in the hollows of his face, we begin to comprehend the emptiness inside him. We see a boy whose father slapped him years ago, who remembers the slap and feels the hurt and is too bewildered to get a grip on his life.
As for Paro and Leni, their journeys, though separate, are also destined to intersect. In this film about so many journeys, we are asked to look at those who drift, those who take the wrong turns, and those who have stopped by the roadside, unable to go any further. The ending? It is happy, in the way that happiness ultimately is provisional. Kashyap has said that he believes in second chances, and so should we all. But at the end, Dev is still looking into the mirror.