Saturday, March 22, 2008

See your face all over town, pick me up and throw me down...

You're my punk rock dream come true,
I would die to stay with you...
-- Bratmobile, "P.R.D.C.T."

This was in my head yesterday while watching the 2002 film Devdas, starring SRK, Aishwarya Rai, and Madhuri Dixit. As you all know, I recently read the novel it and the numerous other versions were based on. What got me started on the whole thing was not so much the iconic status of the book and character, but my obsession with the "Chalak Chalak" song. I swear, that Gujarati movie about Maa Meldi I watched had a knock-off of this tune running under the DVD menu. When I saw a fleeting Devdas clip on an Eros Entertainment ad, I jumped up and down saying, "OMG! It's that song!" They're actually slightly different, but the "shiishe se shiisha Takaraa'e" part is pretty much note-for-note with what I had stuck in my head.

People have asked me how one of my trains of thought leads to another, often phrased as "Where do you find these things?" so I hope you appreciated that peak into my brain. Anyway, after seeking out Devdas: emotional ruin as foregone conclusion. Lavish, opulent, extravagant ruin. The movie was much more melodramatic than the book, which I didn't really mind, since it mainly became more overtly emotional: fair enough, considering the subject matter. Only toward the end did the melodrama irk me: I didn't like the addition of outright villains, mainly because they were unnecessary to the plot, and they made it feel more "Hollywood." And since the book ended with a quirk-of-fate anti-climax...well, of course I prefered that. Pretty much always.

After I got back online after watching the movie, I found out that my post about the Devdas book had gotten a comment, from the people at a movie review site that I love (the Post-Punk Cinema Club). It said in part: "Ughh, the PPCC largely can't stand Devdas for just the reasons you've listed as being integral to the book: that is, Devdas' narcissistic self-hate and general unlikeability, and the fact that two powerful women should be so undone by him. Aarghhh."

Of course, this is all true. And I'm a feminist, so why wouldn't it be annoying to watch women self-destruct over a stupid man? I myself have condemned movies because I don't like the message I perceive them sending (Hello, I am Legend! Join The Breakfast Club over there in purgatory!) I have disliked movies because I didn't want to spend time with the characters in a film any more than I would in real life. But while intellectually I can totally see their point, Devdas didn't bother me at all on this level.

Since I'm my own critical lab speciment, I've decided to peel back my brain a little further. First off, I'm not sure how much I've been jaded by my long-term study of the Romantics. Ah, I remember reading Wuthering Heights for the first time, thinking that Heathcliff and Cathy's story was supposed to be "romantic." Instead, it's a whole lot of squalid unpleasantness, in which everyone is horrible to everyone, especially the lovers, who are just awful people and break each other's hearts for spite. But I still appreciated the drama, the intensity they created out of their lives, and I loved the scene where he begs her ghost to haunt him.

That was just the beginning of reading poems about extreme emotional states, and 18th/19th century novels dissecting individual emotional and social mores (generally classified as amatory fiction, and if I were still toying with the possibility of a Ph.D. -- but who has the freakin' time? -- I'd write a paper on the similarity of themes in Bollywood movies and the 18th century British novel, especially by my unsung friends like the Elizas Haywood and Fenwick, among others).

There's another whole layer under that, though, a chicken-and-egg question. Maybe I had this affinity for the Romantics in the first place because of my own life. That really struck me when reading the comment about Devdas' "narcissistic self-hate," because that's a good phrase for what my first love, in real life, was like. He was chock-full of narcissistic self-hate. Devdas is actually a lot nicer to both Paro and Chandrakmukhi than this guy was to me, and I had a lot less reason to remain unflaggingly devoted to him. But devoted I remained, for years, until I was pretty much completely undone.

When I look back on myself at that time, or, God forbid, read my poems, I can't even believe myself. Didn't I have any shame, any pride, any self-respect? Well, no, I didn't. Where were those qualities going to come from? I assume there are other paths, but for me, those were things that needed to be acquired, their value learned, and that happened through bitter experience. I think I'm always going to be interested in stories about thwarted love, unrequited love, really stupid, embarrassing, pointless love, the kind that makes you roll your eyes at girls' dumbness in real life, because to some extent, that's my story. I spent years being ashamed of that part of my life, but now that I'm older, I realize there's just no point in pretending I wasn't that pathetic, because I was.

Chandrakmukhi is attracted to the sadness in Devdas' eyes when he's acting like a jerk. Once upon a time, I was drawn to the same thing. So what was happening to me? Was I seeing a reflection of my own existential pain, which, since I had no one to talk to about it, made me feel that he and I could understand each other? Which was kind of true, and so not entirely delusional. Did seeing pain and sadness in him mean I could believe he had thoughts and feelings at all? That's more than I could say for sure about most of the obnoxious redneck teenagers I knew at the time. Who else was I going to fall for, the Beavis and Buttheads? That's the way I'd have viewed most of my peers at the time.

Just to complicate things further -- even before getting bowled over by love, I'd always related to anti-heroes more than heroes (and certainly more than most heroines), which may have also predisposed me. (That's a subject that might require a whole book on Escape from New York). Maybe I grew up with my own share of narcissistic self-hate, which made me seek out someone to treat me badly and be my punk rock dream come true.

So yes, Devdas is narcissistic and weak and largely unlikeable, but I see strong, intelligent women ("formidable," a later boyfriend used to describe me and my friends) fall for worse all the time. I'm not saying it's right for men to act like Devdas, or good for women to fall in love with them. And certainly not that everyone is interesting in watching movies about them. But it certainly happens, and the movie, in all its melodrama, does a fair job of showing what it feels like.

The best case scenario is that you learn from your Devdas, and get your fill of the kind of drama that seems like the truest love when you're young and stupid and see no other way to express your emotional intensity. That way, when you meet your Vanraj (from the same director's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam), you're able to recognize and appreciate him. Of course, by "you," I mean "me." I'm going to go and kiss my Vanraj right now, and next time I see you, it should be for the regularly scheduled frivolity. After all, I have a Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People DVD sitting on my coffee table.

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