Dir: Kavitha Lankesh. India. 1999. 100 mins.
Prod co/Int'l sales: Navajeevana Films (tel: 0091 80 560004). Prod: Kavitha Lankesh, Bharathi Gowda, Arathi Gadasali, Hanumanth Reddy. Scr: Kavitha Lankesh. DoP: S. Ramachandra. Editor: MN Swamy. Prod des: Shashidar Adapa. Main cast: Manja, Kandita Das, Bhavana, Kashi, B. Jaishree, Asif Faroodi. Language: Kannada.
Deveeri is a feature debut of some confidence. That much must be said of this Salaam Bombay-like tale of an impoverished street kid and his protective prostitute sister. But what attracts the viewer most is its very human warmth, which seldom pitches over into sentimentality.
Lankesh based the film on a novella written by her distinguished writer father. It was non-linear in form and thus had to stitched together in a different way for the screen. This isn't always fully successful but does manage, little by little, to detail lives that are survived rather than are lived in India's big cities. The performances are particularly good - Manja as Kyatha, the street boy, is charming without being either innocent or cloying, and Nandita Das as Deveeri, forced into prostitution by the political and social corruption of the society in which she lives, seems very real. Manja himself comes from the streets, and thus clearly knows what the film is talking about. Nobody is solely responsible for the situation in which he finds himself, but everybody is a little guilty.
The film has its rough edges, but they sometimes actually help it on occasion, since the lack of sheen or lush photography gives us a sense of the boy's dangerous world and the sister's desperation to do her best for him while trying, at the same time, to make something of her own life. Deveeri, once two hours but now sensibly cut by the director to 100 minutes, won the International Critics Award at the Kerala Festival, while Lankesh, who comes from Bangalore, where she has a complete audio-video production house, won the Indian award for best first feature. Both prizes were justified for a film that's never simple-minded but can be universally appreciated without undue effort.