‘Devdas’ for the uninitiated, is based on the literary work of the legendary Bengali author Mr Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Legend says that he never wanted this book to get published because as per his own words, he told his publisher, he had written the novel, under the heavy influence of alcohol! (Botol Botol Mod Khaiya, Likhiyachi!). ‘Devdas’ – the tale of a lovelorn man, who takes to drinking, like a fish takes to water and eventually loses his life to it. There had been many screen interpretations of this story, in multiple languages. So what made this film special that I am writing a piece about it? Let me take you back to the same cinema hall, where I had seen the film and probably got enthralled by the whole theatrics of it.
Twenty years ago, on a rainy day, just like today, I and some of my friends had gone to see ‘Devdas’. The theatre was chock-a-blocked, with the booking counter closing up, like the speed of a tracer bullet. Disheartened, as we turned towards the parking to get our two-wheelers, a magnanimous black marketeer (Bless his soul, wherever he is now!), sold us 4 passes for a special morning show organized by Rotary club, for a princely amount of Rs 100/- per pass! With all of our pocket money gone to the charitable cause of supporting the black marketeer’s hooch fest, we went inside the cinema hall and took our seats.
‘Devdas’ is the story of Devdas Mukherjee, the scion of a legendary Mukherjee family, who is in love with his childhood friend Paro. The divide between the rich and the poor separates the two love birds and now-an alcoholic Devdas ends up at the gates of a courtesan called Chandramukhi. The courtesan falls for this miserable man, who keeps yearning for love. Torn between the two women, eventually, Devdas falls prey to liquor and dies.
The film deviates considerably from the novel and this kind of had created a furore among the puritans and connoisseurs of the literature. While the debates raged on, the film scored brownie points with the viewers for its aesthetics and larger-than-life sets, designed by Nitin Chandrakant Desai and its music by Ismail Darbar gave Shreya Ghoshal to the music lovers. For now, let’s talk about the film and its performers.
It won’t be an over-reaction to state that ‘Devdas’ is a film that screams self-indulgence of its maker, from rooftops. For some viewers, it was a melodramatic, over-the-top performance of the lead actors that called for theatrics all over. Mind you, this was the year 2002, so the subtleties of the multiplex audience were slowly creeping in. For people unaware of the boisterous ways of SLB, this was a bizarre drama that was also self-presumptuous in some way. But there we were, gloriously ignorant of the difference between art and drama, going mesmerized with the scenes getting unfurled on the screen.
Despite its shortcomings and overindulgence in theatricals, ‘Devdas’ worked big time. Opulence and theatrics have always been SLB’s forte. And the camera loved SRK and Aishwarya’s sizzling chemistry. Take, for example, the sequence where Dev and Paro lovingly see each other’s palms to gauge their respective future. Dev playfully suggests that Paro will get married to a rich but older man, whereas Paro jokes that Dev will never get married. This scene almost eerily foretells their eventual destinies. In another scene, where Dev and Paro are madly in love with one another, which SLB equates with the divine love of Radha and Krishna. This sequence runs in parallel with Paro’s mother being forced to sing in the court of women, which she gladly accepts for her daughter’s sake. The song that she sings, is about the Raas Leela. Then there is the epic sequence of ‘Hamesha tum ko chaha..’. There’s hardly a person who hasn’t got goosebumps in this sequence where Dev and Paro get separated with Paro getting married off and going away from Dev’s life, in a palanquin and Dev stepping onto the paths of self-destruction.
Oblivious to the detractors, SLB made Paro and Chandramukhi meet face to face, heck he even made them dance together, in an epic dance-off aka ‘Dola Re’. It was a perfect ode to the two divas who matched step by step. Before the dance-off, SLB, true to his style, had put the two at loggerheads about the man they both loved. If the first half was about Paro’s trials and tribulations, then the second half of the film was about Chandramukhi’s devotion towards a man who perhaps never loved her back or maybe he did! SLB had a casting coup as he cast Madhuri and Aishwarya in the pivotal roles of Chandramukhi and Paro. It was as if, the queen of one era was pit against the queen of contemporary times. Each had equal amounts of scenes, perhaps Aishwarya a little more than Madhuri, but both showed their authority over their characters through their performances.
The ensemble cast that played alongside the lead actors, made the show even grander. Kiron Kher, Smita Jaykar, Jackie Shroff, Ananya Khare, Milind Gunaji, Tiku Talsaniya and Ava Mukherjee who played Devdas’s grandmother were outstanding in their respective roles. The music of the film played a huge role in the film’s success. Each song had a tremendous recall value. Be it the romantic sequence of the song ‘Bairi Piya’ or the grand song sequences of the brothel ‘Maar Daala’ and ‘Kaahe Ched’ – these were brilliant songs and masterfully choreographed. And the background score by Monty Sharma was equally brilliant. The film had a quite a few confrontational scenes that was elevated much higher with its epic dialogues. Such as –
“Tawaifon ki taqdeer main shauhar nahi hotein…Tawaifon ki toh taqdeer hi nahin hoti !”
“Kaun kambakhat hai jo bardshaast karne ko peeta hai? Hum toh is liye peete hain ke yahan baith sake, tumhe bardshaast kar sake!”
“Babuji ne kahaa.. ghar chod do… Sabne kaha Paro ko chod do…Paro ne kaha Sharab chod do.. Ek din ayega, woh kahenge.. duniya hi chod do!”
“Tamasha ab khatam hua..”
Finally, we come to the lovelorn man, who destroyed himself for his unrequited love – Devdas Mukherjee. Such is the enigma of this character that anyone who gets hopeless in love, automatically gets labelled as ‘Devdas’. Over the years, many have played this role including the stalwarts like K L Saigal, Dilip Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee and Sivaji Ganeshan. So when Shah Rukh Khan was cast in this role, everyone held their breaths in anticipation. To be honest, SRK’s performance in ‘Devdas’ had the audience divided. For some, he overdid the drama, almost going overboard with his histrionics. But for most, it was SRK at his absolute best. As the jilted lover, pining for the affection of his beloved, SRK doused himself completely in the character of Devdas. He first appears on screen, as an affluent persona, smoking a cheroot and flaunting his lavish ways of life. Soon he breaks down into a mere mortal, a nobody, yearning for love and eventually when alcohol consumes him fully, he becomes a pale shadow of his former self, who on his deathbed, only wishes to see his beloved, for one last time. In the last scene of the film, we see Paro running down the stairs of her palatial home, to meet a dying Devdas and eventually collapsing at the closing gates, as Devdas breathes his last, whispering Paro’s name, with the red flowers getting strewn around and his arm stretched out, with the name Paro tattoed on it. I would be lying if I don’t say that, at that very moment, I genuinely felt SRK had died. It was that convincing as a performance.
It’s been twenty years since I walked out of that cinema hall in Bhubaneswar after watching ‘Devdas’. I watched the film again about two days later. Over the years, I’ve watched the film many times over satellite television. The wonder, the awe, the amazement remains the same.