I have always contended that the key to making a palatable film from an unpalatable story is a good director, and Devdas is a good case in point. Its not my favourite story at best of times, but I decided to watch it just to see what Bimal Roy has done with it. While his version does nothing to reconcile me with my least favourite of fictional characters, it does leave me with the satisfaction of having watched a well-made film.
Devdas Mukherjee (?) is the spoilt younger son of a rich landowner (Murad). He runs wild in the village, making mischief and creating havoc in the school. His best friend/staunch ally is the younger Paro (Baby Naaz) whom he tries to bully all the time. But even at that tender age, Paro will not stand for it. When Devdas is in trouble at school and hides away in an orchard, Paro brings him food and refuses to give away his hideout to the grown-ups. But when he hits her for not fulfilling his unreasonable demands, she promptly gives him up to authority and he gets a thrashing!
Tired of Devdas’s unruly behaviour, his father packs him off to a boarding school in Calcutta. Devdas returns to the village occasionally, keeping his childhood friendship with Paro alive. The years fly by. Paro grows up to be a lovely young woman (Suchitra Sen), and Devdas, a handsome young man (Dilip Kumar). The two meet and inevitably fall in love in adulthood. Paro’s observant grandmother thinks the time is ripe for the two of them to be tied in wedlock. She broaches the subject with Devdas’s Maa (Pratima Devi), but his father firmly scotches any attempt to make a match between his son and “the daughter of a poor, lower caste Brahmin” (Devdas comes from a higher caste Brahmin family).
While Paro’s father is enraged by the Zamindar’s rebuff and resolves to marry his beautiful daughter into a richer family than the Mukherjees’, Paro is firmly resolved on marrying her love. She slips into Devdas’s room that night, assuring him that she cares nought for convention and parental authority. She loves him and will marry him in the teeth of opposition. Devdas, however, is made of more conventional stuff. He escorts her home and tries to talk his parents into arranging his marriage with Paro. When permission is firmly denied, he takes off for Calcutta in a huff. Poor Paro is left in a limbo, waiting for his answer to her daring proposal. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he then sends her a letter telling her that he doesn’t reciprocate her feelings and urging her to forget him!
The moment the letter is gone, Devdas is beset with doubts and regrets. He makes his way back to the village, but its already too late. Paro has received his letter. He pledges his love and promises to get his parents' consent, but Paro has had enough of his vacillating. His parents insulted hers, and now he’s insulted her! She’ll marry the man her parents have chosen for her (yay!) rather than this man whom she cannot depend upon. An enraged Devdas hits her with his staff to leave his mark on her face - the gesture of a spoilt child who, denied the toy he wants, would rather break it than let anyone else play with it!
Having indulged in his temper tantrum, Devdas once again retreats to Calcutta. But this time he knows that Paro is lost to him for keeps, and his pain threatens to overwhelm him. He had, on his previous visit, taken up with a dapper, alcoholic-about-town – Chunnilal (Motilal). Now, in his pain, he turns to Chunnilal for help. The latter introduces him to alcohol, and Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala) - a lovely courtesan. From there, Devdas’s self-destructive downward spiral begins.
Devdas hates Chandramukhi - he hates her profession, her kotha, and most of all, the fact that she is not Paro. Instead of being repulsed by his disapprobation, Chandramukhi is drawn to this bitter, angry young man (hmm… she should’ve been born in the 70s - she could’ve had her fill of angry young men then)! She extracts a promise from Chunnilal to bring Devdas over again. Nothing loath, Chunni Babu does. And so, Devdas begins to spend his time mooning over Paro in Chandramukhi’s company! His frequently expressed contempt for her surroundings, her customers, the trappings of her profession, and everything about her, prompts a major change in Chandramukhi. She gives up courtesaning (yes, I know that isn’t a word, but I refuse to use "prostituting"), bright clothes, beautiful jewellery, etc., and changes into Devdas’s devoted (and virtuous) slave practically overnight!
In her married home, Paro is also gearing up to compete in the saintly stakes. Her new husband is a very rich Zamindar, decades older than her, with grown up 'children' from a previous marriage. The wedding over, Paro takes off her wedding finery, and systematically goes about turning herself into a saint. She conciliates her angry step-daughter, earns the undying affections of her step-sons, devotes her time to taking care of everybody in the household, and in general, ascends to the highest planes of saintliness. The only time she descends to normal human feelings is when she gets news of her beloved Devdas whom she still loves wholeheartedly. Didn’t anybody give her the 'Handbook of the Aadarsh Bhaartiya Naari (ideal Indian woman)'? It states very clearly that a woman cannot entertain any feelings for a man that may be construed as adulterous. Funnily enough, her path to sainthood isn’t imperilled by this fatal sin.
Need I tell you what happens next? I’m sure most of you know what happens to Devdas, Paro and Chandramukhi, even if your knowledge came by way of the worst Devdas adaptation ever! Devdas comes over as a weak, spoilt and self-centered, man-child, and the film does nothing to explain why Chandramukhi loves him so! Paro’s feelings may be explained by her seeing in him her first crush and a man romantically going to the dogs for losing her, but what does Chandramukhi see in him? Is she perhaps a masochist? Does she like being upbraided for being exploited daily by rich men, and for living a life that she probably had no hand in choosing?
Considering how much I dislike the story (you didn’t realise that, did you?), there was still a lot to like in the film. My favourite part of the movie was young Devdas and Paro’s friendship. Baby Naaz and the actor playing young Devdas did a great job and their interactions were so close to that of real-life children. Plus, it sets the stage for what follows, showing up Devdas’s spoilt character and Paro’s unwillingness to be bullied or humbled. For the rest, the dramatics were uniformly understated, making it a very quiet sort of film, in spite of all the high drama (a man destroying himself for LOVE!) it incorporates. And the performances were mostly good, with only occasional lapses into hamming - something that all the three leads indulged in, at times! I usually love Suchitra Sen, but here it was Vyjayanthimala who was my favourite. She looked glowingly beautiful, danced very gracefully and was very sweet in the scenes where Chandramukhi takes care of Devdas. And to cap it all, the film comes framed in Kamal Bose’s lovely black and white cinematography which makes the simple sets a thing of beauty.
Considering that this is the most re-made/adapted story of all times in India (and Pakistan too!), comparisons with other adaptations are inevitable. Of all the Hindi versions I’ve seen, this one comes closest to the book, in spirit and in deed. I saw the 1936 version (starring the legendary K. L. Saigal as Devdas) as a kid and all I can recall is everybody’s sing-song dialogue-delivery and extremely theatrical acting. The Sanjay Leela Bhansali version had Shahrukh Khan essaying the role with less theatrics but with all the hamming he could possibly bring to the screen. Of course, my chief gripe with that version was that it squeezed out all the human warmth of the story and replaced it with glitter and glamour. Which brings me to the latest adaptation: Dev D. That does its bit to improve the story, but the artsy cinematography made my eyes ache. Give me the simple beauty of Bimal da’s black and white films, any day!