By Tanya Vasundharan
I grew up endlessly romanticising my mother’s propensity for rebellion. Her escape from her super conservative parents through weed, booze, chain-smoking, and shaving her head was, I thought, the only way to be a true-blue rebel. But at the age of 13, I began to realise that booze and weed couldn’t be the tools of my anti-parent revolution because they were passé ghar ka mamla. (Would the woman who taught me how to roll joints at the age of two be pissed if I took up smoking? No.)
Directed by Ken Ghosh (best known for Ishq Vishk) and released earlier this week by ALTBalaji (a new app launched by Balaji Telefilms), eight 22-minute episodes are now available for streaming on its website. The series is meant to be a modern day retelling of Sarat Chandra’s Devdas, and revolves around a protagonist Devika DD (Aasheema Vardhan) as she goes through heartbreaks and highs, while trying to be convincing as the most liberated person you’ll ever encounter.
The bizarre array of comments under the YouTube extracts from Dev DD, the web series produced by Ekta Kapoor, should give you a sense of how people have reacted to this depiction of a liberated woman.
“Pataa nahi aisi ladkiyaan kahan hain India mein. Very wrong message. Never expected from Ekta but I think she is also horny type,” “These are the type of girls I can relate to, not the idiotic Katrina Kaif dancing girls in masala movies whose only job is to be beautiful and laugh at everything the hero says,” and, my personal favourite: “Puri duniya ka feminism is ek episode mein daal diya.”
The problem is that these commenters’ debates — women’s empowerment vs. barbadi, modern India vs. the way things used to be, celebrations of feminism vs. sanskari neurosis — about the degeneration of society, and amazingly irrelevant wishful thinking from horny dudes on YouTube (“I hope more and more Indian girls start behaving like this so that I get to fk more sluts”) make the show sound a lot more fun than it is.
Devika gives ‘#Zero fucks’ about public opinion, says the trailer, which created quite a stir amongst Ekta Kapoor fans when it was released on April 12th. She is cool with casual sex and chasing men, not big on marriage, doesn’t want to be a traditional bahu, and spends her time smoking cigarettes, getting high, and drinking neat Old Monk when she’s feeling rejected.
Kapoor has reportedly said that challenging the idea of what actually makes a good Indian girl was the inspiration behind Dev DD, but you might want to hold back the applause for this apparent smashing of inhibitions and norms, because the duniya of feminism in the series is actually a massive bore.
A ‘wild’ woman character at the centre of series doesn’t quite cut it in 2017, especially when you depict her idea of rebellion as being a loud unlikeable brat, saying “fuck” a lot, stereotyping her lesbian best friend (who is, conveniently, crazily in love with her), stealing jewellery, buying Zara clothes, whining over a chomu rich guy (who treats everyone poorer than him like shit), and sabotaging his next relationship by leaking their intimate videos.
Devika is based in Jaipur at the beginning of the series but soon takes off to Mumbai, so there is also the over-used trope of the small-town yearning-for-liberation girl who’s made it to the big city. Also predictable is how every conceivable coincidence rolls into place: Dev DD goes from being an escort in Mumbai to being ‘saved’ from this fate in the nick of time by an older sugar daddy. When the drum rolls and electric guitar distortions tell you that this gent is her lesbian best friend’s long-lost father, you can’t decide whether its writers were bored or just couldn’t be bothered with trying harder.
Dev DD is equally unimaginative in its depictions of its other variety of women: mothers, who remain blunt stereotypes: perpetually scandalised, hysterical, uptight about sex, mega-homophobic, and insistent about their daughters dressing appropriately and avoiding boys. Which makes you wonder if the only time the house of Balaji can effectively imagine a woman’s rebellion is when that woman is young, conventionally desirable and sex-crazed, while the older women are forever destined to roam the saas-bahu wastelands.
But perhaps the biggest screw-up is the show’s imagination of friendships. Like another recently launched web series by ALTBalaji, Boygiri, which explores the dynamic between a group of six men, much of this is down to dud dialogues and bad acting. Conversations are confined to sad puns about sex, masturbation, and ball-scratching. If the biggest favour one guy can do another in Boygiri is to provide him space to sleep with women (“Dude I had to tell them this place was mine, it makes them much hornier”), in Dev DD, the lesbian best friend Chandni is relegated to the sidelines, while Devika uses her room to have sex with the chomu. Unlike other recent pop culture depictions of rebellion and breaking free (Queen for instance, has a sweet, quirky dynamic between Rani and Vijaylakshmi, in which they pour their hearts out to each other), the best friends in Dev DD barely talk. And this might be where ALTBalaji is making its biggest mistake about young people — the fact that friends usually tend to be instrumental in your rebellion rather than ancillary to it.
Sometimes things do fall in place for Dev DD and you see something true depicted about young urban Indians today — such as when Devika tells a chemist she doesn’t need her pads hidden in a black bag and brandishes them to the world, or when she fights the cliché that portrays promiscuous women as sluts but troublemaker men as heroes.
Mostly, though, ALTBalaji is proving to not be so very alternative, sounding very much like every recycled ad campaign you’ve heard about women’s empowerment, or assuming that a rejection of religion is synonymous with modernity (a trap another recent web-series, Brown Girls, also fell into). Modernity, coolness, and rebellion don’t have to be about such secondhand notions or borrowed behaviours; they’re about authenticity and developing self-expression. And they’re certainly not always about giving #ZeroFucks.
Co-published with Firstpost.