Daas Dev movie review: Sudhir Mishra stands Devdas and Hamlet nicely on their heads but does not live up to his own promise
Daas Dev fails to live up to its promise despite an excellent central performance and an unusual interpretation of two iconic literary characters.
castRahul Bhat, Richa Chadha, Aditi Rao Hydari, Saurabh Shukla, Vipin Sharma, Dalip Tahil, Deepraj Rana, Anil George, Sohaila Kapur, Vineet Kumar Singh And Anurag Kashyap
Text flashed on screen before the first scene rolls lets on that this film is inspired by both Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novella Devdas, arguably the most adapted home-grown literary work in Indian cinema, and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What common ground could there possibly be between the story of a weak-willed Bengali aristocrat drowning his unconsummated love in alcohol, and a Danish prince drowning in a desire for revenge against his scheming uncle and allegedly traitorous mother? What meeting point is there between a spineless fellow who wept at a fate he could have fashioned if he had had the courage to defy his convention-ridden, classist parents, and another so single-minded in his quest for vendetta that he let everything else in his life slip away as a result?
The answer is quite simple, actually: it lies in the self-destructiveness of both Hamlet and Devdas. In merging these two characters and turning each on its head in the end, Sudhir Mishra has conducted one of the most exciting writing experiments seen in a while for the Hindi film screen. The writer-director’s protagonist Dev Pratap Chauhan (played by Rahul Bhat) is melancholy like the legendary fictional men on whom he is based, but is not fatalistic like the foolish – and frankly, boring – Devdas nor quite as mentally muddled as Hamlet.
Mishra’s Daas Dev might have been phenomenal then if its women characters – based on the Paro, Chandramukhi and Queen Gertrude prototypes – had been written as well as the leading man. Sadly, they are not.
Daas Dev is set in the political badlands of Uttar Pradesh where, in the opening scene in 1997, we see Dev’s father, the charismatic star politician Vishambhar Pratap Chauhan’s very public and untimely death before his little son’s eyes. Twenty years later, the boy is now a drug addict, an alcoholic and a laggard, in love with his childhood friend Paro (Richa Chadha), daughter of his late father’s right hand man Naval Singh (Anil George) who has been politically exiled by Dev’s uncle Awdesh Pratap Chauhan (Saurabh Shukla).
The Chauhan family wealth is managed by Shrikant Sahay (Dalip Tahil) and his Woman Friday cum fixer-about-town Chandni Mehra (Aditi Rao Hydari) who is in love with Dev. She watches over him through his tumultuous relationships, his desperate attempt to recover from his substance abuse and his journey from indifference to interest in politics, knowing that he does not reciprocate her feelings for him.
The first half hour of Daas Dev is intriguing. Chandni is the narrator, the one who has watched and seen more than anyone realises. Oddly enough though, she is completely marginalised halfway through the storyline, so that what remains of her in memory now is not her strength but Hydari’s flawless back to which Mishra has paid considerably greater attention than to the writing of her character.
Paro and Chandramukhi were far more appealing people than Devdas in the original text. The screenplay by Mishra and Jaydeep Sarkar does wonderful things to the main man but seems not to know what to do with these two strong women. Richa Chadha still manages to lend some spark to Paro, but Hydari seems unable to rise above her exquisite looks to invest herself in Chandni. More than ever, her limp performance made me long for Madhuri Dixit’s firecracker of a Chandramukhi in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 extravaganza Devdas.
As for Gertrude, in this case Dev’s mother Sushila Devi (Sohaila Kapur) – she exists on the sidelines for so long that even the wonderful Kapur’s speaking eyes cannot save her from being anything other than a sidelight, albeit one who eventually turns out to be pivotal to the plot.
The men are better served by the writing, and some of them return the favour with gusto. Rahul Bhat has the remarkable ability to look bruised, damaged and torn when he gets into a character. His Dev, who is a slave (daas) of his own weaknesses until he finds his life’s purpose, is a beautifully broken fellow, still mourning the loss of a beloved father he idolised and deriving his earnestness towards politics from the memory of that idealistic man. Bhat gives his character both vulnerability and strength, making you wonder why we see him so rarely on the big screen and why he is so vastly underrated.
DoP Sachin K Krishn’s use of darkness and shadows in Daas Dev enhances the air of intrigue in the plot and is especially dramatic around Dev. There are shots in which his face is completely black, his reactions therefore inscrutable if it weren’t for the actor’s body language.
Vipin Sharma playing a wily politician is fantastic as always, as is Saurabh Shukla. Producer-director-writer Anurag Kashyap makes a short but impactful appearance as Vishambhar, giving us yet another reminder – after 2016’s Akira – that he is an under-explored actor. Vineet Kumar Singh, who was astonishingly good on his debut as a lead earlier this year in Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, is impressive in a brief role as a man in love with Paro.
The uneven characterisation apart, the plot too unfolds in a series of twists and turns that, though not unconvincing, play out in a narrative style that feels by now too familiar in the mould of films made by Prakash Jha, Kashyap and Mishra himself.
Someone on the team of Daas Dev seems to have assumed that you can compensate for inconsistent writing with an unrelenting soundtrack. Although several of the songs in Daas Dev are quite lovely ( in particular 'Sehmi Hai Dhadkan' composed by Vipin Patwa, 'Rangdaari' by Arko and 'Challa Chaap Chunariya' by Sandesh Shandilya), there are just too many musical interludes in the film, and the songs and background score are played too much and too loud so that at one point when a character snapped, “Can you shut off that damned song?” for a moment I thought someone in the audience had called out those words because the music had gotten so overbearing by then.
It is surprising that writing would be the Achilles heel of a film by Mishra, the man who co-wrote the screenplay of Kundan Shah’s cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, but that is the way the cookie crumbles in Daas Dev. When Mishra released Yeh Saali Zindagi in 2011, I remember writing that that film felt over-crowded with characters and complications. Ditto for this one. A Devdas-cum-Hamlet story still feels like it is worth a shot, perhaps even another shot by Mishra, but this one fails to live up to its promise despite an excellent central performance and an unusual interpretation of two iconic literary characters.
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