Directed by Kshitij Sharma | Review by Prarthana Mitra
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]evil by seasoned actor-filmmaker Kshitij Sharma is a treat for all those who love intrigue, which is just another way of testing morality and its limits. Halfway into the film, the hero of Sharma’s film laments how death is more difficult for those it leaves behind. At that moment, the trajectory of events becomes abundantly clear to the audience, if not to his interlocutor, Maya. She is the one who drives the action to its precipice and becomes the locus of guilt, self-preservation and relief.
Made on a shoestring budget by a collective that shares pre- and post-production among themselves, the film is an independent project through-and-through. But it resorts to none of the stylistic hacks we have come to recognize in the indie wave of filmmakers. The film is honest in that sense, and focuses on documenting a fictive reality, instead of arranging the puzzle pieces along an allegorical line in order to send a clear message. The nuanced performances and art design will capture your attention, even if you find the film narratively predictable. After all, Sharma has based it, quite unambiguously, on one of Maupassant’s most popular short stories, adapting it dexterously with an Indian bite.
The background score stood out for me as it is not only omnipresent but quite effervescent and generously used. The sonorous theme gives the mood away from the opening scene which features the titular painting and hits the right crescendo at pivotal moments. The portrait of the devil, revealed later in the film, serves as a totem for the events that unfold over the 115 minutes. By the end, the characters in Devil are presented with an ethical tension that unrelentingly tests them.
Sharma himself plays the protagonist, an ex-army man who struggles to care for his mother, and coping with the looming presence of his dead father, a prolific artist who has left behind a slew of artworks around the house. Dev’s mother has been suffering from dementia from the time she lost her husband to a freak accident. Incidentally, the devil’s portrait was the last thing he painted and which miraculously survived the crash. Now they live in a sprawling mountain resort in the middle of nowhere, as Dev tries and fails to make ends meet.
The plot gets rolling with Maya’s entry into their lives, who arrives to care for the ailing matriarch now on her deathbed. Disgruntled with the terms of her unusual agreement and appalled at Dev’s lack of empathy for his mother (among other things), Maya orchestrates a way out of this modern day Bates Motel. Deeya Dey as Maya delivers an expressive yet understated performance in the film alongside Sharma.
The setting and cinematography have been aptly used to portray Dev and Maya’s spiral into a situation that tests their strengths and weaknesses. The dialogue flows from one scene to the next effortlessly and serves as the primary source of information. It also acts as the cordial veneer that hides their frayed nerves underneath.
The lighting is a little inconsistent, given how perfectly lit some of the night scenes are. But the film manages to hold on to its darkness, with an atmosphere that spells inevitable doom. In hindsight, a tighter edit could have helped stitch the events in a more cohesive and impactful manner. But Sharma insists on glossing over the tiniest and the most mundane of details, which makes sense since the narrative is carefully divided into ten days of action. Additionally, it helps highlight Maya’s occupational hazards and the toll it takes on her psyche, which may have driven her to take the extreme action. Dev’s character too has been characterized, blocked and recontextualized very well. There is ample evidence of his gruffness, world-weariness, alcoholism and the ability to strike a hard bargain, which ultimately makes for a better understanding of Maya’s intentions.
The moral compass of this film rests with Dev and Maya, and we weigh their compassion and humanity, measure for measure. The film does a brilliant job in portraying the reality of these two characters, whose fates become intertwined with that of an old woman awaiting her death but refusing to die. The devil is perhaps in the waiting.
Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.