Southern Lights: Dev, AKA Why Screenwriting Should Be Consistent

It’s not surprising that the new Karthi starrer has been roundly panned. It’s another film with a great idea and not-great writing
Southern Lights: Dev, AKA Why Screenwriting Should Be Consistent

Dev (Karthi) is a man who likes adventure. Like many things in this thoroughly underwhelming film, we know this because — apart from the odd shot that has him diving off a cliff — it is told to us, not because we sense this trait of Dev's or feel it. There's a lot of tell-don't-show in Dev, written and directed by newcomer Rajath Ravishankar. Dev tells a friend, Vicky (RJ Vigneshkanth), to do his own thing and not conform to society's expectations. I would have been more impressed had Dev been practising this carefree philosophy without the support of a multi-megabucks daddy (played by a thoroughly underutilised Prakash Raj) — but let's just look at this scene. It doesn't sound like a casual conversation between friends. It sounds like an earnest TED Talk. (His father talks that way, too.)

But at least when it comes to the core conceit, Dev is not just all talk. This is, at heart, a love story, but infused with the spirit of adventure. Dev falls for Meghna (a thoroughly miscast Rakul Preet Singh, glamming it up in a role that required some serious acting). She's a big-time achiever, the boss of her own multi-megabucks company. She's the kind of person whom Dev was lecturing his friend about, the kind that has ticked off each box in the Society's Expectations list. Dev's idea of a peak is something that rests on Mount Everest. To Meghna, it's a crest on her company's finance chart. Will the two worlds meet? Will the two worldviews meet? Will Mr. Adventure and Ms. Achiever find true love?

This is all conceptually fascinating. Dev's attraction to Meghna has something to do with his love for recklessness and danger. (He's, in a way, diving off a cliff all over again.) And Meghna is not just some haughty businesswoman who keeps men dangling. Her father abandoned her (and her mother, played by Ramya Krishnan), and this has scarred her psyche. She agrees to meet Dev only because her mother says she cannot spend her life alone. (She probably has her doubts about this conventional wisdom, but says, "Why not!") Dev is the first Tamil film where the hero and heroine are, for the most part, not madly in love. Or at least, it's the first one where they say, "Let's see where this goes!" Well into the second half, after a Mumbai-Chennai road trip (on Dev's bike), Dev drops Meghna off at her home. As she walks away from him, he asks her for a sign. "Naan idha continue pannanuma venamaa nu theriyanum la?" He's confused about the mixed signals she's sending his way. Should he continue to pursue her? Should he try parasailing instead?

Meghna's not being difficult. Thanks to her abandonment issues, she cannot tolerate the slightest bit of time Dev takes for himself, away from her. She wants all or nothing — if Dev cannot be the kind of man who will be around her 24×7, caring for her, protecting her, loving her, then she'd rather stay single. It's bold of Karthi to have picked such a psychologically twisted romance after the bombing of Kaatru Veliyidai (though Dev, admittedly, is much more "commercial"). Dev isn't a character you see in Tamil cinema. He knows he stalked Meghna on Facebook. It's a thoroughly ridiculous scene where his friends ask him to randomly "friend request" some girl — but at least, at one point, he reasons that as much as he has the right to woo her, she has the right to reject him. And he stays away. For a brief moment, I was thoroughly impressed.

But Dev doesn't work because the writing doesn't work. I've said this a thousand times. I'll say it again. Having an idea for a film is not the same as writing a screenplay. Being able to visualise a film, again, does not mean you have the skill set to write a screenplay. Screenwriting is the art of taking these broad strokes — "Dev likes adventure", "Meghna has issues" — and exploring them over some two-odd hours. Without detailing, these broad strokes become gimmicks. The basic concept never becomes a convincing screenplay, and, by extension, a convincing movie. We keep wondering who Dev is. Did he train as an architect or civil engineer? Is that why he is able to read and redo blueprints? And what's with the thoroughly odd framing device of having Dev's story narrated through a standup routine? Isn't Dev capable of taking us through his own life?

Consistency is the hallmark of a good screenplay.

  1. Characters should behave consistently, and even if they change, the reasons should be consistent with the things that happen to them. (Is Meghna really hurting, or is she playing "what if you leave me?" games with Dev. It's hard to tell.)
  2. The tone of the writing should remain consistent. You cannot be crass and classy all at once. (Why does the apparently upright Dev not think it's creepy to "friend" some random girl on Facebook, even if his friends suggest it? Why does he say he cannot see beyond Meghna's eyes, and yet — before setting out on that road trip — try to lasso an arm around her shoulder, like your average roadside Romeo?)
  3. It's understandable that you want "mass" moments, but they should come across in a consistent manner — not, say, in an action sequence that erupts after Dev randomly sees a random girl (Nikki Galrani) in random danger.
  4. The tone shifts should be consistent. (When a jilted Dev moves from his "love adventure" to actual adventure, climbing the Everest, it feels like we are in a thoroughly different movie.
  5. And even the supporting characters should have consistent arcs. Dev's friend Nisha (Amruta Srinivasan) was also apparently abandoned by her father. Given that this has no bearing on her or the rest of the film (and that the character practically disappears from the film after a point), my response was a big, fat "So what?"

And when this consistency is not there, your screenplay is nothing but a series of odd-fitting jigsaw pieces. If you are going to make Dev fulfil his promise to a dying girl, you cannot introduce this girl some five seconds before she's going to die. (Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much.) If we don't know someone, if we are not invested in someone, how (and why) do we care? There are other problems in Dev – it's not just the screenplay. There's no rhythm in the film. Harris Jayaraj's songs keep cutting in, making a long narrative seem even longer. The visuals aim for coolth and style, but the frames just end up looking shiny and plasticky. Compare the early scenes of dirt bike racing to the ones in Anjali Menon's Bangalore Days. Compare the stretch with Dev and friends in a car to the similar one in Zoya Akhtar's Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Compare the mountaineering scenes to those in Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya. And you'll see that visuals need more than just a camera. They need a sense of mood and pacing. Then again, this is why you need a solid screenplay. Even with all these issues, we would have at least had a halfway-decent movie.

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