As someone who often finds himself indulging in melancholic solitude and has tauntingly been referred to as Devdas one too many times—I found myself extremely drawn towards Dev.D when it first released in 2009.
I was 15 and had just started exploring and trying to understand the world of films and cinematic expression. I remember how uneasy I felt while watching it and how it made me question everything—permanently changing my perception of a hero and a heroine in Bollywood.
Directed by Anurag Kashyap, Dev.D is based on the canonical Bengali novella Devdas, written by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and published in 1917. The film completely deconstructs the original ‘Devdas’ while still maintaining the fundamental elements of the ‘Devdas’ archetype.
While it has grown to be a cult film that reclaimed the space of arthouse film in mainstream Bollywood when it was first released, Dev.D remains an important film in the history of Indian cinema.
It is set in a westernized, modern India where conservative and liberal ideas constantly collide as a result of clashing generations that differ in their societal beliefs and values. The grunge landscapes amid dark and dimly lit locations—especially towards the end of the film— highlight the uneven development of India in the postmodern era.
Devdas, played by Abhay Deol, is a flawed infallible hero in this version—sinking in his brash attitude, his reckless addictions, and his unrecognized privilege that allows him to study in London. Unlike the previous adaptations of Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Kashyap’s Devdas remains devoid of the hero's glorification during his journey towards redemption.
The leading ladies, Paro (played by Mahie Gill), and Chanda (played by Kalki Koechlin), are also unapologetically and sexually liberated. Paro is not held back by the conservative environment of the Punjabi village she grows up in. She photographs herself topless, scans the photos in a cybercafé and emails the photos to Dev.
She is also lustfully seductive while he talks to her over the phone from London. When he returns, she takes him to the fields with a mattress hitched to her bicycle so that they can consummate their relationship in peace, and even shares a joint with him the night before.
However, the emotion that dominates her is not lust—it’s love.
She loves Dev, but not enough to destroy her. She doesn’t worship him, and when things do eventually turn ugly, she doesn’t beg for forgiveness, and instead chooses to embrace a new life.
She also doesn’t mince her words when she secretly visits Dev after her marriage to a much older wealthy man. ‘Tumhe tumhaari aukaat dikha rahi hoon’—she says, leaving his dingy room in a shady motel after telling him that he should marry a mirror, as he is not capable of loving anyone but himself.
Leni on the other hand is an elite city girl who is ensnared in a sex tape scandal. After a series of events that follow the scandal, she ends up in a brothel in Delhi, where she adopts the alias ‘Chanda’ (short for Chandramukhi).
She is a fierce college student by day and an expensive sex worker by night.The portrayal of Chanda is not by any means the typical caricaturizing of sex workers we still see to this day in cinema—using harmful tropes about sex work for cheap laughs.
Chanda takes control of her life by using the same sexuality that initially forces her into the dark life she lives as a “sophisticated” sex worker. After she meets Dev, she sees in him a betrayed lover instead of a coke addict—ultimately saving him from himself and a disastrous life that awaits him after he leaves Paro.
She accompanies Dev on this journey of self-improvement without sacrificing her own dreams of a “normal” life.
The portrayal of contemporary style and bold visual language along with the heavily layered 17-song soundtrack speaks to the complexity of the characters — adding to the film’s self-reflexivity, which makes us aware that we are indeed watching a restructured version of the novel on screen.
The ending of Dev.D is extremely crucial because it does not deify Dev. There is no glory in his redemption. Instead of the infamous tragic ending of the novel and the previous film adaptations, we see the film end with a glimmer of hope.
Kashyap subverts the defeated melancholic archetype of Devdas and we see Dev have an epiphany after he has a near death experience, leading him to accept his mistakes and start a new chapter with Leni.
In the last scene of the film, Dev recalls an old conversation with Chanda, and tells her, "You were right, you know. I am a slut.”
The power of this moment lies in the word that is only ever used to describe a promiscuous woman, which is instead being used for a man—in a Bollywood film.
It might have been an unexpected film back in 2009, but it openly and boldly challenged the story that has been told and retold over decades, in literature and in cinema—leaving us with an aggressively colorful and soul consuming story of love, lust and heartbreak.
More than anything, it struck just the right balance in exploring female sexuality and portraying a flawed male protagonist on screen.
I guess being a modern ‘Devdas’ is not that bad of an attribute after all, especially when it can lead to clarity and the possibility of experiencing profound love.
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Guntaj deep SinghMore by Guntaj deep Singh
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