From babu to baba-log

Calcutta to Delhi,Shah Rukh to Abhay: ‘Dev.D’ describes our changes

Written by Amrita Shah | Published: February 18, 2009 10:47:20 pm

In Dev.D,the latest remake of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s classic,Devdas,to hit the screen,the audience,at a particular point,sees the hero’s face through the bottom of a washbowl with the water turning red. The sight triggers a flashback of scenes from Indian cinema: blood on a handkerchief, tubercular spasms and racking coughs. In Dev.D,the red swirls in the water but momentarily. The nonchalance contrasts sharply with the stereotypical cinematic treatment of approaching death.  

In an earlier incident,Dev’s childhood sweetheart Paro gears up to send her absent lover a risqué photograph of herself. The process involves unpleasant encounters with the young men who handle scanners and processing equipment but,despite her obvious and extreme discomfort,she stubbornly insists on sending the picture to its destination. In her sexual frankness and use of new technology,Paro resembles the young heroine of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and more recently Girish Karnad’s play,The Wedding Album. But Dev.D is a mainstream Bollywood film and the absence of melodrama is a significant event.  

The significance has to do not just with the medium but also the fact that the context is the epic of our times,a tale that has been told and retold and performed in so many languages and by so many varied people that it could be read as a register of our shifting consciousness. The last version,made in 2002 by Sanjay Leela Bhansali drew attention mainly for its opulence — it was reportedly the most expensive Hindi film ever made — and its heightened,near-hysterical tone. It was,perhaps,the last howl before the calm because its successor Dev.D is a radical departure.  

The original novella was set in colonial Bengal and revolved around a young weak-kneed aristocrat who,unable to face up to parental opposition and marry his childhood sweetheart,escapes to Calcutta where he proceeds to drink himself to death in the chaste company of a loving prostitute.

Why has this Hamlet-like figure captivated us for close to a century? One scholarly theme locates Devdas’s ambivalence in the divide between the village and the city,between tradition and modernity. A similar argument positions the hero against the coloniser. The colonial babu gentrified,adopting British manners,on the one hand while being exposed to propaganda about the “unmanly and degenerate Hindu male” on the other. Devdas’s refusal to act and consummate his relationship with either woman (and thereby prove the charge of degeneracy) has been read as symbolising both the coloniser’s power as well as resistance against it.  

The second theme,proposed by the film critic Chidananda Dasgupta,suggests our obsession with Devdas is simply escapism: “Perhaps… the dream of surrendering life’s troubles to the solace of drink and the arms of a lover-mother is too attractive an escape to be banished altogether from our secret selves.”  

Whatever the explanation,it is fair to assume — given the runaway success of every new version — that Indians till recently were able to identify with Devdas’s plight as envisaged by a Bangla author writing in the early 1900s. What makes Anurag Kashyap’s stylish,contemporary take so exciting is not just the cinematic experience but the fact that it allows us to conceptualise India in a whole new way. If Devdas is the psychological heart of India,Dev.D may potentially be its future; one in which the dichotomy between tradition and modernity,city and village,coloniser and colonised has been erased. The film’s young hero moves seamlessly between village,city and the vaguely referred-to “UK”. Here there is no probasi angst,the disorientation of the uprooted. Indeed,in the seedy Paharganj bylanes where Dev makes his home are people of every colour. Their mingling has not been achieved overnight: from the transnational marriage between a consular officer and a foreigner,to ’60s-style hippie couples to white-skinned prostitutes,Kashyap shows a range of Indo-foreign encounters and suggests,in a prescient comment on the current worldwide recession,that the West needs India too. 

This is not just a post-globalisation scenario but a post-liberalisation one. By shifting the setting of his film from Calcutta,India’s cultural capital,to wealthy Punjab,Kashyap makes an unequivocal comment on the overwhelming dominance of money in our time. In Delhi’s underbelly everything is available for a price; what unites people from various corners of the world is a common search for sensation. Dev,in his T-shirt,jeans and sling bag — the uniform today across the world worn by student and terrorist alike — is,with his hip flask,a natural inhabitant of this dystopic universe,as is Lene,the part-Indian prostitute selling sex in many languages and disguises. The two are meant to find each other. Dev is no angst-ridden fop drinking away the burden of the ages but an ordinary spoilt kid with the potential for luck and redemption. This is an India ordinary,brutal and pragmatic. On the other hand,to know that our boy can grow up — there is some comfort in that.  

Shah is a Mumbai-based writer

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