Dev.D turns 10: Anurag Kashyap's film paved the way for irredeemable protagonists and sexually liberated heroines
Dev.D was a watershed film in two aspects — depicting a flawed protagonist and exploring female sexuality. Many films followed suit but none could strike the balance as perfectly.
The Abhay Deol-starrer Dev.D, which released on 6 February 2009, was a watershed film in the way it depicted a flawed male protagonist and female sexuality. Many films followed suit but none struck the balance as perfectly as Anurag Kashyap's now decade-old tour de force.
Dev.D was an adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's iconic Bengali novel Devdas. While it was previously adapted into films by Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali respectively, Kashyap's interpretation was set in a modern era, with relatable characters that harked back to those from the original text. Devdas on screen — whether played by Dilip Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan — may have been an alcoholic, but emerged as a tragic hero eventually. There was always a redeeming factor in his charcterisation. But Kashyap's Dev (played by Deol) is devoid of any redeeming qualities.
Traditionally, Devdas was depicted as a tragic hero because of his failed romances. But lust replaces love in Dev.D; Dev is not only sexually charged but also disoriented. There is no justification for turning to alcohol or drugs. There is no "Jeene k liye kaun peeta hai, Chandramukhi" and all that jazz. His state of perennial confusion is probably a reflection of the youth of the new millennium. The lyricism that enhanced Roy and Bhansali's films is absent in Dev.D, as Amit Trivedi's pulsating rock track 'Emotional Atyachar' takes over instead. Given the abundant options available owing to technology and economic reform, men are spoilt for choice. There is no space for love. But this accurate projection lends Kashyap's adaptation a unique aspect — a rare Hindi cinema protagonist who offers little to root for.
While there have been other despicable primary characters in films like Raman Raghav 2.0, Omerta and Padmaavat, Dev.D gained the first mover's advantage. The same is the case with its depiction of female sexuality. Paro and Chandramukhi, both strong characters in their own right, are seen through the lens of sexuality. They do not worship Dev, as was the case with previous adaptations. Their magnanimity is displayed by their ability to rise above Dev's flaws and give him another chance at redeeming himself in his his eyes, and theirs.
Paro (Mahie Gill), Dev's neighbour, hails from a village in Punjab; her environment cannot hold her back. She is sexually liberated: travelling to another town to get nude photos printed and mailed to Dev (who asks her for them), or carrying a mattress to the nearby fields for a tryst with Dev. But the dominant emotion in her is not lust. A soft corner for Dev compels her to wash his clothes and sleep with him even after he is married. But once she realises that Dev is a lost cause, she does not mince her words while spelling out his 'aukaat'.
Chanda (Kalki Koechlin) is a city girl who gets embroiled in an MMS scandal. A chain of events leads her to a brothel in Delhi, where she uses the same sexuality that once destroyed her life as a means to earn a livelihood and complete her education. Whether she uses her sexuality to mask her past or as a release for pent-up pain is unclear, but could have made for a whole other spin-off. Nonetheless, she exposes her vulnerable side when she sees a betrayed lover in Dev and relates, instantly. The way to her heart is through her struggle with and ultimate triumph over her sexuality.
It was a wise call on Kashyap's part to choose two new faces as Paro and Chanda. Since both Mahie and Kalki steered clear of any image in the minds of the viewers, they brought conviction to their portrayals. Till the early 1970s, sexuality on screen was considered a depiction of sin and was the monopoly of "vamps", often played by Helen and Aruna Irani. But fresh blood like Zeenat Aman and Dimple Kapadia challenged the notion. They emerged as leading ladies who had no qualms in embracing sexuality. However, the niche became the norm only with Urmila Matondkar's central performance in Ram Gopal Verma's 1995 film Rangeela. Nevertheless, female sexuality was only a tool until Dev.D, which explored it as a theme.
Another unique aspect about Dev.D, apart from depicting its heroines as sexually liberated women, was that it did so in a male-led film. Films like The Dirty Picture and Tumhari Sulu showed Vidya Balan as an empowered woman whose weapon of choice is her sexuality. But to do so in a man's world is a feat that Dev.D achieved rather beautifully.
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