Readers Write In #194: Devdas, Melancholia, and the City.

Posted on May 25, 2020

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(by Sagar Tetali)

Why Devdas’ depression is about more than just Parvati, and why it is political.

Indian cinema returns to Devdas every few years, ostensibly, due to the diktats of commerce—a successful formula—but also, it seems, as a way of understanding his predicament, like someone telling and retelling a story, remembering details and attempting to fill in a picture. It is simplistic to say that Devdas’ depression is because of love lost. Sarat Chandra’s novella and some of the screen adaptations suggest that there are more insidious forces at play; Devdas is caught in a storm whose nature he can’t quite comprehend.

Freud differentiates two reactions in the face of a loss: mourning—an extended period of grief marked by disinterest in everyday activity, where memories of the loved one surface one by one, and are processed by the psyche as a way of slowly detaching, and reorienting the person to living life without the person—and melancholia: a similar, extended period of grief with one additional, crippling characteristic:

“a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-reviling, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.”

Devdas’ self-deprecation indicates that he suffers from melancholia—which Freud treats as pathological, as opposed to mourning, which is a natural process of coping.

His swift descent comes as a surprise; when he first returns from Calcutta, we are not sure if he loves her— he seems conflicted and ambivalent until she is married off, following which he descends into a painful, self-destructive abyss. Why is this reaction so disproportionate, compared to his apparent feelings towards her?

“…one cannot clearly see what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either. This indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him.”

The melancholia of Devdas points to the existence of a what, a part of him that he has lost in the process of losing Parvati.

Though Devdas was first adapted for the screen in 1928, its emergence as a cultural phenomenon can be traced to PC Barua’s adaptations. Though prints of the earlier Bengali screen adaptation perished in a fire, Barua’s subsequent Hindi remake with KL Saigal survives and is on youtube.

Notably, Barua made these films when Sarat Chandra was still alive, and from all accounts, the novelist seemed pleased with Barua’s adaptation.

When Devdas is sent away to Calcutta, the novella and most screen adaptations adopt Parvati’s perspective till he returns—but Barua’s film stays with Devdas as he shifts to the city. At first, the rich city folk mock him for his clothes and demeanor, and then, Chunnilal befriends him, helping him buy a suit (while fleecing him in the process).

While the film is performing the evil-city-corrupts-naive-villager cliche (à la Shree 420), this is a thread buried in the novella: that Devdas’ psyche is a victim of his self conflicting with identities imposed on him—the bourgeois city-elite, and the village-dwelling zamindari heir.

The crux of this conflict lies in how Devdas reacts when his parents oppose the idea of marrying Parvati, (imposing the zamindari identity on him). He returns to Calcutta, and writes a letter to Parvati: essentially an exercise in emotional distancing (he apologizes for the difference in their statuses, and wishes her the best for her future)—an attempt to take refuge in the identity of a city sophisticate.

Parvati sees through this deflection, and her angry consent to marriage is the pull of the thread that unravels Devdas, pushing him into his melancholia: he has lost her, and in the process, he has lost an elemental part of himself—the rebellious child, idling in the fields of Taalshonapur with Parvati—to the identities imposed on him through his adulthood. His depression is political: the trappings of class and status ensure that Devdas has no identity available to him, through which he can be authentic in his love for Parvati. What leads to his spiral is more pernicious than the loss of Parvati; it is the loss of a self.

Raghavaiah’s Telugu adaptation Devadasu (1953) endures in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana because of ANR and Savitri’s performances, but also because of the songs, and the state of mind suggested in the lyrics (written by Samudrala Sr.). In the most iconic of these, titled Jagame Maya (the world is an illusion), ANR’s Devdas uses the idea of Maya to advocate nihilism—everything is an illusion, so what’s the point?

Another song has a line that goes: Lahiri nadi sandramulona langarutho pani ledoi—You don’t need an anchor when you’re adrift in the middle of the sea.

Depression works this way—it inundates the contemplation of actions with a feeling of meaninglessness. Philosopher and cultural theorist Mark Fisher, in his 2014 book Ghosts of my Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures observes:

“For the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be, precisely, a mode of playacting, a series of pantomime gestures (‘a circus complete with all fools’), which they are both no longer capable of performing and which they no longer wish to perform—there’s no point, everything is a sham”

It is telling that literature’s most famous depressive, Hamlet, when weighing the choice of life versus death (To be or not to be)—does not counterbalance arguments in favour of dying with the pleasures of living.

“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despis’d love…”

He sees life as an endless ‘sea of troubles’, and the only reason he can think of to not give it up is the possibility of something worse after death. Hamlet too, like Devdas, is struggling with the identity imposed on him—his gentle nature conflicts with that of the vindictive avenger the ghost of his father calls on him to become. Like Devdas, his melancholia is all-encompassing—he is convinced that the world is as his depressive mind sees it, and he is doomed to act within the confines of this state.

The idea of life as empty, elaborate theatre, reflected in the novella in Devdas’ curious, detached speech—’Chandramukhi says she loves me…I don’t want it…People play parts…they darken their faces with charcoal or whiten them with chalk…now begins a new play, a lifelong performance’—is a sign of derealization, now acknowledged as a condition commonly triggered by depression and trauma.

Devdas meets a purgatorial demise away from his city, and from his village, reaching out one final time to the one connection with his authentic self—Paro—and failing. His melancholia haunts our cinema—every movie with a depressive protagonist seems to be either a reworking (Pyaasa, Amar Prem) or a response (Arjun Reddy, Dev D). Like Hamlet, the many adaptations of Devdas over the years are a testament to art’s ability to carry the experience of a condition—allowing us to empathize with it to some degree—through generations in which the condition itself was (and remains) little understood.