Dev.D – Lessons in Perspective

“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.


Made In Heaven: A triumph for character development

When was the last time you saw an Indian series that portrayed relationships as deep and complex as they are? Made in Heaven is that series. After its success and the success of her last film Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar, one of its creators, is on a roll. She is fast proving that she can explore relationships like few others can. I must admit I was sceptical about this series when I saw its poster. The poster shows the six lead characters (three men and three women) and I mistakenly got the sense it would be three one-boy-one-girl stories. Made in Heaven is quite the opposite. Set in New Delhi, it is the story of two wedding planners who run a company called Made in Heaven and plan grand weddings for the rich. But that is not all it is. Through this basic premise, the story explores societal biases and hypocrisy. It does a deep dive into human nature.

The biggest strength of the series is undoubtedly the development of its characters – not just the lead characters but also side characters. You understand why people behave the way they do. The choices they make and the hypocrisies they exhibit are not random. They help the viewer understand the character. These characters are not one-dimensional caricatures. The most obvious example of this is Karan Mehra, a character played by Arjun Mathur. At the very outset it is established that he is a gay man. But unlike conventional portrayals of homosexuality in Indian film (television has only just begun exploring the subject), where if a person is gay, that’s all they are, Made in Heaven shows that being gay is a part of Karan. He has a life in addition to that. His relationships with multiple men don’t just put forth the point that he likes men, but show his escapism, something that would have remained just the same had he been straight. He’s a man struggling to come to terms with himself, to create a successful business and repay the massive amounts of debt he’s taken on. These things aren’t told through contrived dialogue or on the nose scenes, but is shown seamlessly throughout the series.

A subtler example of character development is Shobita Dhulipala’s character, Tara. Tara undoubtedly has the most well-presented character arc. At the beginning of the series, we admire this woman who’s defied the trappings of class. She married rich, but she married for love even as the world misunderstands her as a gold-digger. Her husband (Adil, played brilliantly by Jim Sarbh) has invested in her company, but she is her own person. This façade unravels as the show progresses. As a clue about this is revealed towards the end of the first episode, when she convinces Aaliya, a middle-class woman, to get married to her rich fiancé despite his family violating her privacy. “Its five fucking thousand crores. Don’t be an idiot,” she tells her. As a viewer I stop taking Tara for granted and begin to pay closer attention to who she is.

Towards the end of the series, the writers make sure I have no clear answers. She has married her husband for money, but she also loves him. She craves her own identity but takes pride in calling herself Mrs. Tara Khanna, an indication that her past life is behind her and she is now a part of elite, even though she has no friends there. She can be sensitive to the injustices suffered by other women in the show, but she is routinely terrible to her mother and sister because they haven’t escaped the poverty trap. And that’s what makes Tara special. She is complicated, as human beings are. Her inner contradictions also explain the outrage she feels towards her best friend (Faiza, played by Kalki Koechlin) when Faiza has an affair with Adil, when she herself had once initiated a relationship with Adil while he was engaged to another woman. As with Karan, Tara’s past comes to the fore as organically throughout the series as the narrative moves forward. And the real win for Tara’s character, and a testament to the writing of the show, is that I empathised with the character throughout, even during her darker moments.

The show’s primary focus is on the institution of marriage. Many Hindi films can lead us to believe that marriage is the ultimate goal of a romantic relationship, that it is the beginning of ‘happily ever after’. Made in Heaven rejects this idea and instead goes on to demonstrate that marriages come in all shapes and sizes. Any psychological or material safety it provides can come at a cost. For instance, when Karan’s landlord’s wife (Ayesha Raza) finds out that her husband (Vinay Pathak) has been watching recordings of Karan having sex with a man, she chooses to believe the lie that her husband is gathering evidence to evict Karan than face the uncomfortable truth that could destroy her marriage – that her husband is gay. Similarly, Aaliya and her fiancé Angad are an idealistic couple at the beginning of the episode. They don’t seem to care about money (even five fucking thousand crores) and claim that they don’t lie to each other. But when faced with the sceptre of the future, Angad lies to his parents about her past even though that was against her wishes. And she lies to Angad about her motivations to reconcile with his parents. We see that love isn’t always enough to keep a couple together. Sometimes, there are other binding agents. Despite this, Made in Heaven doesn’t have a purely cynical view of marriage. It does show couples who have weathered challenges and are still on the same page and in love. Only those form a minority when compared with all the other kinds of marriages out there.

In addition to marriage, Made in Heaven uses relationships to help understand characters. In the end, we realise most characters may not have clear motivations or consistent actions, because they don’t know who they are. This is most evident with Adil’s character. Adil cheats on his first fiancé with Tara and cheats on Tara with Faiza. While he is most certainly a douchebag, Made in Heaven gives layers to his character through his interactions with both Tara and Faiza. He is a character who doesn’t know what he wants and cannot deal with intense milestones within his relationships. Similarly, Faiza’s interactions with her therapist (again, kudos to the makers for normalising therapy) show her own internal contradictions. Her desire to not lose her friend even as she can’t stop seeing that friend’s husband. Faiza’s confusions are even clearer because she is dependent on the men in her life (her father, ex-husband and Adil) to keep her afloat. Even though she doesn’t want to lose her friend, she can’t rid herself of the need for a man who will take care of her.

Made in Heaven is clearly extremely well written. A number of episodes try to uncover problems of the patriarchy (dowry, widow remarriage, superstitions…). These issues may look like they’ve been addressed in other films and TV shows, but this show is written and directed with subtlety that doesn’t make them feel stale or cringey. Made in Heaven holds a mirror to society but it doesn’t try to assume a position of moral uprightness. It lets the viewer see and ultimately perceive the subtext of the show for himself/herself. All this while making the view invested in nearly every character in the show. Even side characters get a clear arc, like Karan’s landlord and his family and the production manager of the company. This isn’t to say that the writing is flawless. Kabir (played by Shashank Arora), the cameraman who also narrates bits of the series is not as well fleshed out as the rest of the cast. True, he gets a few scenes towards the end of the series, but it doesn’t seem like enough.

All in all, watching Made in Heaven made me tremendously happy. It is the second time that I have seen an Indian TV series that is world class (the first one being Sacred Games).  If you’re like me, you probably consume mostly American (and maybe some British) television. In which case you’ll understand when I say that mainstream Indian television with its poor writing and production quality cannot hold a candle to even mediocre sitcoms from the West. Made in Heaven is a small change in the status quo. Here is a show that tells the stories of people like me in a way that even a person completely unfamiliar with the Indian milieu will understand and appreciate. I hope this trend continues, and I cannot wait to binge watch Season 2.