Anurag Kashyap and Devdas are a match made in celluloid heaven. The first is a filmmaker known for deeply disturbing angst-ridden films. The second is Indian cinema?s iconic tragic hero.
Anurag, who has never shied away from dark material, was seemingly the perfect candidate to give Devdas a contemporary twist. But sadly, this marriage is not as magical as it should have been.
Dev D, the 13th film to be made on Sarat Chandra?s 1917 novel, relocates Devdas to Punjab and New Delhi. Dev, played by Abhay Deol, is the spoilt son of a rich landowner. Paro, played superbly by Mahi Gill, is the daughter of their manager. The two nurture a smoldering love from childhood into adulthood. But this love is thwarted, thankfully not by a glaring patriarch, but by a series of misunderstandings.
Paro marries someone else and Devdas embarks on a downward spiral of alcohol, and since this is 2009, cocaine and ecstasy.
In New Delhi?s Paharganj area, he also finds a quantum of solace in the arms of Chanda, played by Kalki Koechlin, a coke-snorting prostitute who is a college student in the daytime.
The first half of Dev D has a ferocious momentum and emotion. Anurag perfectly weaves the explosive passions between Dev and Paro; the contradictions of rural Punjab and the inevitable tragedy that befalls the lovers.
Amit Trivedi?s propulsive soundtrack fuels the narrative. My absolute favourite moment: The Harish Band, manned by two Elvis Presley look-alikes, belting out Emotional Atyachar as Paro gets married and Devdas drinks himself to puking point.
Of course, the challenge of Devdas is creating poetry out of his pathetic, self-destruction. Bimal Roy and Dilip Kumar pulled it off with an austere naturalism. Sanjay Bhansali and Shah Rukh Khan went for spectacle and style. Anurag pays homage to these previous avatars ? Paro and Chanda have a fleeting interaction in a train echoing Roy?s Devdas in which the two women cross each other.
Dev D?s prostitute loves watching Bhansali?s Devdas and takes her working name Chanda from Chandramukhi. At one point, we also see a poster of Shah Rukh Khan from the film in a bar.
But the echoes end there. Anurag?s Devdas operates in a psychedelic space. Here Chunnilal is a pimp, Chanda is a prostitute in a lurid baby-doll get-up and the primary activity is imbibing illegal substances.
This is where Dev D stumbles. The momentum of the first half dissipates. As Dev implodes, he emotionally disconnects from the world. But the trouble is that we also emotionally disconnect from him. Despite Abhay?s superlative performance, Dev?s suffering leaves us cold.
The second half also puts too much strain on Kalki who is an intriguing actor but perhaps not experienced enough to pull off the complexity of her character. The last hour becomes a blur of
repetitive images of Deol smoking, drinking and passing out but what stays with you, once again, is the soundtrack.
Dev D is ambitious and brave but it?s also frustratingly inconsistent. I?m going with two and a half out of five stars and recommending it with reservations.
Go armed with an open mind and patience.