Dev.D’s music revisited: Amit Trivedi’s greatest work showed us how much a soundtrack can elevate a movie
The modern setting with drugs supplementing the alcohol, the ripping-off of newspaper headlines for the story and the extra layers to Chandramukhi’s character made this Devdas accessible to a generation dealing with entirely new demons.
Amit Trivedi celebrates his birthday today and what better way to honour the composer extraordinaire than to look back at his first and greatest work: Dev.D
The Indian movie soundtrack is a weird beast. Unhindered by genre, story or logic, it usually takes a life of its own depending on the composer, the star and the Punjabi rapper involved. Some of it turns out great. From AR Rahman to both the Burmans, the landscape is littered with great artists who have made transcendent music. But look back over the years and truly think — how many of those soundtracks were so intrinsically linked to a movie that neither could have worked on their own?
The answer is very, very few. As the industry stuffed unnecessary songs into movies to sell tickets and Wynk subscriptions, the link between stories and music had grown increasingly tenuous. The bizarre spectacle of actors breaking into synchronized dancing while lip-syncing to a voice completely different from their own is something Indian cinema-goers have been used to but only because we have rarely seen the alternative: a film where the music was instrumental (pun intended).
Technically, Amit Trivedi’s first outing as a Bollywood composer was Aamir but that was only because some delays pushed back Dev.D’s release. And while Aamir was certainly not a bad start by any means, Dev.D is what stunned everyone. Throwing in Rajasthani-rock with a sorrowful ballad along with some smooth lounge fusion, Trivedi worked his magic to produce a revolutionary album, one which would (and does) stand alone as a piece of art.
In the hands of Anurag Kashyap though, it became so much more. Kashyap recognised the brilliance he had before him and rewrote his film as a musical to best make use of Trivedi’s talent. The movie wraps around the music and there is nothing “background” about the score which pulsates through the film.
Dev.D is the retelling of a story which many thought had been retold far too often. Except, Abhay Deol (who gave the original idea for the film) and Kashyap (who continuously tinkered with the script along with Vikramaditya Motwane) came at it from a radically different angle. The modern setting with drugs supplementing the alcohol, the ripping-off of newspaper headlines for the story and the extra layers to Chandramukhi’s character made this Devdas accessible to a generation dealing with entirely new demons.
The movie’s first story is Paro’s, an earthy, assertive woman who travels to another city to send nudes to Dev as easily as she sets fire to the belongings of the man who had lied about having sex with her. Kashyap introduces her to us with the folksy 'Dhol Yaara Dhol' which plays in parts through the marriage at Dev’s house as Paro prances around.
A few scenes later, the movie hits its first inflection point as Dev rejects Paro after hearing a rumour. Cue the sad version of 'Mahi Mennu' which envelopes Paro’s heartbreak. Paro knows how to take care of business though and one swift beating and arson later, she is over Dev. We speed through two Punjabi weddings with two Punjabi songs guiding us through them with little dialogue needed to propel the story.
Halfway through Paro’s wedding though comes one of the songs of the movie as “Patna ke Presley” take the stage. This version of 'Emotional Attyachar' is played by a brass band and is every bit as popular as the rock version. Nawazuddin Siddiqui joins the movie’s assistant director Nitin Chainpuri to perform an extremely memorable number which has poured out of many a spurned lover in an Old Monk-fuelled haze.
The movie then swings across to an entirely new setting as Leni/Chanda enters the story. Leni’s story is the one which uses the music the most as Kashyap introduces her and then plays out the entire Delhi Public School MMS scandal to the softly-crooned 'Yahi Meri Zindagi'.
As Leni starts taking control of her life again, the upbeat 'Aankh Micholi' pipes up. Her escape from her family till her introduction to Chunni is depicted to that song which in so many words ponders the unpredictability of life which led a schoolgirl from upscale Delhi to a life in the brothels. Her actual transformation into Chanda however plays out to the classical 'Paayaliya', a song which conveys that her acceptance of her circumstances is not really a choice.
Once we have our Chanda, Dev could hardly be far away. The third part of the movie begins with the re-introduction of Dev. And what an introduction that is.
Dev is now a junkie lost in the underbelly of Delhi and constantly looking for his next hit. The rock version of 'Emotional Attyachar' serves as the background for our re-acquaintance with him. Again Kashyap refuses to resort to dialogue but lets Dev drift to the angsty number which starts mellow but soon rises to a crescendo. The song returns repeatedly to depict Dev’s rage and has since become a fixture in any house party worth its rum.
While Dev.D is forever linked to 'Emotional Attyachar', the next song gives us Trivedi at the peak. 'Pardesi' is perhaps the most unnecessary song in the movie given that Dev.D would easily stand even without it. Except Trivedi deems this the fit moment to introduce us to Haryanvi Club music.
Even though the primary scene in the song is Dev and Chunni making their acquaintance over copious amounts of alcohol, the real stars are The Twilight Players. The sibling trio of Sinbad Phgura, Ammo ‘Too Sweet’ and Jimi ‘The Quiff’ make regular albeit fleeting appearances throughout the film but take centre stage in 'Pardesi' as they show off their real trade — as practitioners of Open Hand dance. The effect is surreal in the dimly-lit bar and the music does its work by dragging you down even as its soothing tunes wash over you. Some nifty camera-work based on techniques picked up from a craftsman no less than Danny Boyle completes the experience as Kashyap delivers one of the neatest music videos in Bollywood history.
'Nayan Tarse' is the song chosen to depict Dev’s further fall into the pits of despair. Trivedi lends his voice to this groovy lounge-fusion number which plays as we see Paro enter and leave the scene as she always did — on her own terms. Dev returns to Chanda and a little hope is reflected in the whistled ditty named 'Dev-Chanda theme'. Their falling for each other has 'Dil Mein Jaagi' in the background, a number which evokes memories of Leni’s song ('Yahi Meri Zindagi') as it is clear that the romance is more about Chanda than Dev.
After numerous near-misses, Dev finally hits rock bottom. Trivedi again picks himself to sing the sorrowful ballad, aptly titled 'Saali Khushi'. Quite literally asking where happiness has gone, the song sees Dev splinter and wither until he finally hurts someone else to an irreparable extent. Kashyap’s portrayal of the Sanjeev Nanda hit-and-run case is simple and instantaneous, and leaves Dev teetering on the brink.
After the fall comes the rise. The uptick in Dev’s life begins with Duniya and continues over to the movie’s last song: 'Ek Hulchul Si'. In a twist to the original Devdas, Kashyap’s version tilts towards a relatively happy ending with Dev clean and with Chanda. Both songs show off Amitabh Bhattacharya’s songwriting chops as the clever lyrics combine with Trivedi’s peppy music to once again complement and further the story.
If Trivedi had retired right after Dev.D, he could still have looked back at a career well-scored. Thankfully he didn’t and has since gone on to give much-loved music in films like Wake Up Sid, Udaan, Kai Po Che! and Aisha. His sheer versatility when combined with his feel for melody has meant that he is the only contemporary composer who could possibly hold a candle to that musical God, AR Rahman.
And as Trivedi himself would surely tell you, there is little higher praise than that.
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