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Love’s labour not lost

Dev. D eschews consumerist pleasures and fantasies to revel in the chic of urban decay, but examines the pleasures of the body to be found in drugs and sex before celebrating the romantic view of sexual love as a way of defining one’s self and identity, writes Rachel Dwyer.

india Updated: Mar 09, 2009 21:45 IST

Hindi films may not have the happy endings often ascribed to them, but they do usually suggest ways out of leading lives of misery and boredom. Yet the story of Devdas, one of the enduring myths of 20th century India, is one of its saddest. It depicts the failed formation of the modern notion of the romantic and erotic couple who come together in the hope of finding kindness, friendship, self-knowledge, and sexual and personal fulfilment.

The story of Devdas, taken from Saratchandra Chatterjee’s eponymous Bengali novel (1917) has been made into numerous films from the earliest days of Indian cinema. The major re-tellings are the two Hindi film versions, namely P.C. Barua’s for New Theatres in 1935, starring K.L. Saigal, and Bimal Roy’s 1955 movie — which are close in spirit to the novel — while Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 film, the version best known to younger audiences, portrays a hysterical, rather than a failed, masculinity and does not show us why this myth has been so popular.

The core of the story of Devdas is the absence of a mature sexuality and the failure to love. Devdas clings on to his childhood myth of love while he rejects the adult love that he is offered by both Paro and Chandramukhi, even striking Paro in a typical act of impotence. His failure punishes the two women as Paro remains a virgin even after marriage (there is an ambiguity about her night time visit to Devdas’ room although no direct reference is made to any sexual activity) while Chandramukhi, whom he abuses verbally with his words of revulsion rather than desire, retires to live alone, a reformed courtesan.

Devdas converts the desiring woman into a maternal woman as they both come to tend to him in sickness, indulging him like a naughty child. Yet the purity of their love for him is not questioned as Paro has an almost religious devotion to him, seen clearly in Bimal Roy’s film where her lighting of the lamp as he returns is edited to imply she is worshipping him, further emphasised by Vaishnava songs of love and passion. Devdas’ one act of heroism, after he has become an alcoholic and contracted tuberculosis, then viewed as an illness with moral attributes, is to keep his promise to return to die at her house. The characters fail to stand up to society’s pressures, while their own personal character defects of pride and ineffectual behaviour ruin their lives as they are destroyed by themselves, their families and society. The melodrama of Devdas is a serious critique of marriage, masculinity, sexuality and romantic love.

Anurag Kashyap’s latest re-working of the myth of Devdas, Dev. D, is a more contemporary, but arguably more romantic, version. Although referring more directly to the 2002 film, it keeps many elements of the original story — including the names of characters and the journey from village to city and around India as a search for oneself, though here it’s Punjab and Delhi rather than Bengal and Calcutta.

Abhay Deol’s raw vulnerability makes Dev, as the earlier Devdases, represent the anxieties of a generation, as a contemporary version of the alcoholic, self-destructive and self-obsessed romantic hero. Although given less psychological history than Devdas, Dev is looking for romantic and erotic love, driven by the seeming absence of affection in his childhood. Although the physical pleasures of drugs are brought alive by the film’s style in the manner of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (hence the opening tribute), their possibilities to impart insights and self-knowledge are not explored.

All Hindi films depict eroticism and sexuality, often in their song and dance sequences, albeit in a heavily encoded manner. Although the language of love of Hindi films is mostly conventional in the songs of Dev. D (the notable exception being ‘Emotional Atyachar’), Dev. D has shocked and delighted many in its unusually explicit references to sex and sexuality, whether mediated as cyber sex, erotic images, fellatio and videos or as directly physical relations. However, sexual relations remain problematic rather than fulfilling and the film retains the romantic quest for the formation of the couple to find love and intimacy, not only through the sexual body and through conversation but also through daily living and sharing.

Paro has a great intimacy with Dev, is able to express her sexual desire, which he rejects, but which her pragmatism later transforms into a quasi-maternal love shown by cleaning his room, marking the end of any possible sexual relationship. Chanda, whose sexual exploits drove her father to suicide and alienated her mother, now sells them as a prostitute. Her intimacy with Dev makes for the most tender moments in the film, as they understand their mutual need for a supportive, forgiving love, marking a new relationship.

Dev. D, unlike most Hindi films today, eschews consumerist pleasures and fantasies (apart from the luxury car for Dev’s symbolic journey) to revel in the chic of urban decay, but examines the pleasures of the body to be found in drugs and sex before celebrating the romantic view of sexual love as a way of defining one’s self and identity. Like the romantic Hindi film, Dev. D focuses on friendship, intimacy and sexual fulfilment, showing possible redemption through love: the recognition of another person’s humanity being as important as one’s own. Dev. D also shows a truth about happiness, namely that it is not about getting what you think you want but finding out what you need and learning how to deal with it. Dev. D at last goes some way to giving Devdas a happy ending.

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London.