Once upon a time, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote a tale about an alcoholic lover, his married beloved, and a golden-hearted courtesan. This story was told onscreen several times, the last version by Sanjay Leela Bhansali surpassing the previous ones in its opulence and sophistication. And thus was it entrenched in public memory.
Until a strange fellow - with a familiarly handsome face and a famous surname but a career that couldn't have been less removed from either - decided to turn it upside down.
The discreet couplings and dazzling brocade were stripped away; the story relocated from Bengal to Punjab; the lover became a repulsive chauvinist and his woman a fiesty virago with occasional flashes of subservience towards him. The elegant courtesan was now a doyenne of phone sex with her past indiscretions recorded on MMS for the world to see. The victorias gave way to BMWs, and some coke 'n' hash was thrown in for good measure.
And thus did Abhay Deol recomission Devdas, steered by Anurag Kashyap through a tempest of sex, drugs and rock'n'roleplay.
The story begins with a brief look at childhood sweethearts Dev (Devender Singh Dhillon, or Dev D, played by Deol) and Paro aka Parminder (newcomer Mahi Gill) in Chandigarh. Even at that tender age, Paro shows she's no pushover, but a fiesty Punjabi kudi to the bone. She brings paranthas for Dev and then snaps at him when he asks her why she didn't bring pickle!
Cut to the present, with Dev and Paro now having a sexual relationship on the internet (as far as possible.) At his request, Paro even sends him a topless picture of herself. What's more, she takes it on film, and goes all the way to Delhi to have them developed. The only thing that annoys her about the gawking stares of the men at the studio is that they behave like they've never seen breasts. The only explanation for such boldness is that this is a woman who isn't merely aware of her sexuality, but revels in it - a far cry from Chattopadhyay's heroine.
When Dev comes back to Chandigarh for his brother's wedding, Paro is thrilled to see the man she wants to marry, but that does not stop him from having a fling with another young woman he meets at the wedding. However, when he hears that Paro is not a virgin, he calls her a slut - embodying the double standards employed by the average Indian male. (Kudos to Abhay and Anurag for unapologetically showing this fact!) They break up and Paro marries somebody else. Unable to handle this blow to his ego, Dev, who intermittently runs his father's factory but prefers to have run-ins with scotch instead, drinks himself senseless and is sent to Delhi to avoid embarrassing his family further.
Meanwhile, Delhi girl Lenny is now a high-class call girl who goes by the name of Chanda. We learn that she was abandoned by her parents at 17 after an MMS surfaces of her performing fellatio on her boyfriend, which leads to her father committing suicide. After spending some time in her grandmother's native village, she escapes to Delhi and is taken under the wing of a brothel owner after her former friends turn their backs on her. She slowly rebuilds her life with the help of Chunni the pimp, and even goes to school and college, moonlighting as a multilingual phone sex operator and servicing select clients. She meets Dev and slowly falls for him. In the meantime he tries to unsuccessfully get Paro to come back to him, but she turns him down. Unable to take it, he drinks to a point where he runs over a group of pedestrians in his BMW.
It seems like the end for Dev, but it is only the beginning. His dad dies fortituously at the time of the accident, and thus he gets a light sentence as it looks like he had been drunk out of grief; back in Delhi, through a series of providential escapes and support from a local mo-mo seller, he eventually reunites with Chanda and gets a chance to start over.
The movie drags a bit in the second half, and the events of the ending are a little too coincidental to be convincing, but the movie is a refreshingly different take on a classic love story. The complete reversal of the characters is much more believable and the film is visually arresting. The dark treatment with flashes of riotous colour makes for effective atmosphere and a special mention must be made of the camera movements in the drug scenes. There are plenty of laughs in places as well, which do not stick out as comic relief, but are actually part of the narrative.
Abhay Deol is the epitome of the male chauvinist pig and succeeds in evoking disgust, but little else. It is hard to feel sorry for his character, but given his penchant for such offbeat roles, he is definitely an actor to watch out for. As the concept of Dev D is his, he also deserves praise for coming up with a different twist on Devdas.
Mahi Gill shows plenty of spunk and talent as the fiesty Paro, and fellow debutant Kalki Koechlin is good as Lenny. While it remains to be seen whether there are takers for the latter's unusual looks, her linguistic skills will surely prove to be an asset.
Last but not the least, top props to Anurag Kashyap for breaking out of the mould for not being afraid to cast his leading man as a reviled cad and his female protagonists as strong characters who are more than just mere decorations, even when they are prostitutes. He does not hesitate to bring out the hypocrisy of the Indian patriarchal mindset, as shown by Dev D himself, who thinks nothing of having a sexual affair with another girl but calls Paro a slut when he hears that she might not be a virgin. It comes full circle when Chanda calls him out on his duplicity and brands him a slut, and he can't retaliate, for she is a prostitute - a person who is as publicly despised as she is secretly sought out.
A favourite scene of mine, in terms of content, is when Chanda tells Dev about her MMS scandal (which is inspired by a real-life MMS scandal in 2003, involving two fifteen-year-old students of DPS Delhi.) She tells him that though her name and face were never made public, everyone knew it was her and ridiculed her. There is only one way this was possible: everyone downloaded the MMS and saw it, including Lenny's own father. As she states in the film, "the whole country got off on that video, and I'M the slut." Here Anurag makes an excellent point about our society - it brands the participants of the act as sluts, but conveniently chooses to ignore that by having downloaded the MMS and watched it, it is just as guilty , dep perverted.
Their movies are not without it's flaws, but love them or hate them, in a world where most women characters continue to be merely decorative and 40-year-actors romp with 20-year-olds on-screen, directors like Kashyap are a breath of fresh air.