As an Indian screen and stage fixture ever since Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s classic novel of the same name was published in 1917, Devdas has outlived two world wars, a couple of regional conflicts, and—oh, yeah—the birth of a nation. For inspiration, however, all modern variations of the oft-repeated story (thinkMuqaddar Ka Sikandar) must eventually bow to the two best-known previous screen etchings of Devdas—P.C. Barua’s stunning 1935 version starring K.L. Saigal and Bimal Roy’s 1955 classic starring Dilip Kumar.
Barua’s Bengali/Hindi dual entry is widely considered one of the most influential Indian films of all time while Roy’s 1955 update, in addition to capturing Dilip Kumar at his moodiest, handsomest best, acquired unintended notoriety when Vyjantimala refused to accept Filmfare’s Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role as Chandramukhi on grounds that her role was not “supporting.” That well-publicized snub remains Filmfare’s only unclaimed statuette.
Far from being intimidated by such heavy historical baggage, Devdas2002 appears intent on going places and proving points. With an acutely bittersweet love story as a leitmotif, this Devdas brings forth some of the finest elements Hindi cinema has to offer. Using a classic tear-jerker love-triangle as a departure point, Sanjay Bhansali and Co. have us witnessing an amazing cinematic event that captures the imagination and entertains to the nth degree.
The story may be familiar. The celebrations surrounding the homecoming of Devdas (Khan), a snobbish scion at an upper-crust Calcutta address in the 1930s, get side-tracked when Devdas shows interest in his childhood sweetheart Parvati/Paro (Rai), she from the not-so-rich family down the block. Unable to bear his family’s animosity towards his choice of Paro as his bride, Devdas storms out on his family, trips hard on the bottle and lands in the arms of Chandramukhi (Dixit), a magnanimous courtesan whose only hope at self-redemption lies in reforming the despondent aristocrat already inching towards self-destruction.
While most of the narrative juggles the public suffering of Devdas reconciling his loss of Paro, the silent suffering of Paro—now married off to a much older widower (Vijayendra)—and Chandramukhi’s attempts at keeping Devdas from slipping off the edge, Bhansali wastes nothing to make sure that the movie gels. Using extremely bold reds and every imaginable shade of deep, rich silk hues, Bhansali creates a feast for the eyes and the ears.
With more than a century of Indian filmmaking as posterity, Bhansali does not shy away from borrowing patented tricks from the old masters. The way the camera captures the simple toss of an ankle-bracelet across Chandramukhi’s gilded dance floor is a nod to a similar scene from K. Asif’s epic Mughal-E-Azam. The gentle shadows outlining a window pane slowly moving across Paro’s lovely, dimly-lit silhouette in an evening shot is a classic Guru Dutt song-sequence trick directly from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, while Chandramukhi announcing her retirement for the evening by closing her eyes and tossing back her midnight black tresses into a waiting receptacle filled with cool water borrows Meena Kumari’s hair secret from Pakeezah.
Musically, maestro Darbar, lyricist Badr and singers Shreya Ghosal and Kavita Subramaniam compile a flawless pack of light classical signature tunes that harbor the trademarks of a fantastic musical score—these songs don’t sound loud regardless of the decibel level they are played at.
Bhansali also takes poetic license by having Paro and Chandramukhi meet face to face, something no previous version of Devdas has dared. By having the two dames appear together for one sizzling dance number—the best choreographed song since Bhansali’s own “Nimbuda Nimbuda” from 1999—Bhansali not only tweaks history but in an empowering gesture, allows Paro and Chandramukhi to thumb their noses at the social hypocrisy responsible for their tribulations.
While all three principals deliver wonderful performances, the most memorable histrionic may just be the one Kher pulls in her role as Paro’s mother. When Devdas’s misguided parents publicly scorn Paro and her mother, Kher, faster than the toss of a coin, symbolically transforms herself into Durga, Bengal’s unofficial patron deity. One moment she is Durga-the-benevolent-mother and the next instant she is Kali-the-avenger, uttering a curse that seals Devdas’s family’s destiny. Kher’s full throttle, thick-lipped presence leaves an impression that vastly outlasts her limited screen-time.
So how does one “read” Devdas this time around? A parable on the decline of feudalism in pre-Independence India? A luminous portrait of an arrogant Bengali nobility? One narcissistic man’s race against his self-conjured personal demons? Or a much simpler love story? Richly detailed and brilliantly complex, Devdas may be that rare film that conquers all those plateaus.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.