Dir. Anurag Kashyap
(2009, Not Rated, 137 min)

When Dev.D starts it seems to be about one thing, but as it develops it reveals itself to be something different, and that’s what I like about it – its gradual progress from something clear and familiar to something unexpected, and how that progress feels natural and not like a bait-and-switch. A young Indian man, Dev (Abhay Deol), sent away from home when he was a boy, returns from his schooling in London with his love of Paro (Mahie Gill) undiminished since childhood. Standing in the way of their romance are the usual obstacles: class difference (her family is employed by his) and a terrible misunderstanding (a jealous lout claims to have had sex with Paro, and Dev believes him).

At that point I started to worry. It seems at first that we are meant to root for the young lovers to overcome their obstacles and come together, except there’s one more obstacle the audience simply can’t overlook: Dev is a jerk. He is much too quick to believe a nasty, unsubstantiated rumor about the woman he supposedly loves, and he believes it so completely that he cruelly demeans her, slapping her and calling her a slut before declaring her beneath him and not worth his trouble. Most movie romances can survive a misunderstanding like this one, but Dev’s behavior makes our sympathy impossible. It’s not she who is beneath him but the other way around.

But that’s just the thing. Dev.D is not primarily a film about romance. It’s a film about the slow, sad decline of a hypocrite, because, as we soon discover, Dev is not only a jerk but a burgeoning alcoholic and drug addict. Deservedly spurned, Dev travels to Delhi to lick his wounds.

The film expands its theme of male moral hypocrisy beyond Dev when the story transitions to Delhi and introduces another female character subject to sexual double standards: Leni (Kalki Koechlin), a seventeen-year-old girl who makes a foolish decision to let an older man film her performing a sex act. He distributes the video far and wide and she becomes a pariah in her school and even at home, where her father’s final reaction to her indiscretion is evidence more of male weakness than female weakness.

Kalki Koechlin, as Leni/Chanda

Cast out from her home and rebelling against the sexual mores that made her an outcast, Leni assumes the name Chanda and becomes a prostitute. That’s how she meets Dev for the first time. She is a professional of high demand, but he stumbles into her parlor so drunk he doesn’t remember anything the next morning. It’s not clear whether they have sex that first night, but it doesn’t seem so. “Why bother?” she must have thought.

Though she’s emotionally scarred, it’s still hard to believe that Chanda would develop any affection for him, but Koechlin and director Anurag Kashyap play it deftly; though Chanda develops strong feelings for him, she maintains an aloofness and self-control. She’s stronger than he is and she knows it, so she always seems to have the upper hand even when he thinks he does. He pays for her company, but she has the power.

Chanda is the film’s most interesting character, and perhaps an even better film might have been made just about her. She’s a woman of complex motivations and impulses, driven to her current lifestyle by the rejection of her family but never a victim. At times she reminded me of the title character of the UK series Secret Diary of a Call Girl, in which the world’s oldest profession is depicted not as evidence of psychological damage but as a choice like any other, made by a woman with a good head on her shoulders despite her history.

I won’t reveal the ending, but it doesn’t jibe. This is not a story that leads naturally to such a conclusion, but the screenplay seems to insist on it at the last minute as if insecure about the audience’s reaction. Since viewing the film I’ve learned that the source material, the 1917 novel Devdas, ends the way I expected this film to, and that the revised ending is intended to reflect changing cultural values and the resilience of modern youth. That might have been an interesting approach to the story, but doesn’t work when applied just to the ending, because at a certain point the story, as it has been presented here, stops being about recovering from lost love and becomes about slowly dying from addiction, and that’s the point the film misses. Compare it to a similarly themed American film, Leaving Las Vegas, for a better idea of the likelier outcome to a story such as this, regardless of the era in which it takes place.

But the awkward ending is not enough to sink the entire film, which is dark and intriguing, with good photography by Rajeev Ravi, who uses high contrast to emphasize the garish neon-lit miasma of the big city. Dev goes there to recover from his broken heart, but instead he breaks everything else.