September 08, 2009

Dev.D through the Gender Prism


“IN A WORLD ORDERED by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle” … “she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative.”

Laura Mulvey[1]

Although a bit simplistic, it would not be untrue to say that the most dominating genre in the Bombay mainstream commercial cinema, popularly known as Bollywood, is song and dance woven around a common thematic undercurrent in the story: romance between the hero and ‘his woman’, culminating in marriage, a happily-ever-after conclusion. To this structure, Anurag Kashyap’s most famous film, Dev.D complies broadly. But it causes too many dents, and too deep, to go unnoticed.

Dev.D is an interesting film to review because of the strength of its women characters, their departure from the patriarchal constructs of a traditional Indian woman in Indian films; the viewer can identify and sympathise with these ‘flawed’ women. Does this depiction make Dev.D a liberating film from the gender perspective? Is it legitimisation, or at least acceptance of a woman with sexual agency – the ‘slut’? Are dominant patriarchal structures seen dissolving in the film? Is the film a shift from the ‘male gaze’? Do the ‘decisions’ in the script flow from the women characters? While these questions will run through this critique, the short answer to all these questions is no. This, however, should not take away from the (arguably) empowering nature of certain aspects of the movie, most notably, sexual agency and its aesthetics enhanced by excellent cinematography and editing.

The Film: Plot and characters

The film, despite denting the typical structure of Bollywood cinema, is still a male-centric film. Teenager Dev is a typical spoilt, rich son sent by his father from Chandigarh to a London boarding school. The grown man Dev (Abhay Deol) returns – high on libido and cocaine alike – to his family and childhood friend Paro (Mahi Gill), now the object of a heady mix of his affections and sexual desires. Dev finds it difficult to explore his feelings for Paro amidst suspicion, his unending sexual appetite and his egocentric thought process, and tells her off when she brings up the marriage question. Rejected by Dev and pressed by her family, Paro marries Bhuvan (Asim Sharma).

There starts Dev’s path of self-pity and his emergence as a drug addict, alcoholic and chain smoker in Delhi now financed by a bed-ridden and guilt-ridden father. Through a pimp Chunni (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), he meets Chanda (Kalki Koechlin), a sex worker. Chanda entered into the dhandha when she was abandoned by her family after an oral sex MMS filmed by her boyfriend became public. She befriends a vulnerable Dev and gradually falls in love with him. Dev, in the meanwhile, finds lost love Paro. She visits him and washes and cleans for him but does not make herself available for his sexual use. A sexually rejected Dev indulges in further self-pity and substance abuse, kills seven in a hit-and-run, does not reach home before the death of his father, wastes himself and his family’s money and ends up, literally, on the road, narrowly escaping death by a drunk driver.

This changes Dev’s heart and brings him to his senses. He searches for Chanda, who ironically, has retrieved a ring which Dev had discarded in the garbage, assumed it was a symbol of Dev’s love for her, and therefore moved out of the brothel. In the final scenes, Dev tells Chanda how he never actually loved Paro and they live happily thereafter.

The makers have this to say about the film:

Dev.D is a modern day interpretation of the classic novel Devdas by Sarat Chandra. Dev, Paro and Chanda of Dev.D reflect the sensibilities, conflicts, aggression, independence, free thought, exuberance and recklessness of the youth of today. A generation that is jammed between eastern roots and western sensibilities.”[2]

This can be analysed through many prisms – otherisation, post-colonial reactions to imperialism etc but it does not capture the gender dimension at all.

Issues in Dev.D: A Gender Perspective

The film is rife with scenes, lyrics, character roles and themes, which resonate the dominant patriarchal discourse, objectification of women and conventional sexual roles, and feed into the cultural sensibilities of the viewers. In that sense, the movie does not have any emancipating impact; however, there are moments of resistance in influential scenes and effective parts of the storyline which cause dents to the typical Bollywoodsian structure.


Sexuality is one of the central themes in the movie, alluded to through the characters and symbolism. It does not take careful observation to decipher the film’s traditional male-centric representation – the male libido and sexual needs being instrumental in the sexual matrix of the film, the female body being the erotic and look-able, objectified source for the fulfillment of that desire.

The chat usernames of Dev and Paro are “The Dude” and “Chammak Challo” typifying the usual societal perceptions. The use of the word “slut” to demean all the three principal characters is interesting  because the negative imagery of female promiscuity becomes a swear word. The use of the lyrics “why did you ditch me, whore?” in the song Emotional Atyaachar is yet another example of this imagery. Dev’s ability to be in control of all his sexual encounters, Chunni’s capacity to control a large number of women who are literally sexual products, is interesting.

Dev.D women, however, are not passive characters devoid of desire. They are sexual agents, their desires are expressed and sometimes do manage to impact the way the story goes. The imagery of Paro’s masturbation and her physical desire for Dev, the opening line of Paro’s song at Dev’s homecoming “man mein mere bhook uthi hai”, Rasika approaching Dev for sexual gratification during Dwij’s wedding, Paro rejecting Dev’s sexual demands (though there may be other patriarchal reasons for that), Chanda’s desire for Dev as opposed to a customer who Chunni sends towards the climax, are examples of sexual agency. This is a novel approach to the depiction of women’s sexuality in Bollywood cinema, a shift from their central emotion being love, to desire.

Desire, Objectification and Consumption:

Desire is another central theme brought out in the film through objectification of the female body and its consumption by the male sexual desire. Despite being armed with sexual agency, female desires are never met unless they match with Dev’s desire: Paro remains a virgin till her marriage, Rasika’s relationship with Dev is never consummated and Chanda has to entertain the other client despite her desire for Dev.

It is interesting how the first segment, Paro’s story, begins with Dev demanding her naked picture, of which he is a consumer. Similarly, the most significant part of the second segment, Chanda’s story, is how her boyfriend makes a video of her indulging in oral sex and publishes it. The consumers of this ‘sexual product’ are multitudes, including Chanda’s own father and boyfriend. It is notable that all these men, consumers of the woman’s erotic depiction for their sexual needs, are close to the character of the woman. How this phenomenon is not perceived as incestuous pornography, not a far flung analogy, is also ironic.

The salvaging feature here is the use of the DPS RK Puram MMS scandal, notoriously in the news a while back. There is some merit in the way Chanda expresses her take on the incident through powerful screenplay and dialogue. She strongly expressed how “half the country jerked off” after downloading her video – downloading being a positive act, not a passive viewing. This interpretation articulated by Chanda plays a political role, and fills in part, a void in the discourse around the MMS scandal.

Patriarchal Structures:

Throughout, the film promotes pre-existing patriarchal structures – those of family, sexual roles, ‘expectations’ from women, gender roles in society etc.

The imagery of all sexual encounters in the film resonates the sexually dominant role of the man. In an influential scene, while snubbing Dev and getting back at him by sexually rejecting him, Paro mentions how she never gets a chance to ‘climb on top’ of her husband, sentimentalising the dominant role of the ‘ideal man’ during sex.

Decisions are made by men. Dev’s exile for studies abroad is decided by the father. Paro not getting married before Dev comes is decided by Dev. Paro marrying later is decided by Dev who rejects her and her father who chooses the groom. Chanda’s father, through suicide, decides her fate and that of her family. Chunni decides who Chanda’s clients should be. Chanda’s move from the brothel is decided by Dev’s ring.

The societal expectation of fidelity on the part of the women, essentialising promiscuity by women as bad, is reinforced. Dev’s reaction to rumours about Paro’s earlier sexual encounters and Paro’s reaction to the incident all accept that promiscuity by women is ‘more wrong’ than by men. Dev demeans both Paro and Chanda and both of them see a reduction in self worth as a result of that. Another stereotype powerfully expressed in women’s decisions – a money-less Dev works at a roadside eatery while a money-less Chanda turns to prostitution. The married Paro, when she meets Dev performs wifely duties for him. She washes for him and cleans up his rooms, does not have sex outside marriage, is the woman who appeals to male sensibilities.

The family structure is glorified until the end. Paro remains a virgin till her marriage. She does not allow Dev’s sexual advances hence not indulging in premarital sex. She does not even kiss Dev after her marriage to Bhuvan despite her obvious desire for him. Chanda is legitimised in the end and gets the happy ending with Dev. However, she achieves that only after quitting her work as a prostitute and dissociating herself completely from her friends at the brothel who fed, clothed and educated her. This dissociation was not out of free will but to nurture the hope of marrying Dev whose ring she found. The last scene of the film with Dev driving Chanda’s bike, taking control of their life together is a perfect man-woman relationship end to this movie. It reinforces the control that the man takes in any man-woman relationship.

Dev.D is depicted as the “slut”. He is arrogant, self-centred, mean and negative. Yet he is the object of every female character’s affection. His mother, Paro, Chanda, Rasika – all dote over him. That makes this film not a women’s film but a man’s film. However, the complex overlap of liberation and captivation of the woman is multi-layered and should be evaluated on its own merits. Dev.D, in that sense, is not a typical movie. It is a movie of contradictions and should be taken as such.

[1] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, in Feminism and Film (Ann Kalpan ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 39-40.


16 comments to Dev.D through the Gender Prism

  • A fantastic post.. some things are so evident but we never think why. It’s a favourite movie of mine and loved this analysis.

  • Nandini

    Very interesting post.
    Please excuse me for nitpicking though…
    the line in the song, Dhol Yaara Dhol. Dev’s home coming song is mere dil mein HOOK uthi hai and not BHOOKH uthi hai. Hook meaning an agonised cry…it still speaks of Paro’s desires so your interprartion still stands.

  • Thank you both for your comments and the correction.

  • This is so true…I absolutely loved this analysis…

  • Excellent analysis… somewhat repetitive but otherwise wonderfully written.

    I don’t quite agree with you on the following though:
    “Decisions are made by men. Dev’s exile for studies abroad is decided by the father. Paro not getting married before Dev comes is decided by Dev. Paro marrying later is decided by Dev who rejects her and her father who chooses the groom. Chanda’s father, through suicide, decides her fate and that of her family. Chunni decides who Chanda’s clients should be. Chanda’s move from the brothel is decided by Dev’s ring.”

    I think some of the points made in the paragraph above are far-fetched. For instance, I don’t see how Chanda’s father’s suicide has anything to do with male dominance. Yes, the consequences are bad for the family, but the act, in itself, does not really imply patriarchal attitude or male dominance. Imagine Chanda’s mother committing a suicide – would you have called that a decision-making event or would you have sympathized with the lachari of Indian women?

    Also, Chunni’s role in deciding Chanda’s clients — there’s no need to look at that from feminist point of view. Chunni could very well have been a women (like that lady in the movie Umrao Jaan). Chunni decides Chanda’s clientele not because he’s a male (in a male dominated society) but because he’s Chanda’s boss…

  • Nandini

    I am sorry but is it only me? Did i really imagine a scene where Paro, goes to the field with a matress etc so that she and Dev can have sex or at least make out. she is the one who gets WILD when he walks away…and she is the one who needs to pump the handpump so vigorously to let the steam off…so i am very confused about your saying ‘ she does not allow dev’s advances hence not indulging in pre marital sex.” she totally would have, had Dev not gotten suspicious of her!

  • There are way too many flaws in this post…I have been forever thinking of a feminist review of DevD myself but never got the time, now I have to for you have got it all wrong…

    “Dev finds it difficult to explore his feelings for Paro amidst suspicion, his unending sexual appetite and his egocentric thought process, and tells her off when she brings up the marriage question. Rejected by Dev and pressed by her family, Paro marries Bhuvan (Asim Sharma).”

    Wrong..all wrong, cmon did you not see the film?

    Dev comes with a ring from London, the one that was kept in his drawer in a white case, he didn’t tell her off because she brought up marriage question. She didn’t marry because there was family pressure, pray where in the film did you see ‘pressure’? She married because she wanted to get back at Dev. They both take these decisions purely out of their immaturity / inability to express / communicate and huge ego.

    Ego and immaturity are the two main threads both in the original Novel by Sarat Chandra and in this interpretation by Kashyap.

    Nandini rightly pointed out (comment above) that Paro took enough steps to have sex with Dev but the timing didn’t match. After marriage Paro denies him sex not because of any morality hassles, but because she had lost the love and respect she had for him, now she only pitied him. Her affection for a childhood friend living in a filthy state was portrayed in the cleaning and washing out of pity but there was no love and thus no desire, either sexual or emotional.

    You need to see the film again and also read the Novel.

  • I agree with the last three comments (Sanjukta, Nandini and Vishal)- all three point to important aspects/ incidents in the film that your analysis does away with in order to retain its coherence. While this is an interesting analysis I think its a slightly simplistic reading of a complex text.

  • Thank you all for the comments.

    @Vishal- The point regarding Chanda’s dad’s suicide was more about the storyline rather than dominance. His conscious decision to end his life was the sole reason for the shape of Chanda’s life, her mother’s life. Despite not being actively “dominant”, his conscious act changed everything in the lives of those women. Maybe that’s another reason why it is a male script, a male film.
    The point on Chunni also, as that entire quotation you picked up, is more an example of Dev.D being a male script.

    @Nandini- I appreciate your point of view. Paro probably would have had sex with him. That would have made it her choice by which she has sex – enhancing further the sexual agency that Paro’s character was provided with. The script however, does not allow her to. The reason I think, is that she should in the end come out looking as someone who dents, but does not break the existing patriarchal beliefs (eg. no premarital sex, no extramarital sex).

    @ Sanjukta – I appreciate that you, having read Saratchandra, would have found such differences, as there were between Dev.D’s script and Devdas. My response is my interpretation to the script of the film and not Sarat’s novel.
    Dev, on the terrace tells Paro that she doesn’t deserve his family because her dad is a mere manager in his (Dev’s) father’s company. Therefore “tells her off”.
    Paro was under pressure. Her parents talk to her about Bhuvan (also burdened by their inferior economic position vis-a-vis Dev’s family). She is under pressure to decide soon, which is why she approaches Dev to talk to him. Before this, she had conveniently assumed (it seemed) that he would indeed marry her.
    I differ on your interpretation of the scene when Paro visits Dev after her marriage. Of course, friendly affection might have been a secondary cause of her visit. I think the primary cause however was her love and desire for Dev. She goes and performs wifely duties for him but despite her love, would not allow him to kiss her, because she is married. When he brings up the issue of sex, she in fact retaliates by telling him how good Bhuvan is in bed.
    I do indeed look forward to your review for a different interpretation.

  • @ Sravanthi – Thanks for your comments. I think films are expressions that do float in the public domain but are interpreted quite personally, through a lens that one is comfortable with; perhaps that’s what makes the piece coherent. I have responded to the earlier comments; I interpreted the film differently than the other readers did. I might most certainly have missed complexities which you picked up on. It would be wonderful if you could bring them out.

    Thanks a lot to everyone who left comments. I really appreciate the incisive remarks and varied takes on the film.

  • You are likely to argue that Carly Fiorina was fired by the patriarchal HP board.

  • MS Delhi

    I agree with some of the criticisms to your post, esp. with the complaints about overdrawn characterizations of male dominance, etc. So, I too think that it is unfair to point to Chunnu the pimp and a man as having some special role in the film of casting power over women’s bodies than what a pimp just has by definition; I think there is no indication that Paro is as averse to premarital sex as you would have it; the contemporary use of the term ‘slut’ for both men _and_ women is not necessarily that demeaning, or at least not in the same way as it was when it is used to refer to women exclusively; I’m just not sure what you refer to as the incestuous dimensions of the MMS-scandal segment and the ironies behind it that would enhance your point here; I don’t know if Chanda’s ‘decision’ to leave the brothel simply ceases to be one if there are motivating factors like Dev’s ring lying around, etc.

    More importantly, Chanda’s ‘decision’ to enter the brothel in the first place, if you think this has to do with her father’s suicide, seems to militate against your point about patriarchal structures informing all her decisions – since I cannot think of a cruder critique of patriarchal structures than depicting the very death of the patriarch! Interestingly, all the patriarchs (Chanda’s, Dev’s and Paro’s dads) are ailing, dying or subordinated people in general in the film, so I’m not clear about how your reading accommodates this.

    Eventually, you close by pointing to a bag of contradictions that make up the film – essentially one between its claims to female sexual emancipation and its unwitting reinforcements of the patriarchal structures that stand in the way of such an emancipation. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think this contradiction emerges only because of the way you constructed your review and there is another way to see the film that doesn’t subject it to such contradictions. And my question (not criticism) to you is about just your own strategic choice of reading and what you would think of different strategies in this regard. Let me explain:

    You began with wanting to account for the ‘dents’ this film makes to some standard Bollywood notions. Fair enough. But in the course of doing that, I believe you suddenly switched back and started upbraiding those same Bollywood notions so far as they were present in the film. That is, you took care to point out where the film ‘makes dents’ in an otherwise typical set of assumptions, but then you went on to lambast just those typical set of assumptions for being, well, typical. I thought your point was to stress what those dents are about and how they operate in the economy of those typical assumptions and not just how they aren’t really dents at all if we focus on the typical assumptions as they are portrayed in the film. What happens when you switch the issue like that? Well, then the film itself stops being a critique, an internal critique launched in and from Bollywood about Bollywood notions and becomes just a well-intentioned victim to prevailing stereotypes. And then what the film really is about seems to depend on whether we looked at it as a bold critique or a victim of its own intellectual frailty. So the stakes are high in respect of which one would choose a reading strategy – either we fault the film for being stupid enough to be self-contradictory or we can laud it as an effort towards self-criticism. I would like to know why and on what basis you would choose one or the other (believe me I am really asking this genuinely, not just rhetorically). I should make this still more concrete:

    What’s wrong with setting a story about sexual emancipation (if for a moment we presume that that’s what’s also supposed to be going on in Dev D, whether we can endorse that view or not is irrelevant to the extent that a lot of people do perceive it as having done that – in short, allowing these people and perhaps the filmmakers to persist with that belief, however else we may want to qualify it) against the backdrop of patriarchy _and_ therefore needing to depict both? After all, it wouldn’t have made much sense, for instance, if the film was set entirely in a very permissive Scandinavian society and still tried to be the same film, would it?

    Here’s an example of what I am suggesting: if you allow that the backdrop is a recognizably patriarchal structure of gendered socio-economic dominance, now can we talk about the way that desire as such is distributed and develops in and around this scheme? Then it would seem to me that male desire (represented by Dev) is essentially unsuccessful in consummating itself and is fueled and frustrated by drugs and hallucinations and ineptness. Women, on the other hand, seem comparatively better off and seem to get what they want. This is not to say that there are several complications about how they get what the want or how much of it do they actually get, etc., but those are functions of the gendered socio-economic-dominance backdrop. What is more important from the point of view of a critique launched within the film (and not by you or I) is how a second-level gendering of desire becomes manifest against this first-level gendered backdrop. The lead characters are supposed to reveal to us precisely that second-level gendering and here it seems that Dev as a desiring agent appears quite a loser (even if a lovable one) whereas Chanda and Paro (and even Rasika) seem to be more enabled as such agents. Reading the film as playing off first-level gender-assumptions and second-level gender-claims allows one minimally to read it as a self-conscious critique and not as a sequence of contradictions unaware of being such. If these are both possible readings, what makes you choose the one or the other? I am really asking this – I didn’t like the film too much but I wondered whether I should hold its failing to be the fact that it wasn’t some completely different film that I would have liked or if I should, more fairly, allow its own critical voice to be heard – and I want to know what motivates your own choice to read it in the former vein rather than the latter.

    Thanks for being patient with my idiotically long response!

  • chandbibi

    This hajaar word comment. Who is going to read machaa?

  • MS Delhi

    you’re right, it’s 1085 words. now stop counting them and read them instead machaa. it takes a few minutes of your time plus it makes your lifetime of labour learning to read kinda worth the trouble. (but you’re right, i promise to trim comments in the future!)

  • apu

    I felt that the movie was well-done and dealt with women empowered in certain ways. Paro, for instance, does not remain a virgin by choice – she is only too keen to sleep with Dev, even bringing a mattress to the fields; this quite goes against prevailing notions of women’s ‘purity’. Also, I would go with Sanjukta’s interpretation where Paro is even mildly contemptuous of Dev (after her marriage), and helps him out almost like she would a silly child. I didn’t get that she wanted to sleep with him, but was held back by her status as a wife. What jarred a little to me was Chanda’s love for Dev – I didn’t see that built up well enough and it wasn’t clear what he does for her, except as an upper-class man “rescuing” a prostitute (albeit a “high-class” one) from her fate.

  • Your posthelped me a lot in my school work. I am writing a paper on a similar topic. I was feeling kind oflost, but it seems I gotwhat I was searching forand I’m on the right path now. thanks a million!

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