Friday, August 12, 2005

"Dev"-- Beyond Bhai-Bhai

[This review originally appeared on the website on July 1, 2004]:

In recent years, the films produced by the Bombay industry have become synonymous to many with dewy love stories/NRI fantasies, with all the depth and grace of a Hallmark greeting card; combined with the (welcome) decline of what used to pass as parallel cinema in the Hindi film industry (welcome because much parallel cinema simply confused realism and angst with high art, and ended up boring everyone in the audience), this has meant that for those not in school or those not simply desirous of remembering the motherland as if through a cartoon prism, there has been precious little to cheer about where Hindi cinema is concerned, the exceptions that prove the rule notwithstanding.
None can accuse Govind Nihalani's Dev of either the sort of addled lovesickness or pointless bellowing that has plagued Hindi cinema in years past. In constructing a tale of two senior police officers set against a backdrop of communal violence (a tale that should have become stale by now; that it has not is sad testimony to our propensity to slaughter each other), Nihalani is scrupulous, grief-stricken, and quite clever. But that is not all; he has that rarest of qualities in a film that bills itself as a "commercial" film: unexpectedness.
What makes Dev unexpected is its refusal to succumb to the easy secularism/liberalism of "Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai" ("Hindus and Muslims are brothers"), or of the notion that "the people are basically good, no matter of what community." I stress that these are not mean or contemptible notions by any means (indeed I would argue that the notion of the fraternity of Indians, of whatever religious affiliation, and even of none, is the very essence of citizenship), merely that these are rather banal or unremarkable ones (to the extent they would be particularly welcome, it speaks volumes on the pass we have come to).
Dev gives us something far more rich and strange than Dev (played by Amitabh Bachchan), the Nehruvian secularist, versus Tejinder Khosla, the hard-core adherent of Hindutva (Om Puri); Dev offers a meditation on ethical obligation and responsibility, from within the Hindu tradition. Bachchan's character is no card-carrying secularist: at the film's outset, he is quite aggrieved by what he sees as the politics of "minorityism", and his demeanor when meeting with certain Muslim clerics, combined with a stray remark during the interrogation of a Muslim suspect, and his lack of vehement protest at the extreme views articulated by Om Puri's Khosla (a close friend) all confirm the impression.
Indeed, his strongest disagreement with Khosla in the first half of the film is with the drastic nature of Khosla's methods, Om Puri's grizzled senior police officer being of the "get rid of them all" persuasion. Nihalani appears to have cast his lot in with the Khoslas of the world in the first half of the film, replete as it is with anti-national Muslim politicians, a bitter Farhan Ali (played with unsurprising ineptitude by Fardeen Khan) determined to assassinate DCP Dev to avenge the death of his father, and even a Muslim Gandhian who, we learn, has been tormented for decades by his having murdered (during the 1969 Ahmedabad violence) of an unarmed Hindu, and by the fact that his life is ultimately saved by yet other Hindus. In short, Nihalani constructs the first half of the film so as to air just about every stereotype about Muslim Indians currently prevalent-- yet all this is, in a sense, sleight of hand: Nihalani attempts to seduce the viewer, all the better to subsequently startle him/her.
The second half of the film is occupied by depictions of communal violence, led by prominent members of the state's ruling party, and by Dev's inability to prevent some of the worst outrages. By way of background, Dev reports to Khosla, who has been especially appointed by the ruling party, and part of his job description apparently includes ensuring that the "people's sentiments" are respected when Muslims are massacred after a bomb explosion at a temple of Ganesh, although the massacres are committed by the cadres of the ruling party. Dev's report on the burning of a basti (reminiscent of Naroda Patiya) threatens to embarrass the government, and he is slain by his friend Khosla as he is ascending the steps of the courthouse to hand his report in. Khosla himself ultimately commits suicide, haunted by his betrayal of a one-time friend.

What is one to make of this film, specifically of the juxtaposition of its two halves? One way of reading the film would be to interpret its first half as presenting "the Muslim" as a "problem," or perhaps more accurately, as "problematic". For Khosla, this definitional issue settles the entire debate: he sees a problem to be solved, indeed a problem with only one solution. The film's second half, however, jolts the viewer out of any uncritical acceptance of Khosla's views, and does so by illustrating the enormous gap between the "problem" and Khosla's proffered solution. To put it another way, whereas for Khosla there is no ethical issue to be considered once he has settled the definitional one in his mind, for Dev it is precisely the opposite. From the first half of the film, he does not appear to be the standard left-liberal secularist, and it would be a mistake to read the second as inverting this; for Dev it is simply the case that the definitional issue does not settle the ethical question. Indeed, for the film as for its lead protagonist, it is only when the definitional issue is deemed settled that the ethical conundrum begins.
Thus the central question Dev grapples with is not who "the other" is or how this "other" is to be defined, categorized, characterized--not, that is, a metaphysical question but an ethical one: how is one to be with respect to one who has been marked out as "other"? What is one's obligation and responsibility in such a situation? Through all of this, the Gita casts a long shadow over Dev (indeed the film begins with a sloka from the Gita), and more particularly with a certain interpretation of the famous Krishna-Arjun dialogue at the text's core.
When Dev thinks of exposing those who perpetrated or were complicit in atrocities, he begins to write a report-- presumably he thinks (at least at that point) that submitting such a report will make a difference. Certainly that appears to be at one point Farhan Ali's primary concern-- towards the end of the film, he asks Dev if the latter really feels that writing such reports will make a difference; Dev says that it will make a difference, though he does not seem to say this with any great conviction, almost as if he himself were in need of such consolation.

Shortly thereafter, however, all such doubt has melted away for Dev: in a scene reminiscent of the Krishna-Arjun dialogue in the Gita, Dev explains to Farhan that the crucial thing for a warrior is not whether he lives or dies, but that he fights; likewise, as a police officer his dharma, his infinite obligation in a sense, is to do his duty and serve the constitution. Dev does not serve the constitution because he seems to have analyzed it and found it to be a good document, but because as a police officer it is his dharma to do so.Implied here is a gentle rebuke of Farhan in the previous scene, who seems to be suggesting that struggling in this manner and writing such a report would only be worthwhile if it "made a difference"; Farhan, in short, subscribes to an instrumental logic that is quite alien to Dev's worldview in the next scene. DCP Dev does what he does because he cannot do otherwise and yet be DCP Dev. Farhan, I would argue, takes the lesson to heart, and the last scene of the film shows him ascending the courthouse steps to practice as the lawyer he had trained to be, but had never actually been, preferring more violent modes of being.
The dharma of Dev is not the dharma of Khosla; indeed it seems doubtful that "dharma" is a word that would have much resonance to Khosla, for all the latter's obsession with "Hinduness". Nihalani's barb at Hindutva cannot be missed: for all the talk of affirming the "Hindu-ness" of India, the political ideology Khosla subscribes to is really quite uninterested in Hinduism or Hindu philosophy, preferring to mortgage them at the altar of nineteenth century Western-style nationalism, dreaming of an India co-extensive with a spirit, the spirit in turn animating the volk, in the image of dutiful German, French, and other nationalists of eras gone by.
Dev, who is depicted as far more devoutly Hindu than his friend, is by the end of the film a "traitor" to "his own" according to Khosla -- a dialogue that reveals how little Khosla has to do with Dev's Gita. "Meri Gita shakti ki Gita hai" ("My Gita is the Gita of Strength) Khosla says at one point early in the film; we are never told what Dev's Gita is. That it is irremediably other than Khosla's own is revealed to him when Farhan confronts him after Dev's death; Khosla asks Farhan to come to his apartment to collect some of Dev's things. Once there, Farhan accuses Khosla of having killed Dev, and refers to the latter as his "roohani pita" ("spiritual father"). Bewildered by this, Khosla finally sends Farhan away, telling him that he (i.e. Khosla) has nothing of Dev's with him; when Farhan's back is turned, Khosla shoots himself.
The logic of Nihalani's film brings one to this pass: Khosla has done all he has in the name of "the Hindu," yet in the course of doing his all he feels compelled to murder the most classically Hindu of all the film's characters, indeed one who is at different points Arjuna and Krishna in the film (and indeed who is even named "Dev" ("god")). I would argue that Khosla does not realize until the instant he shoots himself that he has horribly compromised his ultimate referent--Hindu/Hinduism--while claiming to serve its cause, and has ended by killing Dev, thereby symbolically destroying the referent. Once this has happened, there is no ground left for Khosla himself to stand on, who prefers to end his life rather than make his way through the dark realization that he has betrayed that which he claimed to serve.
In the world of Dev, there will be no Hindu dharma left if the Khoslas of the age hold sway-- the targeting of Muslims in Dev is thus not just the killing of innocents (thought it is manifestly that); it is also the losing of one's soul, a fratricide that ends in a suicide.


Satyam said...

An excellent post. I once cited your piece at another forum (I also posted your Shabd and Boom pieces there as well). This led to an exchange and I am extracting a few responses (including my own) from that thread:

I [Satyam] think that Nihalani's body of work since the 90s which includes
Drohkaal, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa, Thakshak, Dev is probably foremost
(if not the only one) in Hindi cinema in terms of dissecting India's
current political moment. Hazaar Chaurasi of course provides an
enteresting 'history' here. But I would disagree profoundly with Roopa
on Thakshak and Dev. The former has a script that goes a bit haywire in
the second half but the 'heart of darkness' is a potent reading of the
Indian political. Rahul Bose's declamation of Nehru's legendary speech
at the beginning of the film nicely sets off some of the concerns of
the director. I personally think this is one of the most electric
moments in Hindi cinema. On Dev I would disagree even more (for
starters I don't believe it is "politically correct" at all, a lot of
people have insisted on reading this as a good liberal -- read
Nehruvian secular -- effort, it is not this) and would direct everyone
to the following piece by Umair Muhajir (also a member of this forum,
the piece appeared on the Outlook website) which highlights some of the
film's complexity:

Beyond Bhai-Bhai

[needless to say your piece followed at this point]

I [Roopa Choudhry] have never seen Thakshak, so I can't comment at all on the film.
Dev is one of my favorite Indian contemporary films, and I think
Govind Nihalani is a fabulous director, however I still feel the way
he tackles the subject matter in Dev is politically correct, or
perhaps he did not stray far from the script. I feel the characters
in Dev engage in didactic discussions and the characters have no
contradictions. For example Om Puri is out and out anti Muslim and a
half hearted effort is made to explain why ( Amitabh's son dying at
the hands of terrorists), furthermore the film does not offer an
explanation of why the terrorists targeted a police officer's son and
it is left up to the audiences to deduce that the terrorists are
Muslim, which of course is the norm in every film. I mean were the
terrorists from the underworld and if they are underworld goons who
killed a police officers son in an act of revenge, then why are they
labelled as terrorists, couldn't they simply be the mafia seeking
revenge, but Nihalani wants to make a statement, and correctly so,
that in India being Muslim is enough reason to be labelled a terrorist
and there are Islamic terrorist groups who function here as well, but
this is a complex discussion and I feel the film portrays it very
simply and makes it palatable to the mainstream.

He touches upon this particular police officer, Om Puri as being evil
and the Minister, i think Amrish Puri as someone who makes decisions
based on party politics and Amitabh as an officer who is a pawn, but
whose conscience finally kicks in and he does the right thing. What
about Amitabh's feelings, is he not angry towards those who killed his
son, and that might affect the way he deals with the topic of
terrorism and Muslims as a different community. Then again Fardeen (
a horrible actor) is a youth who is easily misled after his father
dies and his father is the token nice Muslim guy. So basically what I
am saying is there is a whole history of strained relations between
the two communities and the political conundrum that has ensued, but
instead of digging in deeper I felt I was seeing a sanitized version
and a very common theme of good and evil. I am glad Nihalani made
Dev, its a film that needed to be shown, but considering how
insightful he has been in his previous films, I felt it too simple, in
the presentation and in the solution.

(my final response follows)

Roopa, consider this. Many Muslims found the film uncomfortable viewing
because they did not consider it 'politically correct' in your sense of
the term (there was even a piece somewhere by I believe an Aligarh
University academic). On the other hand this was not a film that
pleased the Hindtuva brigade either. Finally I don't think that the so
called (and self-styled) 'secular' crowd much cared for the film, nor
did the leftists. This is reflected in both the film's reception at the
box office as well as the reviews (positive overall but nowhere close
to being celebratory). I think what is often missed with the Dev
narrative is that Nihalani does not in any sense adopt the good secular
or good liberal position. Amitabh Bachchan is not meant to be such a
character either. The film begins on the terrain of the Hindutva
mindset, accept the fascist underpinnings of that discourse in many
ways and then when audience might find itself neatly placed in this
position proceeds to critique from the inside the repellant nature of
this discourse. As such Bachchan does change through the film. Om Puri
is not at all 'evil', this is the whole point! As a clue to the
character of Bachchan as well as the narrative of the film I would
venture that there are some key 'battlefield' sequences in the film and
every time there is one something important happens. Also Nihalani
wants to move the viewer awat from a 'specfic' politics and guide
him/her to the more philosophical question of the ethics owed to the
neighbor. The point is not to use politics to justify one violence or
another (the failing of both Om Puri and Fardeen in the film) but to
emphasize that no politics can excuse such violence. This is why the
burning of the Muslim building that shatters Bachchan is key. It is a
deeply humanistic moment and one that shames the viewer in some ways --
whatever positions we might hold on the set of issues Dev the film
explores the risk that we run is precisely what we see in that scene.
And no politics in the world, no ideology could make that act
worthwhile. Because such an act in theory and consequence effaces
totally all singularity and all particularity and hence all that is
most human. I think Dev is not a view on Hindu-Muslim relations but a
powerful polemic against right wing and even fascist ideologies. The
film establishes a narrative by following the logic of an ideology of
hate. By the end no matter what misgivings one might have had earlier
on it seems somewhat clear that it is such an ideology that also
enables the Fardeens of the world. At the same time Nihalani is also
strategically a good liberal here believing in the rule of law. The
point would then be that a revolution is not required. One could simply
start by following the law. This is not just a naive belief and/or
inept move considering how much fascist ideologies have conflicted with
existing liberal legal apparatuses at various points in the history of
the last century. So liberalism in the old fashioned sense must be
defended. Secularism must be defended. And yet one must go beyond this.
I think Nihalani follows such a path and in doing so eventually strips
the politics to the barest philosophical essentials, to the most
probing and poignant question of ethics -- what does one owe the
neighbor? can any neighbor in any sense deserve this treatment, no
matter what the specific politics? does it not shame the 'audience' in
the most comprehensive sense when such violence is visited upon the
neighbor? is the audience not complicit because of its inaction? And
Dev once he grasps the full dimensions of the issue prefers action to
anything else. In terms of didacticism I don't wholly disagree that
there is some of this here but I think that the stakes being so high
Nihalani's decision to lay it out is understandable specially when you
consider how much this kind of debate is current in India and has been
for some time. Lastly I would suggest that the final Macbeth-like
sequence is a very important one for everything that the film is trying
to convey about politics, heritage, patrimony, legacy, appropriation
and so on.

Qalandar said...

That post is super, particularly the bit about the Macbeth-like last scene