Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Dev D and other Angry Young Men
I saw Anurag Kashyap's Dev D last weekend. It's a very good film, though not, I think, the masterpiece some people are making it out to be. While it departs substantially, and refreshingly, from previous cinematic adaptations, it cannot overcome the central flaw in the novel as well as its many film versions: the weakness of the main figure.
If Dilip Kumar couldn't make Devdas a believable and interesting character, there's no way Abhay Deol was going to come close. Unfortunately for Deol, this performance is a step backward from Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye. He plays a rich industrialist's son possessed of an urge to destroy himself and everybody close to him. There is no reason for him to be like that, it's just the way he is. His emotions, then, seem in excess of the facts of his cushy life. I've written about such excess previously, in connection with Picasso's paintings and Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Playing Kashyap's Dev convincingly was a matter of conveying an inner intensity partly masked by outward cool. Deol manages the cool (though not as effortlessly as he did with Lucky), but largely forgoes the intensity. It's a difficult thing to convey, that inner anger which exists for no clear reason. Jack Nicholson did it consistently in the seventies, before beginning to ham it up in the next decade. He went from being a volcano ready to explode, to one spewing lava and gas everywhere. Amitabh Bachchan, too, had that power, although in his case script writers usually provided enough motivation for characters he played to feel the way they did.
When a character does plumb those depths of anger or anguish, he can become a proxy for the feelings of an entire generation, precisely because there isn't enough in his individual tale to justify his emotions or actions. This is true of Jimmy Porter from John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, and of many iconic angry young men in the half century since Osborne's play was performed.
The main victims of the anger of these young men, it should be mentioned, are frequently lovers who've done little to deserve it. We have Hamlet and Ophelia, Jimmy Porter and Alison, Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea and Karen Black's Rayette Dipesto in Five Easy Pieces, and Dev and Paro.
Kashyap's film left me with many questions: what if Abhay Deol had, miraculously, made Dev's actions credible through the force of his acting? Would he have become an iconic figure in the manner of the predecessors I've mentioned? Or would the fact that he plays such an affluent character have disqualified him? Is there the kind of generational anger in India now that there was in the seventies?