Sudhir Mishra’s first film in five years claims to be a cross between Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novella Devdas and William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. To these texts with tragic heroes in common, Mishra attempts to add a further layer in the opening credits: he claims inspiration from his grandfather, two-time Madhya Pradesh chief minister Dwarka Prasad Mishra, and cites his movie’s central character as the kind of person he might have turned out to be. There is also the shadow of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), in which Mishra memorably explored the intersection of personal values and political beliefs.
Few films can survive the weight of so much loftiness and ambition. Daas Dev goes off the rails in its opening scenes and fails to return to course. There are nearly as many characters here as the latest Avengers movie (which has been released on the same day), all of whom are chasing power at all costs in Uttar Pradesh.
The anti-hero’s journey is viewed in reverse, or something like it. Dev (Rahul Bhat) is already an alcoholic when we meet him, the “non-Socialist son of a Socialist leader” (a nice line, and one of the few good ones). Egged on by his politician uncle Awdhesh (Saurabh Shukla) and with the support of powerbroker Sahay (Dalip Tahil) and his mistress Chandni (Aditi Rao Hydari), Dev manages to clean up his act enough to campaign for a crucial election.
Meanwhile, Dev’s childhood sweetheart Paro (Richa Chadha), whose father (Anil George) works for Awdhesh, begins to pursue her own political goals. There is some business about bauxite mining leases, faming land being sold for a song, general skullduggery in the countryside, and dark murmuring about the mysterious death of Dev’s father Bhishambhar (Anurag Kashyap, a nod to Kashyap’s Devdas version Dev.D).
Filmed with extreme close-ups and canted angle shots and featuring a gallery of venal characters that would make Ram Gopal Varma proud, Daas Dev trundles on for 140 merciless minutes. There is an interesting observation in the screenplay by Mishra and Jaydeep Sarkar about political dynasties that pursue power at all costs and push forward unsuitable candidates even if they are incapable of ruling, but it’s buried deep within an inchoate and uninvolving screenplay. Some of the performances stick even if the characters make little sense, such as Aditi Rao Hydari’s fixer, who uses her smartphone to place orders for mayhem and murder, Saurabh Shukla as the corrupt politician, and Anil George as Paro’s hapless father.
The central question of why the two women cling limpet-like to Dev is never answered – though they do allow for some songs and gratuitous love-making moments. Although Chandni and Paro are supposed to be intelligent and independent-minded women, their love for Dev beggars belief, especially when he is exposed over and over to be the dimmest bulb in the house. Devdas stays as infantilised as when we first met him, incapable of taking care of himself and enforcing his will on his surroundings. Despite its grand claims of reinvention, Daas Dev is unable to make us cheer on Dev as he fights his tendency to self-destruct.
The movie’s tragedy is that by the end, it doesn’t matter who survives or who doesn’t. “I should have killed you all right at the start!” a character yells, summing up the frustration at being stuck in a no-escape zone between two epic texts and directionless ambition.
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