Wednesday, March 25, 2009

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CITIES, SLUMDOG AND DEV D

What is a city, any city, for us - its dwellers and connoisseurs? Eclectic noises, clamor of metals, machines, stacks of dirt, filth, money, perfume, narcotics; enormous reserve and onrush of electricity; water, food and bodies on sale; tall concrete triumphs – how do people draw the life that is pitted against these? And how does one configure the city-experience in his creative adventures? Is there after all a quintessential city experience? Or is it that they are all unique in rarifying what tribal logics they sucked out of their once-boorish grounds?
A city frames its dwellers’ lives, ideally, in a mechanically replicable pattern. Some denominators are, therefore, ubiquitous in the field: cities would not be identified as ‘cities’ if they did not have these common signposts – say, modern physical and mental health supports, a discreetly empowered policing system, a pre-eminence in making statements about Governance, or economic highhandedness. There exists a Concept City from where all borrow.
Unlike a village, let’s note, a city is “planned”, and executed accordingly. The enucleation of the spontaneity of life/chances from within, is latent in the concept of a city. You seldom have plans that expect spontaneous turn-outs – well, that wouldn’t be a plan, then. An ideal ‘well-planned’ city is subject to infallible and constant surveillance, and be therefore resignedly predictable. It must be artless and open to the watcher’s eyes.
Paradoxically, however, the idea of a city prides in its luring promise of privacy, albeit anonymity. ‘No intrusions on your personal life’ is one of the principal grounding comforts in the urban system of living. One is linked to a public network where things fall into prescribed places with the exactness of an industrial production unit. Individuals, privately, are not marked; their ‘individuality’ does not count – the sites that circumscribe an individual’s city-based identity is a dummy place, where another character could pop up and substitute at any given moment, and make no significant difference to the machinery. The conception of a Village differs radically. Characters there, are anchored in individual roles/functions, though (perhaps, because) Village is always already a fantasy. In a city-scape, your possible affiliation with other characters is a matter-of-fact attendance. City is identified with its real population and its potential to hold a larger population, which testifies, as against the case of a village, its knack for anonymity – or the existence of dummy places.
To situate his film against a(ny) city and to be faithful to the experienced city, I presume, roots on the artist with a radical inventiveness. He peruses the surface calm of the city – the plan and the concept of it – for thin ice, tap there, crack it open and let the craze out. The so-called ‘underbellies’, a la mode undergrounds and slums – the failures of the state, as identified in political discourses – indulge in a project of cleaving the hermetically sealed dummy subjectivities: the theoretical intervention of Undergrounds in a city-logic is much more profound than the easy explanations viz. ‘necessary evil’ or ‘natural by-product of urbanization’. Their presence validates a memetic Other for the Plan and predictability. In which case, the possibilities of an imaginative city-film rests on the dabs it gathers from the clash of the Perfect and the sneaky Insurgent present in this system of living. These possibilities extend both backward and forward – as in, the fantasy beyond the city engenders say, science fictions, and the fantasy behind it is stranded in the moral determinism that village is virtue and city vice. What are the possibilities of fantasy at the city?
Art and market revel in a synergic nexus in the clash of city’s polarities (Plan and Chance) - Graffiti, music of revolt, porn industry, drug peddling or prostitution. These tendencies, generally identified as deviant/ underground or dark, rescind the order, neatness and probity that external surveillance structures obsess the population with. Art of the Lived City is established in these disruptions, their unpredictability and the surprise generated thereof, however disgraceful they may seem against the original - ‘perfect’ - schematics.
It was these two city-cinemas - Slumdog Millionaire and Dev D – that I watched last month that bore out the thought I tried to map above. Also, Jayesh was searching for some fundamental explanations in that line.
Possibilities of Fantasy-in-City rest on the metaphoric values of the City. City evokes more than it is. It turns a figure of speech: it means to conceal and at once, express – a fine chance to poise the unpredictable-but-always-predicted turns. Dev D and Slumdog both explore this chance, in their own ways. Danny Boyle has sort of specialized in this craft since his Trainspotting days. In fact, starting from jump-cuts, western film stylistics can boast of a whole repertoire of cinematic devices that capture the craze that the systematicity of an urban site eventually vents out in undergrounds. And Slumdog, all said, is not an Indian film, and therefore neither cuts away from nor agrees with the Hindi film’s way of looking at cities: it is exclusively outside the ways of making a popular film in India. (In fact, on a personal take, I believe Slumdog, technically, is more of a Latin American film, with its racy soundtrack and intense montage seasoned with high drama). It is the second film, Dev D, that really had me hooked – it is rarely that such graphic audacity is displayed in onscreen Indian cities. It felt like living a graphic novel, with its potential fury and unease and the ability to burn right through the pith of usual Hindi film’s city-platitudes, to watch Anurag Kashyap’s version of the story of the perennial loser, Devdas. That it is a re-work is constantly referred in the movie: like a slight, the movie stitches images and videos of Shahrukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai in its frills. SL Bhansali’s pompous and luxuriously sentimental Devdas fades, but nonetheless works as an efficient foil against this searing drama of love, its loss, desire and betrayal in the loins of a ‘real’ city.
The film is about an escape, or at least the attempt for one. Abjectly humiliated by Dev, Paro decides to agree to the marriage her father cuts with a rich Jhat. Dejected, and more importantly, clueless, Dev ‘escapes’ to Delhi. The city promises him a life that is unmarked, a place where he may forget and start over. However, as money flows limitlessly to establish a religious alcoholism, through the crevices of the Plan, Dev hits the Chances of the city – its underground. The film treats Delhi not as a physical space, it is a mental state, an attitude, it is a theme. The city hosts dejections, humiliations and embarrassment jubilantly, whether it be Dev’s, Chanda’s, or even Paro’s. Consequently, Dev D is never interested in what-is-there-in-Delhi; instead, it is always asking: “what else is there in Delhi?” Awash in attitude, and brimming with terrific energy, this audacious seeking behind the safer clich├ęs of city-life, directs itself away from other onscreen Indian cities, and successfully startles. City is just not where the plots happen, it is also what they mean – a sophisticated corruption, a machinery that gives out junk which in turn, turns into an autonomous, if not reciprocal, machinery. The film does not borrow from the psychopathologies of western cities (as seen in Western movies). It looks to aggressively portray the underground at hand, in all its complexity, as a meaning for the plot. Well, one may say, the film is not great art but just style, and possibly be true. But they would miss the point: Dev D is a ready and fiery youth movie, at the tack of whatever little pop-culture specimens we have. And that is what makes it important.

2 comments:

Zeinab said...

It's been a while, I guess.

I have watched a part of Slumdog, wasn't much different from a regular masala movie except that the crew was very good...and I think this is one of Danny's worst films. But their worst is probably very good when it comes to box-office reckoning.

Don't really think any of the three films deserves this much attention, though. Or were you just writing...to make a fresh start?

ARUN said...

@ zeinab
the films just got me thinking. and i found some time to type it down.
i thought the treatment of dev d was pretty bold for a hindi mainstream movie.
and in any case, i wanted to write something - as you guessed :)