Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dev D: Nothing like a review

Just back from watching Dev D. No time for a proper review, so some general points of interest and thinking aloud will have to do.

What fascinated me most about this reworking of the tired old story of an essentially annoying character is one of perception and drama and how the two are connected. Let me explain: the Dev(das) character is a feckless, annoyingly self-absorbed, addictive personality who has, inexplicably, the love of two strong and very likable women. I have never been convinced by why this should be. For the first time it seems that there might be a way to see this character in a new way.

In Dev D, the three main characters are frequently seen reflected in mirrors in key scenes*: when Dev rejects Paro and she returns to her room, we see her reflection (we don't see her; that is to say, there is only one Paro in the frame and that is the reflection) and we watch as she observes her grief turn into anger and then resolution. Likewise, Chanda is often seen in the mirror watching her own transformation every day from a school and then college-going girl into a call girl who allows herself to be transformed into whoever her clients want her to be - nurse, school girl, dominatrix.

The first evidence we have that such self-awareness is not given to Dev is when he returns from London and we see him with his back to the mirror, looking at something (I've already forgotten, can you imagine!) in his hand. He doesn't look at himself; only we are aware that he is doubled, both himself and his reflection. Through the film, we will see him reflected many times in mirrors, or infer his reflection (as when we see him in his Paharganj hotel room, from the side, as he bends over the washbasin. We don't see the mirror but we know it is there) but we will notice that he never looks at himself with the attention that the women give to their own faces.

What we do see, however, is Dev's face transformed and distorted. Twice he puts his head under water and as if from a different medium, as a different life-form, we observe his face bloated and bubbled-over with his breath**; at other times, he takes a deep drag from his joint but it is our perception of him that becomes distorted and unreal, as if we had inhaled instead of him.

With Paro and Chanda, we are kept at a distance, aware of the separateness of the drama of their lives; with Dev, we are complicit in it; we are transformed by his drama, because we - like him - can't always see him clearly.


There were two or three missteps that for me diluted the impact of the film. Strangely enough, it wasn't the supposedly dragging second half - I didn't have a problem with that at all; I thought every bit of it necessary.

The missteps:

1. The scene on the bus where (SPOILER ALERT if this is important for you) he eats the woman's ticket because she's going on an on at him. It's a lift from a German short film. (Will put up the name and director and all later, once I've looked for it among my DVDs.) Now this is unlikely to be a homage because it's not a well-known or much-watched film. It's a lift. One that might go mostly undetected, but I've seen that short film and I feel a teeny bit disappointed.

2. The one sole voice-over in Dev's own voice when he's picking up a bonanza of one rupee coins from a faulty PCO and is almost run over by a driver who's as drunk as he was when he killed people just a couple of reels ago - it's totally out of character.

3. Does Paro really have to wash the man's clothes for him?

4. Chanda takes her name after watching the Bhansali Devdas. To have a character who's watched the film and yet remains oblivious of the connections seems a little odd to me. I mean, if there was anyone who could have pulled it off it would have been Kashyap, so that was a little disappointing.

5. The ending. I mean, please. Couldn't there have been some teeny little thing to indicate that that was a false trail? (It was, wasn't it? Please say it was. I mean, if it wasn't, where was the sunset?)


I can't get over how well the film was cast, especially in its main characters. Just superb.


Statutory Audience Watch:

One kid behind us who cried during the interval. Another one elsewhere who cried soon after but whose parents wouldn't leave the hall.

Two whole rows of young lads who had already seen the film, knew the dialogues and insisted to letting the whole theatre know they knew.

A hall full of giggling men and women during the cane field scene.

One idiot who, once the film was over, celebrated by scattering the remaining popcorn over his friends like confetti.

*Even as early on as when Dev and Paro are children, and the father decides to send him away to England to study, we see Paro's reflection standing behind Dev even as she stands in her own person in front of him; but it is in the reflection that we see her expressions.

**And what a shot it is! Blue and surreal until you begin to notice the water tinged with red around the nose and then the mouth. Then, when he pulls his head out of the water, you wonder if you imagined the blood and why it felt so plausible.


SUR NOTES said...

please do try and get the name of the short film -its been bugging me. Yes, it was a lift- not a homage- but carried off well by the actors- and the film. So as long as i get the damn name of the film i am ok.


you are right about the voice over- came out of no where.

yes, watching devdas - they brought in the film thrice- boring- surely expected more.

the washing clothes- i was okay with it-

the end- hey, they are off to the police station - 'happy' ending with a pretty darn dark underbelly. I quite took to it.

And yes, the red when he is underwater was trippy- the devdas coughing blood reference.

I really liked the film - even though it carries the smug- i am so smart malady. I liked it!

kuffir said...

great post. very insightful.
this film again is yet another interpretation- i've watched two versions of the movie. the one with dilip kumar and the old telugu version. both films, especially the telugu one, give one the sense that devdas is an acutely self-aware person.

km said...

Great review. I didn't want to read it all (spoiler alerts), but read enough to have my curiosity stoked.

The mirrors thing - Kashyap's tribute to Douglas Sirk?

//that whole "character-in-a-film-who-obviously-watches-other-films" thing has got to be done right or not at all.

dipali said...

I loved Paro for her beauty and her passion and her good sense! I liked the way contemporary events were used. I've always found Devdas to be such a loser, but here at least I was engaged through out the film.

fiercepothead said...

yeah,the classic film of the neo con wave...i haven't seen it nor do i want to see it.seems like a sleaze fest.two basic objections:
1)why should a girl who had an mms circulated become a whore?
2)isn't he just perpetuating the myth of the white woman as the whore(those who live in hyderabad will surely be aware of a soft porn film - i haven't seen it,ok?- called 'american woman' playing in the theatres currently. its seems something just like that)
and one more - its something that looks like a cross b/w MTV fully Faltoo and Zee Tv's umpteen crime,docu dramas,mixed again with some music videos,man,its not a film.
and ofcourse,that lips bit in the promo is from dali's painting of mae west.
and for those who swear by tarantino and stone, on whom anurag k seems to have modelled himself(ofcourse,without any idea of the postmodern sensibility and parading auteurism when its dead as a dodo) remember,that tarantino films' music were used in guantanamo to torture inmates and godard thought that there was an evil glint in stones' eyes. anyways,i think i am gonna be lynched for saying all this so i will stop. and yes, i do have something personal against kashyap.
hail to the thief!

Falstaff said...

I'm not sure how D's lack of self-awareness is an explanation for his having "the love of two strong and very likable women". Even if we accept that the viewer feels more sympathy for D than he deserves because the narrative keeps him / her from seeing D clearly (which I don't buy, incidentally - lack of self-awareness in a character needn't and frequently doesn't translate into a lack of clarity for the audience - think Ford's The Good Soldier), that certainly can't be true for the two women, who, presumably, are not seeing D. through the lens of the film. So the fact that the viewer can't see D. clearly doesn't in any way explain why the women love him.

Falstaff said...

if anything, one might argue the opposite - that the sympathy D receives (from the women, from the audience) is the result of a deliberate project of self-dramatization: a project which requires that D not show any signs of self-awareness, in order to create the illusion of bona fide intent. D is (or may be - it is possible that agency lies with the artist and D does not share it) perfectly self aware but this self-awareness is carefully concealed as a way of manipulating other people (the women, the audience) into believing that he is not manipulative. Once you see through this manipulation you no longer hold D in sympathy. The women clearly don't see through it, which is why they end up loving him.

P.S. Likable? Really?

Space Bar said...

Sur: Will look for it today. And well, yeah - it is a police station. How happy can it be?

Kuffir: Thanks, I remember seeing the ANR version years ago, but don't have a very clear memory of it. If I'm not mistaken, they werer shot simultaneously.

km: Oh good! I'm glad I put in the spoiler alert.

Dipali: Actually the 'contemporary events' - by which you mean the MMS and BMW? - didn't do much for me. I think he could have used them without being quite so obvious.

fph: I'd listen more carefully if you watch and write about the film. Right now I'm not sure how I could respond to 'classic film of the neo con wave', 'cross b/w MTV fully Faltoo and Zee Tv's umpteen crime,docu dramas,mixed again with some music videos' and 'tarantino films' music were used in guantanamo to torture inmates and godard thought that there was an evil glint in stones' eyes'.

Falstaff: Good point; I don't seem to have explained very clearly why I think this gets and keeps him the love of two (yes, really - ery likable) women.

I think this lack of self-awareness in Dev is not - though it could be - a manipulative projection of himself as self-unaware, dramatising his own life to gain the sympathy and love of those whom he desires.

I think it is more that he is (and I'm stepping into deep waters here) like a child who usually gets what he wants; doesn't always want it when he gets it; is destructive when attention is distracted from him and is often destructive of himself (in the way that children imagine themselves dead) in order to make people sorry for behaving as they have with him.

Remember also, that self-recognition is an important stage in the development of a child's intellect. That's when they see themselves in the mirror and learn to recognise that what they see is a reflection of themselves and not some entirely other person.

Falstaff said...

Hmmm...interesting. And I take it the argument is that the women love him because he's like a child and they love children?

And seriously, what's so likable about them? Me, I have no patience with women who let themselves be taken advantage of by some sniveling ego-maniac because 'he doesn't really mean it'. If this woman were to slap him and tell him to get his act together instead of washing his clothes THEN she would be likable.

Space Bar said...

Falstaff: Exactly. And they can have sex with him. How Oedipal is that?

Actually **SPOILER ALERT**, Paro does exactly that: she tells him to please get his act together, she's very happy with her husband, thank you very much and walks out on him (after washing his clothes for him. That's why I was annoyed).

Falstaff said...

Not to be pedantic or anything, but that's not Oedipal, that's Jocastan.

Also, that's reassuring. I like her better already. Did she at least mix his whites and his coloreds? Or throw in his favorite dry-clean only sweater?

dipali said...

@Falstaff: She soaks them all together in a bucket in his rather sleazy hotel's shoddy bathroom, and then washes them a while later, after tidying up some more. I think she was telling him that she could control the mess he'd made of his life without messing up her own.
I have never ever been able to empathise or sympathise with Devdas in any of his myriad avtaars through the ages, but I still did like this movie!

Partisan said...

What did you make of the re-lent-less soundtrack? There was some song or the other going on in the background through the entire length of the film - or seemed like it, anyway.

Liked the film, though. It was very well made.

Here is hoping the director would get over "Cabaret" and "Mulholland Drive" the next time around.

sumana001 said...

Very in-sight-ful post. I like the way you interpret the use of reflecting surfaces - mirrors and water - and take that up to show the relation between the scopic and the story.

fiercepothead said...

ramakrishna paramhans said that when you make rice,to find out if its done,you need take just one grain,not the entire pot.
you take me to watch the film and i will explain exactly what i mean.alternatively, i wrote a post called the neo con wave on my blog. you could check it out maybe, because i am not going to spend my money on Dev D. i'd rather watch 'american woman' - it will certainly be less pretentious.

Banno said...

I think Rajeev Ravi did a good job with the camerawork.

And Chanda and Paro just ate up poor Dev for dinner.

Yes, it's just such a painful story and a really annoying character, I'd just give marks to Kashyap for making it watchable.

kuffir said...

shot simultaneously? i don't understand- how do you mean simultaneously?

Space Bar said...

falsie: you're right, you're right. Jocasta it is.

Dipali/Banno: The next question to ask, of course, is why the damned man is so fascinating that filmmakers keep wanting to make adaptations. As someone I was watching the film with asked, 'Is there no other story in Indian literature they can find?'

Partisan: I liked some of the music. I managed to ignore the rest of it quite successfully. I agree with you, though; it was a rather hyper soundtrack.

Sumana: Nice to see you back! Thanks.

fph: Ah, Ramakrishna Pramahansa. Somehow, I've always taken him with a grain of salt. Or even a whole doll of it.

Banno: The first thing I did was call Rajeev but the guy was in a shot, what to do.

Kufr: I think - but I could be getting my film history majorly mixed up here - that both the bimal roy one and the one with akn were shot at the same time, as some kind of studio decision. i'm not entirely sure about this (banno, help me out here).

kuffir said...

the telugu devadas came in a little earlier. yes, they were made in almost the same period- early fifties. in hindi, it was one of bimal roy's (and dilip kumar's)less successful films. the telugu film, which was a huge hit, was made by 'vinoda' pictures, if i remember right- not backed by any major studio. the neo-con comment reminds me - the director of the telugu version was vedantam raghavaiah and samudrala raghavachary (senior) wrote the lines and lyrics- conservative sounding names? :)

the mad momma said...

i liked the movie... loved the music - and as someone who was once involved with someone rather like Dev - I can see why she washed his damn clothes.