Director: Sudhir Mishra
Cast: Rahul Bhat, Richa Chadda, Aditi Rao Hydari, Saurabh Shukla, Vineet Kumar Singh, Dalip Tahil, Vipin Sharma, Deepraj Rana, Sohaila Kapur, Anurag Kashyap
Daas Dev, a film Sudhir Mishra has directed and co-written (screenplay and dialogue), reimagines the story of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas with some Hamletian angst that doesn’t sit easy with it.
It is set in the Hindi cow belt, complete with its cynical, malevolent, capricious politics built around land, farmers, caste, familial fidelity and treachery.
Its writing is interesting, casting inspired, and Aditi Rao Hydari has a meaty, exciting role that she gently digs her manicured nails into and then makes it her own.
Problem is that while Mishra always piques interest — primarily because two of his films, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin and Hazaroon Khwaishein Aisi, are still very special — these days he also disappoints. And Daas Dev is no exception. It’s a film that is made and gets unmade by small things.
Daas Dev is a film that’s in two minds. While Mishra wants Daas Dev to have the punch that Tigmanshu Dhulia and Anurag Kashyap’s very masculine, dehat films have, he neither has the skill nor the commitment to see big dramatic scenes or characters through.
Though he picks scenes with dramatic potential, scenes that are the staple of commercial, mainstream films as the main plot points — an intense carnal encounter, or a crazy shooting with an insane body count, for example — he loses interest all too soon, and his film saunters away from the crime scene, literally, with a hunchbacked reminder to self to stay true to realistic, artsy cinema.
Mishra’s Daas Dev tries to impersonates commercial cinema for dramatic power, but then has an anxiety attack about being too melodramatic. And so, with some self-loathing, disowns his own doing. Kashyap makes a special appearance in Daas Dev.
He should have stayed on a bit longer, if only to muzzle Mishra during dramatic scenes, releasing his mouth to say ’’cut’’ only when it was actually time to shout “cut!’’
Daas Dev opens in Uttar Pradesh in 1997 where, in a place called Jahana, Vishambar Pratap (Anurag Kashyap), a charismatic, young politician, is delivering a rousing speech to farmers about their rights, and throwing promises to protect their land.
His younger brother Avdesh Pratap is sitting behind him, having been anointed the political heir apparent in bade bhaiyya’s Janata Kalyan Party.
Vishambar’s little son Dev and his bestie Paro are also quickly introduced to establish the following: He’s wayward, she’s mildly sententious, and they are forever entwined.
All this while a husky voiceover has been saying seemingly insightful but awfully pretentious things about power, ishq and the Devs (lords) of the world having little daases (servants) inside them.
All too soon tragedy strikes, and the film takes a 20-year jump. The setting and the game remain the same, as do the main players. Only the young one, now all grown up, join them.
Daas Dev is more interested in telling us the story of power, than the story of ishq. It spends a lot of time showing us how men and women cultivate, groom and maintain power for the heady joy of flexing it.
And when power games are played in the political arena, then voters, money from corporates, friendships and rivalries are nothing more than necessary tools to grab and retain power. Inside this sits the story of Dev babu, Paro and Chandramukhi with some nice, some strange twists.
The film follows the trajectory of the original, more or less. Dev (Rahul Bhat), a spoilt rich man, is an alcoholic, a drug addict in love with Paro (Richa Chadda). “Socialist politician ki non-socialist aulad’’, the voiceover informs us as Dev is being taken at gunpoint by one Chadha he owes money to.
Because his Chacha Avdesh (Saurabh Shukla) has had a stroke, this incident brings to the fore SK, short for Srikant (Dalip Tahil), a wheeler-dealer, and Chandni (Aditi Rao Hydari), his sizzling-hot all-purpose fixer.
“I’m the Chandramukhi of this story,” Chandni says. It’s her voice that’s been instructing us about how the game of power and love must be played.
The other players in this game, apart from ones we have already met are, Ram Ashray Shukla (Vipin Sharma) of the rival Sabjan Kalyan Party, his bhatija Milan Shukla (Vineet Kumar Singh), Dev’s mother Sushila (Sohaila Kapur), Paro’s father Naval Singh (Anil George), a significant minion of his family who the has support of farmers, and Prabhu Nath Singh (Deepraj Rana), Avdesh and his party’s hitman.
Chandni is assigned to fix Dev as only she can. Soon he’s clean, slowly taking on the reins of the party and shining on newspaper pages with the blessed hands of the rich and important on his back.
But just as the film is heading towards the point where it needed a tragic-dramatic twist that changes the course of all lives, it starts to stutter. Too much happens, and most of it is either incoherent or plain silly.
There are bizarre, needless twists — like Paro suddenly transitioning into Ophelia with shades of Lady Macbeth — and some hasty, incomplete scenes, as if hustling us and the film along will make us miss how convoluted it all is.
There’s talk of a tape, an old raaz, Chacha Avdesh and Sushila’s ambiguous relationship is suddenly centrestage, and Daas Dev becomes a hapless victim of its own intrigue.
In between all this are some laugh-out-loud stupidities, including one where a character gets shot at point-blank range, but then stands straight and walks to a car rather coolly.
While in some parts of the film Sudhir Mishra manages to bring out the flavour of UP with some spunky dialoguebaazi and scenes, and some of his characters are an interesting mix of stuff that’s imagined and inspired from real life, keeping us busy at guessing who is who, there is a stilted feel to some scenes and characters — as if we’ve seen it all before.
Many of Mishra’s big scenes and characters follow their filmy predecessors to a T, which is strange because he’s been a trailblazer himself.
Luckily, Mishra has assigned most of his characters to talented actors, and together they simulate an interesting rustic, trigger-happy world with the ease of men in their traditional setting. They bring a filmy dehat-Western feel to Daas Dev that Rahul Bhat and Richa Chadda repeatedly shatter.
Chadda, surprisingly, is mostly average, at times bad. At times it felt like Bhatt has some rough, interesting edges that could have been exploited. At others he was totally out of his depth and resorting to Amitabh Bachchan’s famous hamming tricks.
Of all the Devdas movies Bollywood has treated us to, this one doesn’t romanticise that rather narcissistic, weak and stupid character much. Neither does it drool over the virginal beauty of Paro.
Instead, Mishra’s Daas Dev is riveted by Chandni. That could well be because she’s played by Hydari whose fragile beauty —unbelievable and fascinating — is cast in a role that is made up of many grey strokes. Despite her outwardly vulnerability, Ms Hydari makes her steely innards shine through often. This complicated combination is so delicious. And she serves it while throwing a Lolita pout at us.