Last weekend, I watched the movie Dev D, which is a modern take on the book Devdas by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Now I haven't read the book so I can't comment on how much the movie deviates from the book itself...although I have to imagine it does deviate somewhat given that the book was written in 1917 and the movie in the 2000s! But the story itself is familiar to most Indians...and certainly to anyone who watches Bollywood films since the book has been picturised numerous times.
In any case, authenticity aside, the movie is surprisingly compelling. I had reasonably low expectations as I hadn't actually heard of the film before (surprising, I know) but I like Abhay Deol as an actor and was interested to see a reinterpretation of a story that is to Indians as Romeo and Juliet is to Westerners. So I watched it...here are some thoughts...(definite spoiler alert!)
The story: A fresh take on the original story that is brought very appropriately into the current era. Yes, Dev goes off to study overseas but it is clear that the relationship with Paro continues in a very modern way...not a pining out of sight that I always found rather hard to believe, but a constant phone and text message relationship that was surprisingly realistic. Even the sexting has become such a dangerously integral part of modern teenage life that it seems expected for a long distance couple. No longer is the Dev-Paro love story a victim of parental circumstance...but rather a modern tale of jealousy and infidelity, and destruction at the hands of a spoiled, overly-indulged young man. Chanda's story is also ripped straight from modern headlines and very believable.
The characters: I love that none of the characters are two dimensional. You don't really like Dev but can see the good in him that sparks from behind his overall selfish, spoilt core. His hypocritcal attitude towards his own real versus Paro's imagined infidelity fits his character's personality completely...as does his self indulgent response to losing her. His resentful attitude towards his father, even as he spirals out of control using his father's money is something I've seen. And still there is the side of him that can understand and empathize with a fallen woman and find the humanity in her and himself. As for the two women, in prior iterations of this story, Paro and Chanda are often portrayed very one dimensionally and as victims. They are almost seen as two sides of the same character - the good and bad - but both equally victims of circumstance. But Kashyap (director)'s women are complex, full of their own desires and needs and passions, and although at the mercy of their surroundings and society, they are nobody's victims. Paro shakes off the restraint of her conservative upbringing to send Dev a naked pic of herself early on...and she rolls up a mattress to take out to the field so they can consummate their relationship. But when that same open desire gives Dev fuel to fire his jealousy, she doesn't look back or lose herself in sorrow...she marries a man who, although older with two children, provides her with security and comfort...and loves her and desires her. And she doesn't hesitate to rub that in Dev's face when he finds her later. As for Chanda, yes, she is the victim of her own desires and of a boyfriend who puts her in the center of an MMS scandal that destroys her reputation and family but she is also a product of her own choices. And she refuses to be a victim...even as a prostitute, you sense that she is in control of her circumstances as much as possible.
Filming/direction: I can't say enough of the camera work and direction on this film. The movie is visually stunning whether during the early country life moments, later in the bowels of the city, and most of all during the trippy drug induced hazes. And the direction is perfect...understated and fantastic.
Music: and then there's the music. Amit Trivedi packed an astounding number of songs into this film but they are never intrusive. Unlike most Bollywood masala, where songs seem to interrupt everything and often it seems the movie is written for the songs rather than the other way round, in this movie, the songs are an integral part of the story...in fact, the music is a character in itself. The way the music weaves through the story, it is as if we are literally hearing the soundtrack to the various characters lives. And while the songs are ever present, they never detract from the story. In fact, they seem to enhance the plot and even the acting, esp when it falls short at times. The song Emosional Athyachaar is still playing in my head and I absolutely love Dhol Yaara Dhol. But in addition to those memorable singable numbers, there are numerous background song moments that are fantastic.
And finally, the acting: I love Abhay Deol's portrayal of the character in this film. He's plays the unsympathetic dissolute drunkard as well as he normally plays the boy next door. Mahi Gill does a nice job playing the simple village girl who is burgeoning into a woman full of her own desires and passions. The scene at her wedding is a perfect 30sec portrayal of her - initially restrained while those around her dance but then suddenly bursting into hip thrusting, unrestrainedly joyful dancing that leaves her new husband surprised. Kalki Koelchin does fine in her role as Chanda, too, although of the three I thought she was the weakest...too often her delivery of lines is stilted and although she captures the innocence behind the prostitute pretty well and even does a respectable job showing the painful vulnerability in her circumstance, a little more depth would not have gone amiss somehow.
So...all in all, I thought this was a great movie. No it's not the best you'll see this year but it is ambitious and bold and visually and acoustically memorable...and it's so refreshing for Indian cinema that if for nothing else, then for that alone, I had to love it. I give it a solid 4 out of 5.
PS - beware...don't watch this one with your kids or your parents, though, as the language and themes are decidedly adult.