As a director, Anurag Kashyap, the Hindi movie industry’s most experimental young film-maker, provokes extreme reactions. To some, he is a misunderstood genius, a modern master with a distinct visual and cinematic style, an anti-establishment icon who will not apologize or compromise on his creativity. To many others, his movies are monuments to narcissism where he often gets so carried away by his single-minded obsession with raising a “Beat that you punks” symbolic middle finger to imagined enemies, that he drops the ball with regards to the very basics of the filmmakers craft—of being understandable and of being able to sustain audience interest.
As to which side I was on I could not make up my mind. “Black Friday” was nothing short of sensational. And “No Smoking”, with its “I am an artist and you cannot tell me what to do” message hammered in continuously through a miasma of obfuscation and darkness, was nothing short of a monumental disappointment.
And now after sitting in a full-sized theater for three hours, totally empty save for me and my wife, I can now return with a verdict. Not perhaps on Anurag Kashyap’s cinematic genius for which I believe a fuller body of work is needed before a serious evaluation of him can be made.
What however I can say is that “Dev D”, Kashyap’s re-telling of the timeless Devdas fable, is wickedly brilliant.
The characteristic Kashyap style and visual panache that his fans adore is very much there.
So are the Danny Boyle-inspired camera techniques and “trippy” lighting that will make the celluloid intellectuals get up in their seats and whistle.
There is humor.
There is bluntness. In a welcome change from conventional Bollywood, the cliched”safed chadar” of poetic romance is dispensed with. Couples separated by continents are not made to look at the clouds Meghadootam style and sing soulful “main yahaan woh wahaan aa rahi phir yahaan awaaz kiski magar” ballads for each other but are shown to behave like “real people” in the Internet Age, the ones that engage in phone whisperings of a salacious kind, chat uncleanly and send uncloaked pictures as attachments. [ In a charmingly unapologetic depiction of female sexuality, Paro drags a mattress to the field so that she can put the “jora jori” back into the “Jora jori chaane ke khet main” in a way that Sarat-babu possibly never could have thought of].
There are innovative uses of music as a instrument of narration.
And yes there are also strange dream-like “watchers” who flit in and out if only to remind us that this is still very much an Anurag Kashyap movie.
However these are not what make Dev D brilliant even though they make it highly enjoyable.
Dev D’s genius lies in its characterizations. Despite being a highly sexed-up and drugged-up version of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novel, Anurag Kashyap’s Devdas accurately captures the essence of the original character , that of a weak, sniveling, self-destructive individual with a morbid fascination for emotional cruelty, who always realizes the worth of something after he has lost it.
But along with that, Kashyap adds something new to Dev —namely a belatedly-revealed capability for introspection that leads to a rather novel conclusion, which some may find unexpected and disappointing but which I personally quite enjoyed.
The rather innovative characterization of Devdas is brought to life by a bravura performance from Abhay Deol, fast establishing himself as the best actor of his generation, a performance that appears even more marvelous when one remembers the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s interpretation which was naturally less of Devdas and more of Shahrukh Khan in his hammy “emotional atyachar” magnificence.
Chandramukhi as the MMS queen-turned-courtesan retains her “shock-absorber” and “emotional compass” role of the original while Paro’s character is given shades that make her much more multi-dimensional than she has been in any of her previous literary or celluloid incarnations.
This is why Dev D’s best moments are when Mahi Gill as Paro and Abhay Deol as Dev D share screen space and perhaps why the second half, when Paro moves out of the story, cannot maintain the scintillating levels of the first .
Overall an exceptionally original and clever creation.