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A collector of lovable frail men

Sudhir Mishra is never surprised by women who fall in love with delirious, sinking men. He suspects that self-destruction is a tribute to women

(From left) Richa Chadha, Rahul Bhat and Aditi Rao Hydari in ‘Daas Dev’.
(From left) Richa Chadha, Rahul Bhat and Aditi Rao Hydari in ‘Daas Dev’.

It is possible that men see more in Devdas than women ever did. It must be hope. If that useless sad drunk can win the affection of not one woman but two, then men in general need not be exceptional to find love; they only need to be around. That is the message in any case, as this column had once argued, in most films, and perhaps in real life too. We know what men see in the women they love, we usually do not know what women see in their men.

But the film-maker, Sudhir Mishra, is never surprised by women who fall in love with delirious, sinking men. In his adaptation of Devdas (and a bit of Hamlet), Daas Dev, which releases on 27 April, India’s most famous loser returns as a modern political heir who is heartbroken and addicted to drugs and alcohol. “A man who self-destructs for a woman, maybe that is a man who is attractive to women," Mishra tells me.

Mishra is a lanky, striking man who cannot be easily moved any more perhaps but is forever amused and touched by people in great tumult. And he is often on the side of the losers, which is a profitable way to be in his line of work.

In the real world which art claims to explain, we know that we must face life with strength; stand akimbo and all that. We admire the strong and tire of the weak. But what appeals to us in art is the very opposite. We are bored of the strong and fascinated by the frail.

“There is the idea of the manly hero," Mishra says, and this is an idea that is farcical. “If you do not explore the vulnerabilities of a man, you will not make a movie, you will make a condom ad." The celebration of frailties might be a deeply human necessity, something in the heart of the origins of art, but it is also indisputably a plot device and artistic technique.

Mishra’s heroes, he says, are particularly delicate. They are self-effacing and do not perform heroic things. “All my heroes carry feminine qualities in them. The reason why superstars do not act in my films." And he is confident that men, when they watch his film “recognize" themselves. And they may not always like what they recognize. “There is the mythology of you, we all have a mythology of ourselves, but then we see our real selves in a story and we recognize what we are."

In the relationship between a storyteller and his audience, there are two distinct classes of powerful moments. One is pleasant, when a story is “relatable" to your life; the other is usually unpleasant, when you “recognize" yourself or your soul or your life in the story. The “relatable" story has rewards for the storyteller, hence there is a mistaken view that it is the whole aspiration of art.

Recently, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted his confident classification of entertainment and art, as though there has to be a distinction:

“Bears repeating: Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges & disrupts your world view is Art."

He is wrong. If I may paraphrase my response to him, art primarily appeases its core constituency, the type of people who call art “art". And if at all art challenges the world view of people, it is of people who do not matter to it, like fanatics or conservative temple-goers, or heads of state. Art reassures the useful and upsets the rest. But most of the time, no matter what people say in literature festivals, art is not in great conflict with anyone. The world is not so easily appalled by artists any more. Most of the time, art succeeds not because it challenges world views but because it is “relatable".

This warm appeal to our private, cultural or political sentiments is the innate corruption of art—its spurious desire to supply things that we can relate to. But making people recognize themselves in the story is a very different trick. It is a higher art, which contains within its discomforts many risks.

In Daas Dev, which is a racy and brooding Hindi film, we recognize not only the men we know but also the abject sham of democracy, and we see the true nature of what controls us all—politics. No one in this story is moral. They remind us that the pursuit of happiness is a very low and dull kind of pursuit, and that people who have not tasted power know nothing about intoxication, and that we are all governed by people who do not need any goodness in them to succeed. All they require is cunning, madness and will. In effect, we see that the only people who have the power to make the nation a safe place for, say, little girls, are the kind of people whose driving ambition may not be the well-being of little girls. This does not mean they will not make the nation a better place. They can, they even will, but only if it is useful to them.

Everyone, except the hero, is strong of character. Paro is a shrewd politician who is as aware of the tactical compromises her body can make as Chandramukhi (Chandni), who is in this version a powerful political fixer and a high-class escort, but as in every version of “Devdas" across the decades, her charm lies in being the ultimate male hope—the prostitute who delivers the girlfriend experience. Mishra’s Devdas passes through the story as the only guy who is not addicted to the coolest drug in town—power.

“Politics is about figuring out how you are controlled," Mishra says. “The meaning of being political is to figure out how much you can stretch your freedom." This description of politics explains something crucial about both the supply side and the demand side of politics, about politicians and the public. Freedom is not absolute for anyone. Politicians are limited by their luck, power and circumstances. The freedom of the public is what politicians grant. This is why it is foolish of intellectuals to analyse India by European standards and raise moral alarm. Freedom is not some absolute physical law discovered in Western Europe; rather, freedom is a native natural resource that a society slowly mines.

Mishra has a good grasp of north Indian politics and it is not a coincidence that he has a political pedigree. His maternal grandfather was D.P. Mishra, the former Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, whose son was the former national security adviser, Brijesh Mishra. “As a boy, I saw what power did to people and how addictive it can be, how exciting and how destructive."

Sudhir Mishra’s perception of politics as the relationship between power and freedom also explains political things that are not widely considered politics. Marriage, for instance, about which he has written recently in a magazine, showing all his wounds, stirring many, especially men who probably “recognized" themselves in a tragedy that is not easy to “relate" to. In the essay, which was about his relationship with his late wife after she received a diagnosis for cancer, he says that his was a stormy marriage and his wife denied him the privilege of taking care of her in her final days. He lost not only his rights but far more—he lost his duties. He became a migrant to his own marriage and in politics the migrant is the ultimate outcast. This story, too, he plans to tell some day on screen.

(Disclaimer: Sudhir Mishra is set to direct a film based on Manu Joseph’s Serious Men.)

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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