Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas turned 100 last year. But for Indian filmmakers who have adapted it numerous times in seven languages over the last nine decades, the novel still remains young. Sudhir Mishra’s Daas Dev is its 17th version.
Mishra himself has, in fact, referenced the film before. In his 2007 drama Khoya Khoya Chand, an Urdu novelist (Shiney Ahuja) meets a Bollywood star (Rajat Kapoor) to discuss the script of his latest film. “I feel it’s lifted from Devdas,” the writer says. “I wasn’t convinced by the moping and dejected Chandramukhi. She should have told this to Devdas at least once, ‘You know why you hate your dad so much? It’s because you see him in you.’”
In Daas Dev, the father isn’t alive for the son to hate. Quite early in the film, Dev’s father, Vishambhar Pratap Singh (Anurag Kashyap), the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, gives a fiery speech in a hamlet, makes promises and threats, and gets into a helicopter, which explodes mid-air. Dev grows up to become an alcoholic, a heroin-addict and a bar-brawler, a wayward son of a principled father.
Dev’s (Rahul Bhat) life needs fixing – in ways more than one. Chandni (Aditi Rao Hyadri), a political fixer, weans him off drugs and brings him back to power. But she, also the film’s narrator, tells us, “You can fix everything but love”, echoing a character from Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Vikram (Ahuja), another fixer who failed to seal his ultimate deal. But unlike Chandni, Paro (Richa Chadha), the daughter of Vishambhar’s secretary, wants Dev to help himself. Mishra is fascinated by the roles of fathers, but it is Paro’s insistence – her unwillingness to mother Dev – that greases the wheels of this drama.
Mishra sets up the film well, accurately capturing the theatre of hinterland politics. Juggling multiple characters and subplots, the storytelling here is marked with impressive economy. The motivations of different characters are rendered in fine detail; the stakes clearly defined. The elements from Hamlet – personal ambition upsetting the familial accord – heighten the drama further.
Daas Dev’s material looks confident enough to stand on its own. But instead of letting it find its own way, Mishra gives it crutches. After a point, many potential poignant scenes hide behind abrupt songs – as if this film is scared of silences. They, thus, forbid the film to come close to us. You want to get inside Dev’s head; instead you get a loud Atif Aslam number. You want the film to unsettle you; instead the songs do just the opposite, taking the edge off vital scenes. It also doesn’t help that the songs are neither ingenuously composed nor imaginatively filmed, imbuing the film with a dated aesthetic.
This seems like a strange directorial choice in 2018, when even mainstream Hindi filmmakers have learnt to restrain the use of songs. They still remain a great narrative device. Kashyap’s contemporary retelling of Devdas, Dev D., had 17 of them. They can liberate a story, help convey what the dialogues cannot. But in Daas Dev, they suffocate the film.
Besides, there’s considerable tension between the film’s storytelling modes: a part of it, voiced by Chandni that comprises both the details of the story and her feelings, wants to be a character-driven drama; the other, intertwining a family’s personal with political, wants to be plot-driven. This dichotomous approach also makes us react to the film’s protagonists differently.
We’re instantly drawn to Chandni, to her fear, vulnerability and ruthlessness. Hydari, a wonderful actor, plays this role with the finesse of a ballerina doing a tightrope walk. Dev and Paro, on the other hand, the players enacting Chandni’s moves, look far less intimate. We want a slice of their heads and hearts; we want to know them as individuals and lovers, but Mishra, for the most part, denies us that access. Their relationship in the film’s setting, where political back dealing drowns out everything else, lacks the apposite fire and madness.
But more disappointingly, Daas Dev lacks a voice. It seems content in providing a panoramic account of the state’s political landscape, its most powerful family and the dynamics among its members. But stories aren’t unique; people are. Daas Dev shows us the stage, the play – the entire then-this-happens-and-then-that-happens scheme of things – but we long for the backstage chaos, the elements that are unique to a production. The film finally finds its authorial stamp in scenes of dark humour, which, besides being absurdly funny, also tell a story of hinterland desperation and depravity. Daas Dev has enough of Chatterjee and Shakespeare; it could have done with some vintage Mishra, too.