The danger of judging a film that throws as much self-conscious style at you as Dev.D does is, too often the focus is solely on the style, and while it's easy to equate Dev.D's modernity with its contemporary settings, takes from real-life events and numerous MTV-style club song breaks, that's not true. The real refresh is in the portrayal of the lead characters and their mind-scape; everything else is just window-dressing.
Anurag Kashyap's script shifts the action from the Bengal scenario to Delhi-Punjab belt and strips out the affected bhadralok contrivances to provide a more raw atmosphere for the story. The Paro-Dev relationship is painted with primal non-coy brush strokes that give it a greater intensity than at least the Bimal Roy and (disastrous) Sanjay Bhansali adaptations. Mahie Gill as Paro immerses herself into the part in a manner that scorches away any hints of vulgarity, be it the scene where she travels all the way to the city to scan a nude pic of herself for Dev or, more importantly, where she reinforces her commitment by carrying nuptial bed et al to the fields. She reminds me of a young Tabu and I would love to see more of her if opportunity affords.
The script at this point veers from the Devdas book in that it is not Dev's cowardice that makes him turn away from Paro but ego. Even after a misunderstanding about her being a wanton slut is cleared, he makes no attempt to stop her marriage to another man, and the moment where Paro shakes off her demure bridal posture with an impromptu jig is an indication of her own break from the relationship. So much so for the eternal romance, and hooray for modernity.
Shift ho then to Delhi's swanky lanes and the last angle in this triangle – Chanda aka Chandramukhi (Kalki Koechlin, who provides the other brilliant female lead) – here given the background of a foreign origin sexually abused schoolgirl that then gets into the prostitution business to earn her keep. Her relationship with Dev is of one wounded soul finding another. In Dev's case of course, the wounds have been inflicted by his own stupidity and Chanda is frank enough to point that out. Post-marriage Paro is still around, but her equation with Dev, even when she cleans up his room and submits to a quickie, is devoid of any strong passion. She has completely grown out of their erstwhile romance. The rest of the film is essentially about Dev learning to come to grips with this fact and, by an understanding of Chanda's struggles to salve her wounds, healing his own.
Of course, none of this comes pat, and to Anurag's credit, the script never feels like it is patronizing or spoon-feeding the audience to its conclusions. The lead characters are fully fleshed out entities and the situations, be they taken from newspaper headlines or conjured in the writer's imagination, are seamlessly integrated into the constantly flowing plot. It's never easy to make a film where the lead character is a major league loser and Anurag deserves all credit for an experience that's almost constantly interesting; he even subverts Sarat Chandra's original deadbeat end for something more ambiguous. As director too, he succeeds brilliantly in creating a unique visual and sound palette. Some of the scenes of Dev's drugs n' booze orgies find obvious inspiration in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting , but they work quite well in the context. Both music and sound effects have been handled with a level of thought and detail that set an immensely high new standard for Bollywood and one hopes against hope that other movie-makers will take some clue from this.
Abhay Deol as the titular DevD he shows that he is one of the most daring actors in the Hindi film business today. Embracing all the flaws and essential assholery of the character and still maintaining a degree of audience empathy would be an indisputably tough endeavor but he manages it with skill. This film, Manorama Six Feet Under and Oye Lucky... have made for a shining showcase for Abhay and I wish him more power.
An ambitious venture like this is not without its flaws. The humor in the film's initial part can be quite annoying, the nightclub song breaks occur far too often, and the running time could also have been significantly crisper. But on the whole Dev D is a plucky and audacious piece that easily transcends its little failings to be one of the best Indian films of recent history.