The unbearable opulence of Devdas

Print edition : August 17, 2002

In our globalised times, the tragedy of Devdas has been turned into a garish and thoroughly hollow spectacle of pure consumption.

DEVDAS is perhaps the most enduring archetypal hero of Hindi cinema. Unable to claim his beloved in the face of parental opposition, Devdas finds solace in the arms of a prostitute and is gradually consumed by drink. The various characters of this tale of love and destruction have appeared and reappeared under different guises: the hero unable to break the barriers of class and status to realise his love; the heroine, never unfaithful to her husband even though she cannot stop loving the hero; the golden-hearted prostitute and her unrequited love; the hero's suave, urbane friend. Apart from the various screen versions of the novel itself, the basic Devdas formula has been used in several films separated by years as well as genres. For instance, one version of this formula is to be found in Guru Dutt's classic Pyaasa (1957), where the rich heroine (Mala Sinha) spurns the poor poet (Guru Dutt himself) who in turn is loved by the prostitute (Waheeda Rehman). The formula was reworked to fit the angry-young-man films of the 1970s. In Prakash Mehra's Muqaddar ka Sikandar (1978), Amitabh Bachchan as the poor orphan cannot get himself to express his love for the heroine (Rakhee) who is in love with his best friend (Vinod Khanna), and therefore turns to the courtesan (Rekha), whose former lover is the villain (Amjad Khan). If Pyaasa uses the formula as a vehicle to critique bourgeois society, which puts a monetary value on everything from love to art, Muqaddar ka Sikandar uses the angst and the frustrations of the lumpen proletarian hero to reinforce, in the end, a comfortably class compliant framework. Then, Devdas has been reinvented every few decades.

Devdas is Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's 1917 novel, written when the novelist was 17. The novel itself, though immensely popular, is mushy, sentimental, and wallows in self-pity for its hero. In 1935, P.C. Barua filmed it simultaneously in two languages, Bengali (wherein Barua himself played the hero) and Hindi (with the legendary K.L. Saigal in the lead). This writer has seen neither with any degree of closeness to feel confident enough to comment on them. Some points may nevertheless be made. Satyajit Ray had a low opinion of both Barua and the film. He thought Barua's cinema was unrealistic and stylised. Ritwik Ghatak, on the other hand, with more respect for the popular, put Barua amongst the greatest Indian filmmakers. Whatever one's opinion of the filmmaker and the film, it is clear that much of Barua's passion for Devdas arose out of a strong autobiographical identification. Born in a princely family, Barua lost his wife and contracted tuberculosis in 1934. While making the film the following year, he fell in love with and married his leading lady Jamuna, who did not come from what was considered a 'respectable' family background. Not only was Barua under great emotional strain when he made the film, it appears that for the Bengali public as well, the boundary between star and screen persona was blurred. The film, in both its versions, was a great hit.

Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan, two of the lead stars of Devdas, arrive at the 55th Cannes Film Festival in May.-BENAINOUS-DUCLOS/GAMMA

Bimal Roy was Barua's assistant on the film. In 1955, he ventured to make his own version. It is said that his version is more or less authentic copy of the original in terms of its sequences and shots. Yet, clearly, Bimal Roy did bring something more to the film. Apart from sterling performances by Dilip Kumar as Devdas, Suchitra Sen as Paro, Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi and Motilal as Chunnilal, it had great music, haunting cinematography and tight editing, especially of the train sequence at the end. Bimal Roy, as seen for instance in Do Bigha Zameen, also had a keen sense of the contemporary moment and the contradictions he was living through. In his hands, the tragedy of Devdas became a metaphor for the crossroads that the newly independent country found itself at. Devdas was seen as the product of a decadent feudal set-up in the village, system to which he does not belong. The village, in this scheme, represents the idyllic space of Devdas' childhood love, but beneath the surface of this idyll, things are falling apart. His inability to claim Paro, then, stems not simply from personal weakness, but also from a larger historical process of decline of the older landed elements in the countryside. On the other hand, though, his transition to the city is equally problematic - unable to find a place for himself in the new economy, he wastes himself and his family wealth. The city, with its crowds and bustle, represents an impersonal, heartless space, a space where the love-lorn hero is introduced to drink by the 'amoral' Chunnilal, and finds solace in the bosom of the 'immoral' but golden-hearted Chandramukhi. Torn as Devdas is between Paro and Chandramukhi, unable to claim one, unwilling to accept the other, he hurtles inexorably to his doom and death. Thus the tragic love story of a somewhat over-sensitive young man is turned into a cinematic classic by a director who infuses a sense of historical significance into it.

In its latest avatar directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the tragedy of Devdas neither has the passion of personal identification nor is it invested with a larger historical significance. The new version cannot be judged in terms of its fidelity to the 'original' plot or narrative, either of the novel or of the films. The director is well within his rights to reinterpret the work, and in doing that, to also take liberties with the story. In fact, unless there is a new interpretation, the making of the film would be a sheer waste. Therefore, there is merit in arguing that the film has to be judged on its own. But this is not a simple question. What does 'on its own' mean, when the filmmaker is telling us that he is remaking Devdas? Surely, then, we cannot hold previous versions of the film as standards against which later versions should be judged. We will have to ask what the new version offers us in and of itself. In other words, both Barua and Roy used the story to tell us larger tales about themselves or their society or both. What does Sanjay Leela Bhansali offer us using the platform of Devdas?

The first thing that hits the viewer as the film opens is the sheer opulence of it. Everything, from beginning to end - the village mansions, Chunnilal's home, the city brothel, Paro's married home, the tavern, the train, everything - is opulent. And it is all opulent in exactly the same way. Visually, you cannot distinguish between the village and the city. In fact, you never even see the village. You only see two mansions, side by side, and nothing else. The city, on the other hand, looks like a sanitised version of Benares with the ghats gold-dusted and lit with a million bulbs. Look at it in any way, but this city is neither Calcutta at the turn of the century, nor any other city of the real world. It is a totally false, fabricated landscape of endless opulence. The same is true of the clothes. Devdas, Paro, Chandramukhi, and the various characters associated with them, all dress equally ostentatiously. In fact, in the "Dola re dola" song that Paro and Chandramukhi sing at Durga Puja, they are dressed in identical clothes. Though we are told otherwise, Paro's maternal home and its inhabitants look just as rich and prosperous as Devdas'. And it is not even as if this opulence is used to highlight the barrenness of Devdas' emotional landscape. Many viewers have been thrilled by this display of wealth and money. In the publicity blitz that preceded the film, the makers stressed repeatedly that the film cost Rs. 50 crores to make. One wonders why such an enormous budget is required to make Devdas. Such a large budget is understandable for a grand historical like Mughal-e-Azam or an action film with a huge star cast like Sholay. But why Devdas?

The opulence can seem completely illogical, in that the story demands exactly the opposite. Think of Devdas, and you think of dark, sombre shades, and the movement from relative prosperity to rack and ruin. The opulence is not essential to the film. The opulence is constantly present; unchanging and unaffected by both the social and temporal locations of the characters and by the rise and fall in their fortunes. In other words, opulence is a value in itself. It exists in celebration of itself. We are invited into this incredibly rich world, into the glamour and the glitz, and we are invited to assume the position of voyeurs.

Much of commercial Hindi cinema has always been escapist, and has thrived on fantasy. Yet this fantasy has traditionally been that of the poor. This has been exemplified by early Raj Kapoor films such as Awara and Shri 420, and Amitabh Bachchan films of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Deewar, Trishul, Lawaaris, or Muqadar ka Sikandar. All these films, and scores of others, are populist in the sense that they pander to popular fantasies of a world in which, by a variety of means, the poor either find riches, or at least find a place in the sun. Devdas, along with some recent films such as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, is different from the earlier films in that it is a fantasy of the rich. In films like these, you are struck by the riches being served on the screen precisely because there is no logical reason in the story itself for such fabulous riches to be displayed. Why is the Raichand family of Kabhi Khushi... so rich if property disputes are not a factor at all? Why is every frame of Devdas so glitzy when the story demands exactly the opposite treatment? The reason is that in these films, the story, if at all it exists, is completely peripheral to the film. The film becomes basically a vehicle for a fantasy of opulence of the rich: a sleek black helicopter to ferry them back and forth from work, a Rs. 50-lakh dress made of pure gold thread. And to the extent that this is the fantasy of the nouveau riche who have amassed great wealth in the last decade of liberalisation, the fantasy is also quite hollow: in Devdas, the costumes, jewellery, sets and the dcor look loud and garish. This is pure kitsch, pure pastiche.

If the intention is to overwhelm the viewer with sheer loudness - both visual and aural - the filmmaker clearly succeeds. Watching the film is a truly numbing experience. I find it very curious that the one central moment in the film has not come in for any comment. Surely, for the plot to be driven forward, Devdas has to be weak enough to cave in to opposition when the question of his marriage to Paro comes up. In the Bhansali version, though, Devdas is anything but weak; in fact, he confronts his father with some of the strongest lines in the film. And yet, he does not get married to Paro. Why? Evidently, he just forgets. As he storms out of the house after his confrontation with his father, even though Paro's mother is more than willing to let her daughter go with the hero, even though Paro herself runs after the horse carriage which carries the hero, incredibly, Devdas never stops for his beloved. One reason for this incredible twist is of course that Shah Rukh Khan plays Devdas, and star persona being what it is, one cannot show him as a weakling.

But perhaps there is more. Recently, in film after film, conformism and bowing to parental authority has been depicted not as the refuge of the weak, but has been valorised as the choice of the strong. Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, starring Shah Rukh Khan, is an excellent example of this, where the hero refuses to elope with his beloved, determined to get the heroine's father around to his point of view eventually. He succeeds, of course. This, then, is the other fantasy of the nouveau riche: that the social conformism of this class reflects strength of character.

The film itself, if you ignore the glitz and the glamour, is a perfectly ordinary one. Some of the dances are spectacular, but the music is unlikely to outlive the current publicity blitz. The performances are patchy. Aishwarya Rai as Paro gets all of the director's attention and the best shots, but her acting is below par. Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi tries valiantly to save a weak role, though she still dances like a dream. Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas is, well, Shah Rukh Khan - the star, and succeeds in overwhelming the character. Jackie Shroff as Chunnilal is embarrassingly caricaturish. The narrative itself starts flagging halfway into the film, and picks up only at the end. All in all, the film is unlikely to be counted amongst the classics.

At last, a mediocre novel has got the mediocre film it deserved. Perhaps we should thank Sanjay Leela Bhansali after all.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with the theatre group Jana Natya Manch and works as editor at LeftWord Books, New Delhi.

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