Unable to defy his parents, a heartbroken Shah Rukh seeks solace in alcohol and self-pity in the magnificent ‘Devdas’.
JULY 2002 – IF YOUR POINT OF REFERENCE FOR THE DEVDAS STORY is the 1950s film by Bimal Roy, you’ll find Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version the diametric opposite in every imaginable way. The former’s minimalist look versus the gargantuan audiovisual design of the latter. SD Burman’s simple melodies versus Ismail Darbar’s thunderous, chorus-backed, intricately arranged songs. Dilip Kumar’s studied restraint as Devdas versus Shah Rukh Khan’s instinctive, flamboyant characterisation. Suchitra Sen’s silent, docile Paro versus Aishwarya Rai’s force-of-nature reinterpretation. Vyjayanthimala’s submissive Chandramukhi versus Madhuri Dixit’s feminist siren. The contrast is fascinating and endless.
The older version may be closer to Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s writings, but parts of it – the prostitute with a heart of gold, the love triangle, the emphasis on social status – are now beyond cliché. We’ve seen these themes over and over, and don’t really need just another remake. But there’s certainly a place in our cinema for Bhansali’s sumptuous, melodramatic reimagining of the tale, which stands proudly on its own take-it-or-leave-it terms.
The story is the same, albeit with updated physical trappings. Zamindar’s son Devdas loves not-so-rich neighbour Paro, but can’t stand up to his parents’ opposition of this match. She marries Zamindar Bhuvan (Vijayendra Ghatge), while he turns to alcohol and courtesan Chandramukhi and meets a tragic end.
As always, the two women show us the two extremes of Devdas. Through Paro, we see the emotional sadist who teases her with pain, making her wait before removing a thorn in her foot, and later scorns her childish faith in him. Through Chandramukhi, he’s the emotional masochist opting to wallow in self-destructive, unattainable love instead of accepting her willing affection.
This much we’ve always known, but Bhansali goes further. He expands the other female roles around Devdas – his mother Kaushalya (Smita Jayakar), Paro’s mother Sumitra (Kiron Kher), the Kaikeyi-like mischief monger sister-in-law Kumud (Ananya Khare), his grandmother (Abha Mukherjee) – and brings across more facets of the man. The selfish streak that makes him visit Paro first in the face of Kaushalya’s breathless ten-year anticipation of him. The affection and sympathy he invokes in Sumitra, who would willingly let her daughter sleep with him and regrets his loss of Paro. The playful disregard of Kumud that will cost him dearly. And, despite all failings, the unconditional love he evokes in his grandmother.
The actresses dominate Devdas with the most elaborate costumes, the best lines and the juiciest dramatic bits. (Most of the male support, including Vijay Crishna as Devdas’ father and Tiku Talsania as his faithful servant, pales in comparison.) Aishwarya, presented beautifully, does some of her best work as her dewy freshness gives way to aristocratic hauteur. Madhuri effortlessly combines allure and sacrifice, a ‘Devdasi’ in every sense of the word. In the fine supporting cast, the standouts are Kiron Kher, whose naivete results in humiliation, and Ananya Khare, a vamp so scheming she’d twirl a moustache had she been a man.
It’s not just the strong presence of so many women that marks Bhansali’s vision; it’s also the feminist slant to their parts. When a rogue nobleman (Milind Gunaji) belittles Chandramukhi, she points out that the likes of her would not flourish without his patronage. When Bhuvan accuses Paro of still caring about Devdas, she counters that he too has not forgotten his first love, his now-deceased first wife.
Valiantly trying to balance this woman power is Shah Rukh. The star gives an effective performance but its impact is a bit dulled due to his having played several recent roles with this same intensity – the quivering lips, the dancing eyebrows, the staccato laugh. Still, few others can bring such passion to lines like Diya tum jalaati thi par jalta to main hi tha and Kaun kambakht bardaasht karne ko peeta hai!
The real star of Devdas, however, is the director. Aided by cinematographer Binod Pradhan’s genius, he miraculously evokes the exact mood he sets out to create, sometimes through the use of colour, sometimes through the nom tara dhere na background score, sometimes through the use of space in Nitin Desai’s superbly detailed sets.
Bhansali puts across his conceits with astonishing attention to detail. He compares Paro to the moon and then casts golden sunlight on Chandramukhi’s face. He contrasts the Bangla influences in Paro’s speech with the Urdu inflections in Chandramukhi’s. He reveals Paro’s face for the first time in the glow of the lamp she lights for Devdas. He reflects Devdas in Chandramukhi’s mirror and, in a surreal moment, shows this self-image cracking when the mirror explodes into shards. He details the passage of night by the lengthening shadows thrown by stained glass walls. And he stages Devdas’ death under a flowering tree outside Paro’s house similar to the tree seen outside his house in the film’s opening shot.
Then you have the breathtaking musical breaks. Darbar’s score takes liberties with the sound of the period but perfectly wraps around Bhansali’s conception of these sequences. The Bairi Piya picturisation alone shows more about the Devdas-Paro relationship – his arrogance and temper, her deference and penchant for teasing him – than reams of exposition would have. And with such beauty too! Here, the lovers are on a swing made of vines, bathed in moonlight; elsewhere, in a staging that reminds you of Aadha hai chandrama in Navrang, this moonlight makes dewdrops around them sparkle like diamonds. Some dramatic scenes are also picturised like songs, as when Paro tries to ward off an offending insect by twirling a sheet around in extravagant gestures that almost seem choreographed.
You must have guessed by now that Bhansali directs his films like dance dramas or the opera. The beginnings of this style were evident in parts of Khamoshi and the first half of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but Devdas is where it all really comes together. This is simply not something you react to logically. Everything is mounted on such a scale, the emotions at such a pitch, that the only possible response is from the heart. You either take a deep breath and plunge in or stand on the shore; there’s no wading possible.
The sustained intensity of this audiovisual barrage builds emotion rather than overpowering it, and gives the film its continuity, tiding us over portions – like Devdas’ forsaking his London ‘babu’ clothes for the dhoti, his sudden reappearance in Chandramukhi’s life – that the script does not explain satisfactorily. And once you get used to this style, moments that would have been way over the top elsewhere – Devdas sentencing himself to drink unto death, Devdas performing his own last rites – make complete sense.
Only a small portion in the second half grates, mainly due to two out-of-place songs. One unites Paro and Chandramukhi for no apparent reason other than to bring Aishwarya and Madhuri together. The other features Chunni Babu (Jackie Shroff in good form as a libertine with a fondness for poetic dialogue) and Devdas making merry with cronies. These segments of high revelry are squeezed in as Devdas’ death approaches, when what’s really needed is an increasing aura of doom.
But things quickly get back on track in the climactic portions. An earlier sequence of Paro running out to Devdas during the night is recreated in the daytime, with tenfold intensity. Then, he was leaving his house; now, he’s leaving this world. As with the rest of Devdas, visual beauty and emotional resonance collide with such dazzling precision that you cannot imagine another way to end the film. Devdas may be doing the drinking but, after these three hours, the intoxication is all ours.
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