Dev. D …and Reflections on…

February 27, 2009 at 7:25 pm (Cinema, Kiran David)

 

I often wondered if the time would come when I would have to write a piece on a film that I do not like, made by someone who I am friends with, and whose work I normally support. It really is scary as I know people who have lost friends. Anurag Kashyap is someone I place a lot of hope in as far as Indian Cinema goes and I also see him as a kindred spirit.

 

Having said that, I think the true allegiance of both filmmaker and viewer should be to the art in question, in this case Cinema.

 

A contemporary reworking of Devdas, a sort of Bengali potboiler by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay – this is a text that has been approached by Indian filmmakers many times over, in various languages, with the kind of reverence more appropriate to classics. The writer himself, as my learned Bengali friends tell me, seemed to have a low opinion of the book that has over time become most closely associated with him.

 

When adapting a book (whatever its merits – dubious or otherwise) for a film, I have always believed that just translating it slavishly into film is meaningless. A filmmaker should appropriate the text and make it his own, filtering it through his/her particular artistic sensibility. Apart from this, the adaptation should also expand the possibilities by which the viewer can experience the work. Films that readily come to mind are Godard’s Prenom Carmen that updates Carmen of Merimee’s story and Bizet’s opera to the 80s, but reworks and strips it to its essence to explore its themes. Another example is Rivette’s Hurlevent (Windswept), a film version of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which goes beyond any other film adaptation of the same text in evoking the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff (called Roch in this film). Rivette changes the time and place in which the story was set, interestingly not to the 80s when the film was actually made, but to the early 1930s, and creates a masterpiece. Similarly, one of Rivette’s greatest works, the four-hour long La Belle Noiseuse, is based on Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, in which he explores the artistic process to its tiniest detail. Buñuel too adapted in the mid-50s Wuthering Heights – a favorite book among the surrealists – in his film Absimos de Passion. This was in his Mexican period. Using the existing story, he converted it into something unique and unmistakably Buñuelian despite a very meagre budget. Twenty years have passed since I saw this film, yet the memory of the experience lingers. Derek Jarman’s Tempest, based on Shakespeare’s play, is a wonderful evocation of the magical world contained within the original text, which allows the viewer to enter it from a completely different set of perspectives. The common thing about all the works I’ve mentioned is that the original texts have been adapted and changed in time, space and structure, sometimes even context, and in so doing have emerged as unique, original works each bearing the unmistakable stamp of the director, while extending and exemplifying the director’s body of work both thematically and stylistically.

 

With Anurag Kashyap’s Dev. D unfortunately we are left with nothing but a superficial reworking of Devdas. It does little to the source other than contemporize it in the most obvious of ways and make it hip to people with limited imaginations and a vocabulary that begins and ends with “IT ROCKS!” which must be the most infantile figure of speech since the first Neanderthal belched.

 

Broken into three chapters based on the principals Paro, Chanda and Dev. D, the first is the only one that seems to work, if not entirely at least reasonably, thanks in large measure to Mahi Gill and the character of Paro that Kashyap has created.

 

As the film progresses it just meanders, using unnecessary devices that do not add anything to enrich the narrative. The whole MMS scandal, though borrowed from real life incidents, does nothing for the Chanda character – it just looks like a gimmick to justify her actions. Very often the film tends to go out of the way to explain and rationalize things, probably to cater to unthinking audiences and sham critics, something that No Smoking – Anurag’s best film to date – generally avoids. Unlike No Smoking, the reason Dev. D has been received well by its audience is because they have the plot to hang on to and the back-stories to give them comfort.

 

Despite being a passionate and attentive filmmaker, many of the scenes in this film do not seem to have been worked through well enough. The end, when Dev. D decides he loves Chanda, seems too pat and does not achieve the state of grace that such a realization should have come with. It seems to be a shallow posture that’s geared to please an easily-deceivable audience.

 

The other big problem with the film is that while lust is supposed to be the driving force of the film it curiously shies away and trivializes it and makes it comical. I’m not looking for the erotics of genitalia en regalia but the filmmaker should have explored this aspect seriously, considering it is one of the themes running through the film.

 

While what Chanda actually does in the brothel is probably of no concern to the narrative, if things like a BDSM scenario is being used, at least let it not be used like a pathetic joke just to entertain morons. I do not think even the people concerned with the film know anything about the aspect of The Theatre Of Pain, nor understand the fundamental need some people have for physical pain using basic and unsophisticated devices like cigarette burns and blades. If it was intended as a way to be vacuously cool and impressive, then things like Violet Wands or Waternberg’s Wheel could have been used to give it more edge and visual flair, rather than the tired whipping that Kalki Koechlin dispenses.

 

Similarly, the scenes of intoxication seem to lack any sort of imagination. Neither the alcohol nor cocaine usage has any differentiating quality. Using subjectivity for depicting intoxication is something that needs to be seriously worked on and it is very difficult. Here the easiest way out is taken. Gus Van Sant too falls prey to it in a couple of scenes in Drugstore Cowboy in which the really powerful moments are when he films Matt Dillon’s response to the various drugs he consumes, each moment exquisitely realized. In Dev. D, even if Abhay Deol has had these experiences in real life, they just do not show on screen.

 

Unlike Kashyap’s earlier film – where his references fuelled by anger, hurt, and an unfettered ego, work perfectly, each one connecting to something larger, creating interesting narrative arcs – sadly in this film they persistently fall flat.

 

As far as performances go, Mahi Gill fares the best and is convincing whenever she appears on screen. Kalki Koelchin, while an unusual presence, somehow does not seem to work at all beyond her physical being. Abhay Deol does give a sincere and technically good performance and is miles beyond Shahrukh Khan’s Devdas which looked like an attack of apoplexy. However the one problem Deol has is that he lacks the ability to hold an audience, something essential to cinema. Pauline Kael, once comparing the young Robert De Niro to another talented actor whose name I don’t remember said, when you see De Niro act you get the feeling that something is eating him, and when you see the other guy act you wonder if he is eating pizza.

 

The music by Amit Trivedi is quite refreshing and often funny and entertaining.

 

What I really loved about Dev D., though isolated from the body of the film, were the TWILIGHT PLAYERS – Messrs. Sinbad Phugra, Ammo ‘Too Sweet’ and Jimi ‘The Quiff’. I’d pay to see them again. They were amazing.

 

The funny thing is that Kashyap managed to make No Smoking from the bowels of mainstream Indian cinema, which to be honest is quite a feat. I’m sure the producer must still be trying to figure out what hit him. Yet with Dev. D he seems to have worked with a production house that appears – at least on paper – more educated, sophisticated and claims to respond to somewhat better cinema – but see the outcome.

 

While I hate Bhansali’s work with a passion – and while I also know that if I were told my life would be spared if I saw his Devdas instead of Dev D. I would without hesitation see Anurag’s film – still, in a curious way, I think Sanjay Leela has appropriated the novel within his aesthetic more successfully. Sad but true.

 

Like No Smoking, Dev D. too is personal in that it is a reflection of who the filmmaker is and what he is going through currently, but somehow the story and his personality seem to be at odds. And unfortunately, nothing unique seems to happen due to this dissonance. There are external elements, like the desperate need to please, that seems to have crept in and destroyed what may otherwise have worked. Probably Anurag was hurt by the response to his previous film and felt a need to be accepted. However, this is not justifiable when what is at stake is the quest to be an artist. The reason why over the centuries artists have been viewed as something special is because they are true to their art and the inner truth they possess, for which of course there is hell to pay. Today this does not matter. Anyone seen in the media seems to have arrived and is treated like a god by the public. There are a plethora of these kinds of ‘celebrities’ –  from filmmakers to TV personalities to painters to mealy-mouthed RJs and wannabe-writers. There will always be people and false artists who justify creating works as consumer products, to appease audiences who consume like swine, without thinking. These people possess large reserves of energy with which they can wear down people of sensitivity and tell you how concerned they are for the common man and that challenging work is pretentious. But this does nothing but help create masses of unthinking consumers that will, over time, have serious repercussions. An unthinking people only benefits politician, dubious religious activity, television and mediocre dabblers. If works of art can make this mythical common man think it will be a beginning. It could even facilitate a ‘climate of thinking’ which would greatly enrich other aspects of our existence. I am not saying you need to only make art cinema, many great filmmakers have come out of commercial establishments like Hollywood and created cinematic landmarks, and to really appreciate their work one has to be attentive to more than just the obvious.  In fact in Histoire du Cinema Jean Luc Godard says that Alfred Hitchcock is the only poet who made money. It is important for us to know and recognize that such poetry can exist beyond the apparent narratives.

 

Anurag will soon have to decide which path he needs to take or he stands in danger of becoming a part of that large amorphous mass that pats each other’s backs. I honestly hope he gets out of this zone and moves on to something significant. It is an artist’s duty above all else to make an audience think, whatever the idiom he works within.

 

In any case, for people who desperately respond only to hip rubbish, we have Danny Boyle, the latest Indian on the block with his Oscars, and Anil Kapoor with his Armani Suit.

 

– Kiran David

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5 Comments

  1. gomohan said,

    ” It is an artist’s duty above all else to make an audience think”. Anurag Kashyap did not make me think in Dev.D. He did it in Black Friday.

    Nikhat Kazmi in TOI gave Dev.D five stars. I read Taran Adarsh’s review. He gave it 1 star and called it No-Smoking- II. In other words, he considers No-Smoking really terrible. You have rated ‘No-Smoking” as his best ever.

    Your review rates Dev.D as just above average. Hence, the movie is evoking varied responses from the various critics. I guess Anurag Kashyap and his brand of cinema evokes very strong reactions.

    I agree that Anurag is trying hard to come towards mainstream.His need to be accepted by the Bollywood powers, is quite evident from the way he reacted to Aditya Chopra coming for the screening of DevD.

    I will also rate Dev D as above average for reasons quite different from yours.

  2. Mike said,

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

  3. Vistasp Hodiwala said,

    Kiran, this is easily the most honest and erudite reading of Dev D I have read so far. Anurag is the new Diva on the block and I definitely faith in him to create something meaningful and well, ‘different’ but it needs to go far beyond Dev D or even Gulaal. I am not even sure if “No Smoking’ was a great film either. In fact beyond the early intrigue, i actually got put off with the treament so much so that it was only my obstinacy which prevented me from tuning off mid-way.

    But keep this coming Kiran, your blog is fabulous. Absolutely.

  4. Karen said,

    Guess you didn’t know that if one does a search for violet wand in Mumbai, your blog is the second or third result. Got here by accident, but am glad I did.

    • kirandavid said,

      I hope you got your wand in mumbai
      cheers
      kiran

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