“What’s the most important thing a director can bring to the table?” “Perspective.”
I was recently watching an interview with one of my favourite directors, Zoya Akhtar, and this is what she had to say about direction. The point of view with which you approach your story determines the kind of story you tell.
The story of Dev.D is based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel, Devdas. It is the tragic tale of an alcoholic and his fateful encounters with love. It follows the journey of Dev, as his impulsivity causes him to lose his childhood love, Paro. He proceeds to drown himself in drink at the local brothel. Here he finds solace and love once again with Chandramukhi, a prostitute. He can’t commit to her either, and ultimately, he succumbs to alcoholism. The story has been adapted into film several times. But this adaptation was different, and not only because it is set in the present.
What Anurag Kashyap brings to the project is a less romantic, more grounded perspective. Although Dev is still the protagonist, the film doesn’t see the world through his eyes. Instead, Dev is rooted in his surroundings and his overall environment – and the people in it – are examined in the film.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this while watching the film. I have previously seen Devdas, a 2002 film directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It was (and remains) one of the most famous adaptations of the novel. Unlike Dev.D, Devdas is told entirely from Dev’s point of view. And while it is a very well executed film – the set designs, costumes and music are top notch – the story gets trapped under a feudal, sexist lens. As I watched Dev.D, I was reminded of that film, and how much of a difference perspective makes.
Dev is a rich, vain, brash young man. In the 2002 film, Devdas (essayed beautifully by Shah Rukh Khan) leaves his lower caste, poor girlfriend Paro because he can’t stand up to his family. When ultimately Paro gets married to someone else, he strikes her head and feels sorry for himself. That film, amidst its elaborate sets and gorgeous costumes, also romanticises Dev’s inner turmoil and his abusive behaviour. Dev in this film is a misunderstood young man going through heartbreak.
Dev.D dispels any such notions we may have of the central character. We see Kashyap’s Dev as an entitled young brat who has always gotten what he wanted and who thinks he can get away with anything. When he loses Paro because of his own impulsivity and entitlement, his self-destructive tendencies take over and he begins drinking. While you feel sorry for this man, you don’t particularly like him. And that’s the point. Dev believes that the world revolves around him. The audience knows better. The world is bigger than Dev and his pain. The characters around him have lives and stories of their own.
Kashyap doesn’t stop there. He goes on to show Chanda’s life. In Devdas, Chandramukhi’s story exists simply in relation to Dev. After all, why does a woman, a prostitute at that, deserve a back story? Madhuri Dixit (the actress playing Chandramukhi in Devdas) even says, “Tawaeifon ki toh taqdeer hi nahin hoti (prostitutes don’t have a destiny)”. She simply endures Dev’s jibes about her character and idolizes him even as he belittles her profession and character.
Dev.D’s Chanda is much more humanely written. Her story begins as a high school student, Leni, who was fooling around with a boyfriend who video-taped her and circulated the videos online. In light of that scandal, her father commits suicide and a helpless Leni is faced with the choice of getting forcibly married or running away. She chooses the latter and ends up in a brothel in New Delhi. The film shows the brothel saving the teenage girl, because she is given the opportunity to study and she can choose who she wants to sleep with because she is a minor. It is here, when she has made a new life for herself that she meets a drunk Dev who has made his way to the brothel. They connect because she can empathise with his pain. This makes their connection more believable.
The story is still Dev’s, but understanding the lives of people around Dev makes for a richer narrative. It shows us more of Dev’s personality. He is not only in agony. He is also self-centred and irresponsible to the point of using money meant for his lawyer (because he ran someone over with his car) on alcohol and drugs. When he ends up on the street with no one but a stray dog to keep him company, it is sad but also inevitable. At the same time, the people in his life are not wallowing in his pain with him. Paro finds happiness with her husband. Chanda leaves the brothel and goes on to finish her studies. And Chunni Lal, the pimp and drug dealer who is the closest ‘friend’ Dev has refuses to see him again despite Dev’s spendthrift ways.
Writing Dev from this perspective doesn’t just humanise the characters in the story and give us a nuanced film. It gives Dev something that the old way of storytelling never could – a chance at redemption. Dev becomes more than just a vessel for pain and can hence grow in different directions. Starting his life anew with Chanda is one such way. Anurag Kashyap said that developments in his personal life spill over into his films. Kashyap had just started dating Kalki who he went on to marry. This possibly translated into Dev’s story becoming one of hope rather than despair and I’m so glad it did. Refraining from romanticising pain and empathising with the characters provides avenues for their growth. In this case, a mature, empathetic perspective gave us a film of a boy who grew up.