Monday, February 16, 2009

The Crisis of Dev D

The unabated euphoria about Dev D represents a crisis. I am inclined to see it as a crisis of popular taste, but it might actually be a crisis of popular opinion. What is it that makes rabid critics of No Smoking turn around and declare Anurag Kashyap a rebel hero this time around? Why are otherwise intelligent people vouching for Dev D’s radical cult status?

It was early in my school years that I learnt a hard lesson. If someone shouts a fiction loud enough and long enough, it becomes a truth. And so Abhay Deol is a brilliant actor, Dev D is about female empowerment, Farhan Akhtar can sing, Manorama represents multiplex avant garde, and Slumdog Millionaire is Bollywood’s vindication. What might this mean? Is anybody watching? Is anybody thinking?

Here are a couple of things that didn’t work for me in Dev D:

  1. Emotional confusion: The director seemed torn between two impulses – the designer tragic impulse wherein we see Dev walking through a perpetual booze haze, where Paro has to roll up her mattress and lug it back home on a misty morning, where Leni is hounded by the echoing jeers of her contemporaries; and the bawdy comic impulse. The real tragedy is that the latter wins. Every moment that could aspire to genuine drama is undercut by the bawdy. For example, in a scene where Dev is ostensibly getting worked up by Sunny’s slander of Paro, the audience is too busy laughing at lines like “Tune uski li nahi?” to care.

  1. Style is not substance: For style to actually take off in a movie it needs to be either married to the context/content or it needs to be breathtaking enough to warrant no excuse. The Punjab sequences look like a Yashraj film with a seriously watered-down budget. To be fair, the Paharganj exteriors definitely look interesting, with neon signs and hoardings that transform it into a fantasy space. But the interiors are overdone kitsch. I thoroughly enjoyed Jesse Randhawa’s jazz number in No Smoking, but that kind of disjointed uber-stylish dance sequence is something you can only pull off once. The second time around I want it to be more than a gimmick.

  1. Poor screenwriting and ‘painful’ dialogue: It seems as if Kashyap & buddies wrote this film as a high school annual day spoof, and at an all-boys boarding school at that. Within that limited context, Dev D is radical, it pushes the limits of propriety and challenges convention. If you’re looking for juvenile jokes on sex and female sexuality, this should be your pick of the week. Here is what a Tehelka reviewer describes as “one of the film's best lines”: "London ja ke tera taste kharaab ho gaya hai: whiskey chhodke vodka peeta hai, asli auraton ko chhodke sookhi-sookhi lakdiyon ke pichche bhaagta hai." Here is a film that aspires to the status of a cult take on the urban contemporary but is sadly just a collection of wisecracks. I’ll give you another example. In a shot reminiscent of Wong Karwai’s 2046, Dev and Leni stand outside in her balcony, the glow from the hotel sign lighting up their faces… And she says: “When you are in pain, you should talk.” And he says, “What do you know about pain.” End of scene. Painfully delivered lines, they stun you with their sheer emptiness of imagination or emotion. Almost always in bad dialogue the characters talk directly to each other for the sake of one very lazy person: you.

  1. Female empowerment? The same Tehelka reviewer goes on to applaud the film for creating a character like Paro, “an unapologetically passionate woman who gives as good as she gets.” The TOI review announces that the film “might just go down in history as one of the most radical Indian films, at least in its delineation of male and female sexuality.” Obviously some of us have very low expectations from Indian films and Indian attitudes. Anurag Kashyap has consistently had trouble with writing female characters. Starting with the jinxed Paanch, his women are imbued with sexual edginess but little else. The women in Dev D are unabashed about desire, but the comic impulse reigns supreme and we’re often invited to laugh at their most vulnerable moments. Sitting in a crowded theatre in Delhi, I noticed that the crowd laughed loudest when Leni calls herself a “slut” or when Dev sarcastically asks Paro to go back and “ride her old man.” Kashyap has lavished care on the atmospherics, the physical spaces where we see his female characters, but he neglects to create an inner space for these women. Dev gains understanding of Leni’s troubled present and traumatic past only through the dramatically flat device of a diary. We see the women much as Dev would, with his puerile approach to women in which ignorance is confused with loathing, loathing with lust. Sorry, this is not about female empowerment. This in fact reinforces a particular strain of misogyny which fixes women as oversexed, wont to inflict emotional atyachar when dissatisfied. The song, though fantastic, is actually about sexual atyachar. No wonder then, that Dev is a bechara, a victim of female sexuality as much as he is a victim of urban ennui or whatever.

  1. What is Dev’s problem? A modern re-telling of a classic, possibly overrated story, must be able to justify the renewed effort. What does Dev D mean today? Is he symptomatic of a disaffected generation? Does he represent the poor little rich boy ruined by indulgent parents into complete amorality? Is he just an immature boy looking to grow up? The film doesn’t venture into this discussion. All we are given is a series of elaborate sets and cinematic shots of substance abuse, which add up to nothing. A canny critic might read that as a comment in itself. But that would be chicanery.

  1. This film is not about love: In a recent interview in the Times of India, Kashyap says “…at the heart of it, 'Dev D' is a pure emotional love story, a fact that people are acknowledging as they are coming out from the screening.” What?? Where in the name of Devdas, is love in this film? At no point is one able to connect with the characters, and the blame lies squarely with the screenplay and characterization. Apart from the opening sequences with Paro (brilliantly played by Mahi Gill), one does not engage with the characters at more than a superficial level. The film banks on our prior knowledge of the Devdas plot to spin a yarn which overindulges in the sheer contemporariness of the new avatars. Newness maketh not for dramatic tension, and swiftly doth it fade.

Godard once said that all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun. Dev D has two girls and alcohol could substitute for the gun. But Godard also said that “style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can't be separated.” Dev D could have been an interesting film and we know that Anurag might have been our best bet to pull it off. He surprised us with the audacity of No Smoking and I am glad he finally has a hit. But this is not just about Dev D. This is about the larger malaise that has settled in new cinemas from Bombay and new writings about it. The obsession with ‘cool,’ the privileging of mediocrity, the utter disregard for a story well told; these are signs of a minor crisis. It is incumbent upon us, the viewers/reviewers, to respond to this moment with our eyes wide open and our words well spent.


  1. may be films work the way books do. somebody's classic is somebody else's shit. may be it is about life the elephant and we the blind men and women.

    I agree about the holy poop shit about films ranging from 'rock on' to 'johnny gaddar'. But, Dev D did touch quite a few chords. Rewinding to a couple of scenes in 'life' reminds me that when you tell some thing like "when you are in pain, you should talk", you hardly ever get a reply. May be you may not even mouth those lines. 'Cause life isnt penned by a pretty good scriptwriter. Our lines are often bawdy, most often we dont even have the lines.
    and, as for female empowerment and similar stuff, I don't think the director ever was aiming at anything like that[might have had well thought aspirations though]. Until we have a brilliant woman director who can film a beautiful story...may be till then we might have to wait.
    As for what is Dev's problem, what was Dr.Zhivago's problem?What is each of our problem?
    For me one of the interesting moments in the film was when dev and chanda have momos with a background sign saying 'rahul'.For references like that, for splitting open 'love' in a way hindi cinema hasn't often seen-may be Dev D is worth for stuff like that.But of course for those who think life is an elephant trunk. For the ones who swear by the tusks, may be there is another film

  2. hi f,
    thanks for taking the time to respond. Yes, there are moments in the film that i thoroughly enjoyed as well. For me, the point is not what can we salvage from a film. The point is rather, why is Bombay producing so many films that we have to salvage.
    about dialogue: exactly! dialogue in a film doesn't work precisely when it seems either too well-written or too awkward. in life, we communicate using gestures, silences, half-finished sentences.. successful drama uses this observation and doesn't rely on trite phrases.

  3. I agree agree agree.
    I was trying very hard to explain why I feel the film doesn't quite add up. Because Kashyap has a sure feel for cinematic material, but something's missing. Dev D never really comes to life, and I was happy to see you suggest why, so categorically.
    I still think the character of the young prostitute is 'interesting' - its the only vaguely memorable creation of the film beyond the witty lines. I dont know what about her is interesting though. Thats the other thing about the movie; it luxuriates in its own quirkiness way too much.

  4. Hi Irma Vep,

    Thanks for articulating almost everything that I have been screaming over the rooftops, and was too lazy to write. Each time there has been a discussion about the film, the one thing I have heard repeatedly is how Paro/Chanda's characters are so "interesting"; how they don't fit into the sterotypical notions of Hindi film heroines. While there is the performance of their coolness/difference (or call it what you will!), it remains only that - PERFORMANCE! As all tokenism goes, this one also adheres to all the tenets, so Female Empowerment = sexual desire. Its as if that's the only prism through which women can be different! So Paro while unabashed about her desire for Dev D in the earlier part of the film, is also the one who is bound to be the "tease"; that the only way she can get back at Dev D for all the hurt and pain he has caused her is by taking him to the brink of sex and then withdraw! And really, how is this a departure from anything??

    Which also leads me to my other question - does having "interesting" characters in a film necessarily mean its a good film? Anyway, that's my two paisa worth of comment!

  5. I agree with you. Its juvenile and plays on all the anxieties that plague our daily life. I think everything that Anurag Kashyap has made is better than this and No Smoking was his most complex film. But I didn't think Dev D had anything that could be called cinematic. It has a clunky screenplay, very poor dialogues and a flatness that is frustrating. The characters hardly emerge and there is absolutely no interiority that touches you. I think you have really managed to capture some of the insensitivity in the film. Its the most problematic part of the film.

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  7. Thank god that Anurag did not worry about his characters being laughed at. Each time the girls made a leap and were met with crude innuendo, you laughed and knew yourself as a crude person too.

    Each time Dev saw those women and misunderstood them, cried about the emotional atyachaar, we laughed at him and cried a little for the flawed understanding that makes him human.

    Thank god that in real life (many) people don't worry about whether it is empowering or not to tease. In relationships, you tease, are teased, you share and withdraw. The games are fun, there is fun. And few reviews.

  8. Let us also thank god for dialogue and disagreement.

  9. So I am one of those who really liked the film, Irma, and was directed to this discussion because I said so rather emphatically and more than once! Of course there is no such thing as an indisputably good film, but while there can be an undisputedly bad one, Dev D isn't it, clearly, given its surprising popularity.
    What I noticed about your review is that one of the main problems you have with the film is really about audience reaction - they laugh at the "wrong" moments (Point 1 and most of Point 4, e.g.). I think this "inappropriate" laughter says something significant about the anxiety produced by the film in its viewers. I did find it interesting, on comparing notes with many, that the laughter seemed to have erupted at the same "wrong" moments in theatres from Delite in old Delhi where I saw it to multiplexes. You note precisely the same points too. The laughter also sounded largely male, I would venture to add (based on the same casual note-comparing with other viewers.) Let's take one example you mention - the laughter that erupts at Dev's futile jibe, "Go ride your old man". How can that laughter be read except alongside the absolute silence at Paro's prompt retort - "Buddhe pe chadhne ki naubat nain aati", which is the real punchline of that dialogue.
    Remember that the pathetic line is all that Dev can come up with after Paro has effectively dumped him, having first cleaned up his seedy hotel room with impatient kindness and even permitted him to try f---ing her. He is an impotent rejected figure at that point, and the laughter at his jibe is premature, hopeful of his establishing the upper hand after all, and deeply anxious.
    I could point this out for every instance of laughter in the hall, that it erupts precisely at moments that have generated the greatest anxiety for masculine selves.
    You are of course entitled to think the screenplay doesn't work, and the dialogues are "painful", but that is a matter of opinion, and I don't agree. The particular dialogue about pain that irked you, I read as appropriate to the age and stage and experiences of the Leni character. A deeper understanding would in fact have been out of character for her. Of course, I do agree with you that the film is certainly not "about love" whatever Kashyap himself may say to be rendered legible in the mindless media.
    I dont think Kashyap (the film) suggests that emancipation for women is ONLY about sexual freedom. In this film about young people that is the angle he has chosen to highlight. In a Hazaron Khwaishein kind of film, the young people would be different, and that's a different film. Certainly the women in Dev D are not "emancipated" - one ends up in an arranged marriage (albeit with great sex), and the other turns out to be hankering for emosanal support after all. These are simply women shown to be exercising some limited degree of autonomy within familiar and unchanged structures of family that we all recognize. It is precisely because that autonomy is so circumscribed that it is moving and credible.
    I personally dont really care whether this film is or is not, as good as or better, than Kashyap's other films, although of course that is a legitimate concern for many.
    Ultimately what gives me hope and leaves me deeply puzzled equally, is what makes people go to see this film in such numbers as to make it a success, given the anxiety it evidently generates!

  10. I agree with you Nivedita that Dev D is not a film about love, but nor is it a movie about sexual 'freedom'. If it is, then I would say that Hindi Cinema is on a regression drive. There was far more sexual energy in Meena Kumari of Sahab, Biwi aur Ghulam, than our Paro here, but thats a different debate and lets not get into it at this point. I am far more curious to know how you understand 'emosanal support'? Do you think there is a difference between 'emotional support' and 'emosanal support'?

  11. Thanks Nivedita, for your time. I have several disagreements with your analysis.
    First, a film cannot be deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on the basis of “surprising popularity.” The question here is whether we are willing to acknowledge that there are indeed good films and bad. Once that acknowledgement is in place, we become responsible to think through our opinions and judgements. What are the parameters for evaluating a good film, a good painting or a good song? The popularity of a particular cultural work is an interesting phenomenon to study and that is exactly why I wrote about Dev D in the first place. But it is not a parameter for evaluation of artistic merit.

    Second, my interest in audience reaction does not arise from any righteous views about ‘appropriate’ laughter. I am principally interested in how stories are told and how through sheer craft (screenplay, dialogue, lighting, set design, acting) one can evoke certain affects. My curiousity about Dev D’s success led me to what seems to be the key mode of the film – humour. Which is why it is important to see at which points laughter is being evoked. Frankly, one does not need to do an audience survey from Old Delhi to the multiplex to figure which are the gag lines. Every ‘funny’ line is screaming for applause. If we have to quibble about it, let me say that in my 2 public viewings of the film, there was no ‘appropriate’ silence at the moments you mention. More importantly, I myself did not feel discomfited into an empathetic understanding of the female characters at these points.

    Third, your opinion about what ‘young people’ are like might be a little patronizing. Youth, class, gender or economic background do not predetermine responses to emotional situations. Which I why I cannot say as easily as you do what might or might not be “in character” for Leni or Dev or anybody else. Why must a young man invested in Maoist ideology [your Hazaron argument] respond to pain differently from a girl who has taken up sex work??

    Fourth, you seem to have misread my point about female empowerment completely. If you read my argument you will notice that I have tried to unravel the film’s couching of female desire within the framework of empowerment and tried show it up for what it is - misogyny. Arranged marriage and emotional support are non-issues for me. I definitely do not think that arranged marriage is an unqualified social evil where one can “end up.” Or that “hankering for emosanal support” is uncool. That’s like labeling Hamlet’s mother a slut for marrying the dead king’s brother. Within the social and cultural context of the play, it is a move that allows her status, power and a certain degree of freedom. The alternative would have been to join a ‘nunnery’ perhaps, in France. I personally hanker for emotional support from men, women, children and animals and am unabashed about it.

    Finally, I wish you had tried to articulate what it is about the film that you liked so much. I was provoked to write this article precisely because many people have “emphatically and more than once” praised the film without bothering to explain why exactly.

  12. Irma, you say:

    1. "a film cannot be deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on the basis of “surprising popularity.” The question here is whether we are willing to acknowledge that there are indeed good films and bad."

    I am not so willing to acknowledge. I dont believe you can invoke context-transcendent norms to establish that there are good films (or art) and bad, nor that you can separate 'popularity' from 'artistic merit' except by assuming the existence of such norms. Indeed we do have a responsibility to think through our opinions and judgements, and that's exactly what both you and I (and others on this discussion) are doing. The very conditions of possibility of a supposed contradiction between "art" and "popularity" are in question here. Let me clarify - we can and do invoke norms of taste and aesthetics, but we have to concede that those norms are located in specific perspectives. For me, a film that is "undisputedly" bad would have to have bombed at the box-office as well as turned the stomachs of discerning film critics. With Dev D it would seem this is not the case - in fact many of those who have loved the film are also "discerning film critics", I think.

    I made my interest in Dev D clear - I want to think about what comforted and what discomfited the audiences of a film that depicts some feisty young women as wanting (hetero)sex as much as men do, and this, without showing more skin than you can see in Connaught Place in summer.

    2."my interest in audience reaction does not arise from any righteous views about ‘appropriate’ laughter"

    I did not mean to suggest that YOU found the laughter inappropriate. Rather, it is I who found the laughter out of synch with the way the dialogues and situations were structured such that the laughter always erupted immediately before or after the punch-line or climax point it led up to. (Appropriateness here referred to the structure of the dialogue/scene rather than to moral or other norms)
    Moreover, I did in fact feel precisely what you say you did not - "an empathetic understanding of the female characters at these points". More importantly, the silence in the hall at the various points of climax suggested to me that this empathy was being generated in sections of the audience at least as much as was anxiety in other (or the same?) sections.

    3. "Third, your opinion about what ‘young people’ are like might be a little patronizing. Youth, class, gender or economic background do not predetermine responses to emotional situations"

    "Patronizing" in what sense Irma? I wrote about Kashyap's decision to focus on young people through the lens of sex and desire, as opposed to focusing on young people as say, politically involved in a radical movement. It was a descriptive statement about the film, not about "young people". If you're interested in a serious discussion, which is why I came in here, you will have to resist the temptation to impute motive. And of course none of the factors you mention "predetermine" responses, but surely there are no responses that are free of all location as such.

    If by "patronizing" you're referring to my saying that the pain dialogue was appropriate for the youth and life experience of the Leni character, I could equally see your condemnation of it as "bad dialogue" as patronising of the way a lot of people (young and old) talk. Have you never heard anyone say in situations of deep crisis, or even said yourself - "It would help you to talk" ?! People do talk in cliches particularly sometimes, when they are most moved. It is a form of being at a loss for words. Of course, Dev D's claiming greater knowledge of pain than Leni is funny and revealing of his deep narcissism, (THAT was patronising!) and that is why that is rather a good moment I thought.

    4. "Why must a young man invested in Maoist ideology [your Hazaron argument] respond to pain differently from a girl who has taken up sex work??"

    Hanh...? I have no idea what the point is that you think you are making here. But for the record, I dont think the two would ncessarily respond to pain differently, although I also believe that what might pain the one may not pain the other, since the two access reality from very specific locations (assuming just for convenience, that the Maoist ideologue is not also a sex-worker and the sex-worker not also a Maoist).

    5."Fourth, you seem to have misread my point about female empowerment completely. If you read my argument you will notice that I have tried to unravel the film’s couching of female desire within the framework of empowerment and tried show it up for what it is - misogyny. Arranged marriage and emotional support are non-issues for me."

    I did read your argument and read it right, it seems. I just dont agree with it! I saw no misogyny in the film. Arranged marriage and emotional support may be non-issues for you, but they are not for the kind of women characters portrayed in the film. It is a complete red herring to take off on the insistence that we all need emotional support - of course we do, but that is not the point of debate. There was a context in which I made that argument - I see the Leni character as having protected herself by resolutely denying the need for emotional support, and finding strength in being alone, but caving at the end, and tying herself to a man facing prosecution for manslaughter - "lawyer se milna hai" or something to that effect is the final dialogue, I think, of the film. But perhaps being someone else's strength is what she craved after all, and that, on second thoughts, is not necessarily non-emancipatory.

    [Anonymous - I was having fun with "emosanal atyachar" of course. Do YOU think there is a difference between emosanal support and emotional support...:)]

    6. "I personally hanker for emotional support from men, women, children and animals and am unabashed about it."

    Me too. Maybe we agree on something?

    7. "Finally, I wish you had tried to articulate what it is about the film that you liked so much."

    My entire response to your review was about what I liked about the film. But perhaps we are talking past each other entirely.

    Chalo, this was fun. See you around.

  13. Dev D may or may not be a bad movie but it is certainly not a good film. It is a good product that is making profit.
    that said i feel Anurag is a smart director. He has got a bit of everything in the movie; A lot of men 'identify ' with Dev's character and the rage it carries within.
    No where Paro or Chanda are shown to be truly independent of traditional ideas about women. A slave if allowed to keep a slave cant be called free!
    Just want to add here, its about time women empowerment is stopped being suggested by way of showing them riding bikes or like Paro 'giving it back to their men'.
    The film only reinforces accepted(or acceptable to largest majority) ideas about men/ women and thus breaks no new ground.
    many would say a film is not for studying but enjoying: to all who think this i'd say: start watching other/ good cinema and you'll realise how much you can enjoy and 'learn' without studying...

  14. Nivedita,

    I have been lurking on this blog for some days and have been provoked into writing a detailed response to your comments. I agree with much that Irma has already stated on this blog, but perhaps her short-hand technique is not explanatory enough:

    1.You say that the 'inappropriate' male laughter says something about the anxiety produced in the audience. This I would imagine is a dangerous case of imputing motive, something it seems you are loath to do. There is such a thing as rooting for a character in popular cinema however impotent or rejected a figure he may signify to some, and almost all audience sympathy/loyalties in Dev D lie with Dev. Whatever he says, people cheer. Whatever he does, people immediately understand/condone. This new Dev, distilled through the on-screen persona of Abhay Deol, comes from a certain tradition and in this case is hiply equipped (through an upgrade of atmosphere not plot) to win over the male factions of the audience if not evoke feelings of devotion among the women. Especially in this part of the world, reception of heroes by their audience is rarely passive-meditative; the mechanisms of empathy and captivation are less nuanced and more immediately, ecstatic in nature. Can we agree on this? So to second-guess anxious laughter and empathetic silence in different corners of a darkened auditorium while paying attention to details of plot, characterisation and mise-en-scene is an epic and honourable task no doubt, but one that can occasionally lead to erroneous judgements of both, would you agree?

    2. The temptation to 'read'/'project' ideas into the narratives of popular cinema is now a firmly established, addictive pastime for many of us who live in the warm afterglow of the Shimla conference but one must simultaneously recognize the fall outs of such an act. The most obvious being the tendency to imbue the popular with that which we want to see, that which we only faintly detect the trace of and yet are impatient to acknowledge, that which we exaggerate in our inferences and the narratives we bend in our mind to fit our predetermined theories. In short, the notion of the easy po-mo reading pivoted on interpretative enthusiasm(“I saw this and this, it’s clearly there.” “This is my opinion and that is yours…”).

    3. If this discussion is to be meaningful it has to move from the personal (I like this film/it worked for me/you are entitled to think the screenplay doesn't work) to the evaluative (this is a significant film because/this is a dangerous film because...). This is almost always tricky. Yet surely we cannot just have criteria based on intuition and circumstance. For example, you say that the 'pain' dialogue seems appropriate to you given the age-stage-experience of Leni's character. It is suspiciously easy to intuit the precise co ordinates of age-stage-experience of screen characters, easier still to justify a consequential link to unfolding action.This is usually pegged on a certain outmoded,linear,non-fluid reading in psychological realism used frequently in climactic(usually revelatory) moments in many films (e.g. he is a serial killer who keeps trophy panties because he was molested by his mother as a child). In short, cinematic characters are tricky shorthands and your line of interpretative reasoning could be dangerous.Let me explain. In the long run, almost all 'real life' people resort to cliches, 'bad dialogues', borrowed, overheard, improvised ineffective scraps of speech. Does this excuse uninspired dialogue in narrative writing? Does that really help us learn to create moments of dramatic epiphany on screen? You will, statistically speaking, always find someone in real life who corroborates in this convenient tangential way the writing of such a poorly-etched character and consequently, vindicate your use of such dialogue but is that enough? Often, good dialogue has little to do with real life( look at the tradition of Beckett-Pinter-Mametspeak).

    If I may suggest, dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustment of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, crossings of legs, the comfort of hair. When people communicate, they do so with their faces, their bodies, their timing, the objects at their disposal and the object denied. Sometimes, as you have mentioned in a slightly different context, people talk past each other entirely. This is what makes a complete conversation. Not the robotic exchange of information/platitudes without context;ineffectual attempts at aphoristic profundity for the benefit of what Irma calls a ‘lazy person,’ the audience member.

    4. You indicate that the degree of autonomy enjoyed by these women in Dev D is moving and credible because they do so within unchanged, circumscribed structures of family that we all recognize. Yet we never dwell with the characters on precisely these considerations, never reflect on choices made or regrets acknowledged. Everyone is, by and large, chuffed and unapologetic about the way they are in the film. Maybe, this is the true failing of Dev D: for a film replete with impetuous characters and impulsive energy, it is surprisingly shorn of the meditative fabric of regret. In the case of the women, this is inferred as 'emancipation' hinged solely on the notion of sexual freedom by 'discerning film critics'. In the case of our sympathy-osmotic male protagonist(armed with his twin aids of carefully culled drug imagery and blistering score), he is adjudged largely misunderstood and at the receiving end of female callousness. Even at the moments when he comes across as arbitrarily/excessively vicious, when he is most obviously pathetic(his cruelty to Paro on the balcony, his easy betrayals in the chicken farm,his increasingly aggressive rejection of Chanda, his rather blithe trampling of people on the street, never shown on screen, he is doing drugs you see). the film never attempts an alienation, distancing if you will, from its eponymous hero. Which is why, the audience only ever laughs WITH him and never AT him, though there are umpteen occasions when they could have done so. I am equally sure, that you, like me, valiantly tried to do so. This is why the notion of audience reception, the kinds of laughter generated, and Irma’s observation about the subsuming of the tragic impulse by the bawdy comic impulse are important areas of scrutiny. Interpreting silence, like you have attempted, is a task that requires a different sort of courage altogether.

    5. This interpretative flurry over what constitutes (dramatically) an 'emancipated' woman leads us to a larger crucial point. There is a fast emerging, cheap, durable new weapon in the Hindi film maker's arsenal: the writing of the 'strong' female character. Everyone has scrambled to write this because the cultural capital to be gained in such instances are immense. However, to do so imaginatively, sensitively or in an unsettling sort of way is indeed an onerous task. Yet, there are far too many apologists around for any of them to truly fail or be appraised at this task. Anurag is frequently accused of writing highly sexualised, fetishised female characters through an arguably chauvinistic lens (Paanch/No Smoking) so he tries his hand at female emancipation hinged on sex and desire in Dev D. Notice that there are no real scenes of love-making or an engagement with the female body except for the customary awkward grope-and-nuzzle staple we are used to. Even Jag Mundra, mogul of direct-to-video soft porn gems such as Night Eyes, LA Goddess, Sexual Malice, Monsoon has turned to "issue-based, female-oriented" films like Bawandar (Nandita Das-extended rape-fight for justice) and Provoked (Aishwariya Rai-domestic violence-lovemaking-fight for justice). It’s rare to be turned down funding in the industry when you have a script along these lines. These films seem always to do just enough to be accepted as radical yet not offend too many sensibilities along the way because in Hindi cinema, the bar is low and everything these days seems landmark. This has led to the formulation of the rather dubious category of the 'first-time-in-India' film which ignores altogether the artistic merits of a film and frames it exclusively through a deeply (ennobling, no doubt) nationalistic prism (e.g. the first time a gay romance has been shown sensitively; the first time a mainstream star has played a sex worker, that too without make up.)

    6. At the end of your first response you reiterate: "Ultimately what gives me hope and leaves me deeply puzzled equally, is what makes people go to see this film in such numbers as to make it a success, given the anxiety it evidently generates." You make a claim to be baffled at this obvious paradox because there is absolutely no doubt on your part that this film generates large amounts of anxiety? May I then suggest an alternative: this film creates no sense of unease at all. All it really does is give badly behaved boys a souped-up cinematic alibi to continue doing the same. This is the reaction that I have encountered. Almost all my extended questions fielded to those who have embraced this film has eventually led to the declaration that this film has unraveled something honest about the male psyche: this is how we are, somebody has finally had the balls to put it on screen in an 'honest'(I hear that often) way. It is then seen as an act of courage. Of course, you are free to read a besieged masculinity into these statements but I hope you see that you can come across as inadvertently supporting their arguments.

    7. It is interesting that you should dwell on anxiety. The film Luck by Chance released around the same time created a spiral of anxiety which led it to be rejected by audiences across the country. No puzzle there, just a bleak causality. In it, the central protagonist played by Farhan Akhtar is obviously ambitious, selfish and ruthlessly manipulative. Even the not so discerning critics see this. The film sees him plot his success by betraying those who love and support him and leaves him (crucially) unredeemed in the end. The female protagonist of the film played by Konkona SenSharma is in turns petty, insecure (the film opens with her justifying why she did a walk-on part in a film starring Aamir Khan), desperate (willing to sleep with a producer to get cast in his future ventures but more importantly, not unabashedly so), fussy, suspicious and eventually jilted by the one person she chooses to be most vulnerable with. Her spirit is broken at the end of the film but she is brimming with realizations. She is then the repository of true dramatic epiphanies for the audience. This, I proffer, is a layered character worthy of consideration and not a dodgy pamphlet for 'female emancipation' drawn hastily by a trend-conscious filmmaker with a wary eye on earning brownie points from hawkish pop-cultural readers. If anxiety need be considered in terms of audience reception, Luck By Chance unequivocally generates multiple versions of it. It failed at the box-office when word got around that there were no easy laughs to be had in spite of Rishi and Sanjay Kapoor's bumbling turn as a producer-director duo. At its core, Luck By Chance complicates the mechanisms of empathy because almost every character is allowed a moment to effectively justify his or her actions. The film maintains a frenetically consistent sense of ambivalence that coalesces as the narrative progresses and we know not whom to root for, thankfully.

    8. You spend considerable time elaborating how, on many occasions, the female characters in Dev D have the punchline but they are duly ignored because the laughter (predominantly male and premature) is too busy consolidating the male jibes. You read this as a sign of male anxiety. Yet, there is the possibility that often structures of joke sharing, especially those with punch lines, is crucial to most mechanisms of male-bonding to the point of excluding female participation. It really does not matter whether Paro has a line to top Dev's because it has been drowned. Germaine Greer elaborated on this phenomenon in her new article in the Guardian ('Beaten to the Punchline', 2nd March 2009). There is a reason why Paro's retorts and Chanda's bromide is met with silence and that reason seems unlikely to be anxiety in the case of Dev D. Repartee between men and women in Bombay cinema, especially the kind laden with innuendo, is rarely framed or received on an equal footing. Women, however brimming they are with sexual badinage are rarely seen as castrating. The tongue of filth only serves to add frisson to the encounter whose outcome is prematurely decided, especially in the case of Dev who works hard at his performative brand of apathy. If Dev were to perform being affected by her retort a window of possibility might open up for the audience to reflect on her statement. DEV D ensures that no such moment exists.

    9. It all boils down to what your expectations are from the cinema. You say, that there are no context-transcendent norms to establish that there are good films and bad. I agree, but this leaves a space more amorphous than necessary. To begin with, let us establish a set of principles for artistic merit, at the very least, culled from an Aesthetics101 class: Beauty (a central notion from the philosophy of aesthetics which relates to how an art work can ‘transform’ reality), Strangeness (a quality which adds to the usual concept of originality, the magical, unpredictable and unknowable), Uniformity of Form and Content (the manner in which form and subject are fused together), Tradition (how the art work relates and responds to prior art), and Repeatability (how well an art work stands the test of time) and of course,Politics-Morality-Ethics. I have deliberately tried to avoid location-specific perspectives in order to create a context that attempts, feebly enough, to be generous in its circumscription.
    This might stand as a sometimes confounding but occasionally useful map for film scrutiny. This is because I found your rationalisation that for a film to have heft it need either be accepted by critics or at the box-office deeply problematic. There are countless examples of films (not just cult) that have significance in spite of being rejected commercially and by critics(Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Antar Mahal etc). Also, I am surprised to note that you seem delightfully unaware that many critics and their reviews are now a cog in the elaborate publicity campaigns of Bombay films, big and small. (Notice, the full-page advertisements for films replete with box-office statistics, review quotes and star ratings. There is an extended industry rumour that stars - in reviews, not in films - are for sale these days.)

    10. While we are at it, could you be so kind as to explain what really transpired in that 'Paro handpump' scene. How did you think through it? I am a little bit lost about that one.

  15. chal ghanta ghar??? :-)