The tragic triangle linking the self-destructive Devdas, his forbidden childhood love Paro [Parvati] and the reformed prostitute Chandramukhi was first told in the popular and influential 1917 Bengali novel by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. The story has since become one of the touchstones of popular Indian cinema. This article is my attempt to compare the 3 Devdas films and the novel that inspired them and look at the elements that made this plot a popular theme in Indian Cinema – the association with Indian mythological tales; plot’s role in creating a self-destructive Indian protagonist; and the association the Indian audience places with the characters in the story. In conclusion, I have also made a small remark about the 2009 film Dev- D by Anurag Kashyap which again is based on the same novel, Devdas and is a modern adaptation of the plot. An adaptation starring Phani Burma was filmed in 1928 by Naresh Chandra Mitra, but the first widely influential version was directed simultaneously in Hindi and Bengali in 1935 for New Theatres by P.C. Barua. Barua cast himself as Devdas in the (recently rediscovered) Bengali version, and the legendary pre-playback singing star K. L. Saigal (who has a cameo role singing two songs in the Bengali film) starred in the extremely popular Hindi version; because both Barua and Saigal suffered from their character’s alcoholism, the suggestion of a pathological identification with the role of Devdas has haunted later figures attracted to the story as well. Devdas also exists in at least one Tamil (P. V. Rao, 1936), Malayalam (CrossBelt Mani, 1989), and two Telegu verions (Vedantam Raghavaiah, 1953 and Vijayanirmala, 1974), as well as a Bengali remake (Dilip Roy, 1979), though its most prominent versions following Barua’s film featuring Saigal are undoubtedly the remakes in Hindi by Bimal Roy starring Dilip Kumar in 1955, and by Sanjay Leela Bhansali starring Shah Rukh Khan in 2002. In addition to these many “official” versions of Devdas, the story and its tragic characters have also served as crucial referents for such major Hindi films as Guru Dutt’s PYAASA (1957) and especially his KAAGAZ KE PHOOL (1959), which involves a dissolute director remaking Devdas as a film within the film. Indeed, as Gayatri Chatterjee says, Devdas is the archetype of what she tentatively calls “the genre of the self-destructive urban hero” in Indian cinema.
The basic plot of Devdas has remained fairly consistent throughout its various incarnations, and in bare outline it hardly explains the story’s ongoing fascination. The rich brahmin zamindar’s devilish son Devdas and the middle-class Parvati (affectionately called Paro) are childhood playmates who declare their love just before Devdas is sent away to Calcutta (or, in the most recent version, England) for his education. After the young couple are reunited (Paro’s brother-like playmate “Dev-da,” the novel notes, becomes “Devdas-babu”), Parvati’s family attempts to arrange her marriage to Devdas, but the latter’s father rejects the union. Paro’s family are of lower status, a trading family, and unfortunately, neighbors, and the girl’s insulted family responds by quickly arranging her marriage to a wealthy widower with grown children. Though promised to another, Parvati, in one of the story’s now-famous set-pieces, risks her reputation by coming to Devdas in the night and asking him to save her from a loveless marriage; the weak-willed Devdas hesitates, and decides that he cannot challenge his family and tradition. He is, however, distraught in his decision and, back in Calcutta, seeks to lose himself in drink and the seductive urban demi-monde when his worldly college friend Chunnilal takes him to a brothel. There he meets the dancing prostitute Chandramukhi, who will fall in love with the glum young man who pays yet seeks nothing from her. Three key events carry the story to its hopeless conclusion: Devdas writes Paro an insincere letter denying his love for her, which he attempts but fails to prevent from being delivered; prior to her wedding, Devdas, breaking a childhood promise never to hit Paro again, scars Paro’s beautiful face (originally with a fishing rod), marking her with a symbol of his enduring love (and a punishment for her vanity); finally, as he sinks into greater oblivion despite Chandramukhi’s attempts to care for him after she abandons her profession, Devdas takes a last, aimless train ride across India. Finally, as he had promised (“If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll come to you”), Devdas drags himself to the entrance of Parvati’s home – to which she has been restricted — where he dies just before she is alerted to the presence of a stranger’s body just beyond the massive gates that shut her inside as she runs to him. (While these details may spoil the story for a first-time viewer, it’s clear that most Indian viewers come to any telling of the tale with the plot well-known and its now-familiar highlights eagerly anticipated with each retelling.) As a narrative centered around love in separation (viraha), Devdas evokes the story of Krishna and Radha, an echo made explicit in Bimal Roy’s film when, replicating a scene from the novel, Paro pays a Vaishnava couple (replacing three women in the text) with three rupees she is holding for Devdas, while a recounting Radha’s longing for the absent Krishna plays in the background and thus grounds this story in Hindu tradition and myth. Yet at the same time, the character of Devdas is explicitly “modern” in terms of his education and dress when he first returns from college; the novel outfits him in “foreign shoes, bright clothes, a walking stick, gold buttons, [and] a watch – without these accessories he felt bereft.” More significantly, Devdas is a modern thinker, especially in his challenge to (at least the idea of) arranged marriage, in his cigarette smoking (which in the film versions replaces the novel’s hookah), in his addiction to the “Western” associate of alcohol, and in his attraction to the world of brothels (aided by the cosmopolitan but irresponsible Chunnilal). As several critics have noted, the movement between the village and the city, the story’s cycle of departure and return that abets the young man’s descent, is also fundamental to the experience of Indian modernity, and the consequent alienation from tradition. As such, the hero’s perhaps attractive rebellion is offset by his continually emphasized weaknesses: he is spineless, cruel, narcissistic, and a virtual Hindu Hamlet in his frustrating inability to act, especially when action seems most necessary. The role is then a complex one for a film “hero,” at least in the decades before the “anti-hero” redefined the qualities of the protagonist in the 1970s. While many “feel-good” Hindi films celebrate the careful balance of tradition and modernity – for instance in recent films where arranged marriages and love matches happily cohabitate – Devdas dramatizes the tragic inability of tradition and modernity to achieve balance: the home and the world are the story’s ultimate tragic couple.
P. C. Barua’s Hindi version of Devdas, with cinematography by the young Bimal Roy, is one of the most important films in Indian cinema history, though modern audiences will probably find Barua’s film “primitive” and Saigal’s performance stilted (with carefully enunciated Hindi that always sounds quoted rather than spoken), but for its time the film is quite remarkable and formally inventive, using songs and voiceover dialog, for instance, in ways that were innovative for early sound cinema. And many enduring fans will attest that Saigal’s “evergreen” songs have not lost their power and appeal. Unlike the novel, or Bimal Roy’s own remake of the film he first photographed, Barua’s Devdas does not introduce his main characters as children, but as naïve young adults; Barua, however, does suggest that, the title aside, this is largely Paro’s story, as she introduces the narrative. Despite the title of most “official” versions, the story of Devdas is always the story of the doomed relationship between three pivotal characters, and most of its filmed versions take advantage of film techniques to emphasize the deep, almost supernatural ties between them. Critics often cite the film’s use of parallel editing, most notable when, late in the story, Devdas cries out and the film cuts to Paro stumbling, then back to Devdas falling in his train car. Whether this device was Barua’s innovation is hard to determine, but its use of a distinctly cinematic technique to suggest a “telepathic” connection between the separated lovers remains powerful.
Perhaps the best-known version of Devdas was produced in 1955, and directed, again, by the cinematographer of Barua’s 1935 films, Bimal Roy. Most memorably, his version provides unforgettable performances by Dilip Kumar, Vyjayantimala (originally from South India) as Chandramukhi, and Suchitra Sen (from Bengal) as Parvati. Following the novel, but also picking up on what had by then become something of a tradition in Hindi films Roy introduces his protagonists as children and will carry them to young adulthood through a transitional dissolve, in this case by focusing upon the richly condensed image of a closed and then open lotus in the river where Paro gathers water, an image that suggests the girl’s “blossoming” as well as the cyclical revolutions of nature, and with an object that moreover connotes the nation. When the boy Devdas calls Paro from her room by tossing stones at her window, an effective crane shot travels with her from an upper floor to the gate where she meets Devdas below. Years later, when Devdas has returned from Calcutta, the shot replicates itself exactly without much fuss, so that the film itself suggests a basic, enduring relationship despite the passing of years, and the embodiment of the characters by a different set of adult actors. A moving camera also underlines a key scene, when Paro and Chandramuki view one another on the road. In the original novel, the two central female characters never meet, but filmmakers have been unable to reconcile themselves to their complete isolation from one another. While the most recent version of the story allows its superstar heroines to indulge in considerable female bonding, Roy’s film merely suggests this possibility through a quiet but formally powerful moment.
Most recently, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s extravagant 2002 release starring Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas, Aishwarya Rai as Paro, Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi, and Jackie Shroff as Chunilal is said to be the most expensive production in Indian film history till then. Although the original context for Devdas is specifically early 20th-century Bengal, the persistent return to the character and story throughout Indian popular culture suggest that they have become archetypes with broad application and appeal. But Bhansali’s film, presented as an explicit tribute to Barua, and Bimal Roy, also suggests that the relevance and appeal of Devdas may be fading into the historical past; his elaborate sets and costumes render the historical past as spectacle rather than as artifact, and so his early 20th-century Calcutta resembles an elaborate fantasy rather than a lost, recreated time and place. On its surface a rather simple story, in this recent incarnation Devdas has become musical and exaggerated. Bhansali’s film is an opulent, extravagant spectacle, filled to the brim with elaborate sets and stunning costumes, and it is often shot with breathless, rushing steady-cam shots of swirling action and color. The soundtrack pounds away with thunderous beats at every emotional high or low point. As Anup Singh suggests, the director’s aim seems to be to render the story’s strong emotions through the film’s hyperventilating style as well as the situations of the characters. But this abundance – if this is indeed India’s most expensive film to date, the money, as they say, is on the screen – constantly threatens to overwhelm what remains at heart a simple, if psychologically complex, story. Bhansali’s film places its characters within a modernity that is now so far past that it must be artificially overstated, as Devdas’s arrival in now-comic early 20th-century Western fashion (including a monocle and cigarette holder) emphasizes for a short while. Thereafter, the film’s setting is taken over by the elaborate sets which compete with the story and characters for the audience’s attention. The film is thus neither updated (by, for instance, making Devdas a drug addict rather than an alcoholic) nor genuinely historical, techniques which might have forced the audience to compare its present situation to the represented past. By creating a fantasy space with only slight reference to the real world or historical context – the film generally avoids specifying its time or place directly – the film constructs a fantastic vision of a romantic “Bengal” that may be as exotic for the film’s (North) Indian audience as for its diasporic (and non-Indian) viewers. (If, for instance, the film is obviously favoring the “modern” love match over the traditional arranged marriage, then the return of the arranged marriage in so many of the mega-hit family films of recent years suggests that the “modern” position can hardly be assumed for contemporary viewers.) Moreover, this version’s decision not to first depict Devdas and Paro as children, except later, in brief flashbacks (with Devdas hardly depicted at all), tends to take the story out of a tradition – developed in part by earlier versions of this story and associated works – of presenting true lovers as recognizing one another even as children, whose passion never “grows up” or adjusts to the pressures of class, caste, or economic realities. While the childhood infatuation of Devdas and Paro is frequently described in dialog, the avoidance of the characters as children – in part, I think, an effect of Shah Rukh Khan’s prominent boyishness in his screen persona – makes their lifelong love and Devdas’s Krishna-like mischief something we must trust upon hearing from others rather than something we are given to witness. The lifelong attachment of Devdas and Paro is richly grounded by the first sections of Bimal Roy’s film, whereas Bhansali trusts that mere reference to their childhood devotion will suffice. Although it might be argued that none of the stars of the latest version of Devdas were capable of carrying the weight of these now-legendary roles, the film has the odd effect of its actors improving as the film proceeds. Shah Rukh Khan achieves some of the gravity of his character once the boyish qualities that have defined him as a star are no longer appropriate, and Aishwarya Rai – for the first half perhaps the dimmest Paro in the story’s tradition – seems to perceptibly gain increased knowledge of, if no control over, the social forces defining her. (As depicted in earlier versions, Paro is a simple but by no means stupid girl, and so Aishwarya Rai’s emphatic simplicity seems a disservice to the character: the fact that she actually keeps a candle burning for Devdas implies a too naïve mind as well as devotion.) Madhuri Dixit, here playing a “mature” character now that she is an “older woman” by Hindi heroine standards, provides the film’s standout performance, and constructs perhaps the single character whose feelings seem genuine throughout; an elaborate song-sequence in which she and Paro interact (to an extent unprecedented in earlier versions) is unexpectedly effective in demonstrating Chandramuki’s basic goodness, undeserved abjection, and passionate drive, all registered through Madhuri Dixit’s expressions and postures. As the unwitting aide to Devdas’s self-destruction, Jackie Shroff, in a cameo as the unintentionally destructive Chunnilal, is also memorable. Yet even these worthy performances must continually compete with the film’s dazzling – but ultimately distracting – costumes and scenery, all again presented through a hyperactive camera and unrelenting soundtrack. As with each previous version of the story, this film’s strongest moments are in small details and gestures, but the film itself seems to have been made with the mantra that “size matters” as it persistently boosts and trumpets many of its otherwise most delicate moments. Although Bhansali’s film was a commercial hit that played in major cinemas worldwide, its long-range impact seems less certain than that of previous versions of the story.
The classic Devdas story is a readymade platform for endless psycho-analysis and study of social framework of the age. While the original tale relied on the notions of platonic love, Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D is all about physical love. Devdas is a coward who succumbs to social prejudices and carries over the guilt throughout his whole life without a chance for atonement. He drinks in order to forget his cowardice. Dev D, on the other hand, isn’t hampered by the social norms. As a matter of fact, none of the characters in the film are. Even Dev’s father Satyapal has thoughts of Dev’s betrothal with Paro (which is totally opposed to the original story). Dev’s only inhibition is himself – his bloated opinion of himself and his excessive narcissism – a point that Kashyap reinforces regularly. Caste becomes a lame excuse and a sheath to hide from one’s own insecurities. In fact, the society is completely devoid of control on the character’s decisions unlike the book. Dev drinks to hide from the guilt of his hasty decision. However, unlike his predecessors, the Devdas in Dev-D does not die early due to his alcohol addiction and unending love for Paru, Dev here leads a happily-ever-after-life with his Chandramukhi. A lucky escape from an accident makes Dev realize his mistake and leads to a scenario wherein he turns over a new leaf and the plot leads to a perfect, happy ending. Whether the myth of Devdas maintains its power in the Hindi Cinema into the future as well is yet to be seen, but in any case the story of a young man who dies too young has seemed immortal in Indian cinema and thus different versions of the same tragic thread is prone to be an inspiration for the future filmmakers to produce various versions of the same old tale.
Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s Devdas
1935, 1955 and 2002 film versions of DEVDAS
Asjad Nazir’s essay “The Changing Faces of Devdas,” in Eastern Eye (London) 5 July 2002 P. K. Nair, “The Devdas Syndrome in Indian Cinema,” Cinemaya56/57 (Autumn-Winter 2002 Anup Singh’s “Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas and the Intensity of the Self,” Ravi S Vasudvan, “The Politics of Cultural Address in a `Transitional’ Cinema: A Case Study of Indian Popular Cinema,”