Based on a story written by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, ‘Devdas’ has been the subject of our films since the silent era and continues to enamour us even today. It has attracted film-makers of several languages in India as well as neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh and led them to attempt several remakes of this story over the past nine decades. The Wikipedia lists 17 versions of the film from 1928-2013. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devdas). However there is also a Bhojpuri version which is missing from the list.
My first exposure to ‘Devdas’ was when as a kid I had watched the 1936 Hindi version of the film starring K L Saigal on television. Though I was too young to comprehend the story and the characters, what stayed with me in my mind subconsciously was the image of K L Saigal with his tousled hair holding a bottle, looking very sad and dejected and singing away his sorrows.
It is only when I watched a superb print of this film on YouTube recently that I understood the brilliance of the film and why it must have been a super-hit at the time of its release. I was completely bowled over by the superb direction, the technical brilliance, the unique story-line, the splendid performances and above all the lovely songs. But to enjoy the film in its entirety one must be able to transport oneself back in time to pre-independent India of 1930s and then sit back and see the magic unfold.
This blog-post is my humble effort towards understanding the enigma of ‘Devdas’- the story, ‘Devdas’-the landmark film of 1936 and above all ‘Devdas’-the extraordinary and enduring image of the hero who attained iconic status and changed the face of the film hero for years to come. ‘Devdas’ the disconsolate lover and protagonist of the film became a cultural icon for the youth of that time. The film continues to be a reference point for all our films and many scenes and concepts of our later films can be traced back to ‘Devdas’. For instance, from then on, it became a common practice in all films for our heroes to turn to alcohol to drown their sorrows.
Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadhyay) is said to have written the story around 1901 when he was about 25 years old but had to actually wait for 16 years to have it published in 1917!!! He wrote several short stories in Hindi and Bengali and many of these have been made into films but none came close to the success which ‘Devdas’ got. In a way the film was a big boost to the author’s career also otherwise he would have remained just another name in the list of the literature giants of our country who never really get the fame and appreciation which they deserve.
When one reads the story, it is remarkable to note that a young man like him had such a good grasp of the societal structure of those times existing in rural Bengal and an understanding of the nuances and intricacies of relationships considering the emotions he was able to weave into his characters!!!
To unravel the enigma of ‘Devdas’, it is imperative for us to start with a broad outline of the story:
-On the face of it, ‘Devdas’ is essentially a story of unrequited love which involves three principal characters- the hero Devdas, his childhood playmate and sweetheart Parvati and a prostitute Chandramukhi, who loses her heart to Devdas. He could never bring himself to love the latter and could never stop loving the former…
-Being a society steeped in tradition, the caste of the families played an important role. Devdas belonged to a family of wealthy landlords or ‘zamindars’ who were part of high caste ‘Brahmin’ society. Though Parvati was also a ‘Brahmin’ yet her family belonged to a lower caste where they took bride-price instead of giving dowry. (It is interesting to note that such families were considered ‘lower’ as against the families who practiced the ‘accepted’ custom of dowry!) For this primary reason Devdas’s parents were unwilling to accept the marriage of their son to Parvati even though they were very fond of her from the time she was a child.
-Smarting from the insult subjected to by Devdas’s father regarding the marriage proposal, Parvati’s father fixes her marriage to a rich but ageing widower with children older than Parvati.
-In spite of opposition from both sets of parents, Parvati comes to him in the middle of the night to confess her love for him and to tell him that she is ready to elope with him. But Devdas has neither the guts to go against his parents’ wishes nor does he wish to smear their reputation. He refuses to accept her, heads off to the city the very next morning and from there he writes a letter to her stating that he had always considered her as a friend and not as a lover.
-After writing this, he realizes his mistake and when he rushes back to her, it is too late as her marriage has been fixed to another and preparations are in full swing. He meets Parvati one last time before her marriage and asks her to reconsider her decision. But after being hurt by Devdas’s rejection earlier, Parvati rebukes him for his cowardly act and states that she does not mind the alliance chosen by her father and had willfully agreed to get married to the old man.
-Both their actions could be justified in keeping with the societal structure of that time; after all, for a son or daughter to go against his/her father’s wish was considered sacrilege in those times. In effect, owing to the societal conditions, parental pressure and Devdas’s indecisiveness, the two lovers are separated forever.
-Back in the city he is introduced to alcohol and a prostitute Chandramukhi by his loafer friend Chunnilal. Though Devdas loathes the very sight of her, he goes to her place regularly to drink and forget Parvati. But even in his drunken state, he never misbehaves with her and keeps his distance. This very quality of his character attracts Chandramukhi to him and she gives up her profession to be able to serve him unconditionally and if possible to rise in the eyes of Devdas.
-In the story three important journeys happen simultaneously. When Parvati starts her new life by entering her husband’s house, Devdas starts his journey of descent by taking to alcohol and entering Chandramukhi’s place and inadvertently Chandramukhi’s journey of purification starts from the time she lays her eyes on Devdas.
-In her new home Parvati is loved and respected by her husband and his children and she in turn goes about her duties willingly and happily. On the first night itself, her husband tells her that an old man like him should not have married a young and beautiful girl like her. He feels she would have been much happier had she married someone youthful like her. He blesses her and their marriage turns out to be a celibate one where he treats her with utmost respect and dignity.
-So in effect the path is kept clear for the fire of the eternal love of Devdas and Parvati to keep burning and lends a touch of immortality to the lovers. Also the helplessness of all the three characters bound by their circumstances is brought out beautifully and makes the audience feel for them. This probably contributes in a major way to add to the enigma of the story and could be a major contributing factor for the cult status it has attained in our cinematic history…
-Interestingly there is nothing ‘heroic’ about the hero of our story ‘Devdas’- who is portrayed basically as a defeatist, is fickle-minded and impulsive in nature, faces the consequences of his actions and decisions by taking to alcohol to drown his sorrows and finally dies a dejected lover. Yet, in spite of his flawed character, our heart does go out to him when he embarks on his last painful journey in deteriorating health just to fulfil his promise made to Parvati to meet her before he dies but unfortunately dies near a tree outside her house without even catching a glimpse of her.
– In the last scene, when Parvati starts running to catch a glimpse of Devdas, the shackles of society once more close-in on her as orders are given by her husband to close the door thus denying her permission to step out and her wish remains unfulfilled. His death scene is thus a poignant one because abandoned and unrecognized by one and all he suffers a sorrowful death bereft of the dignity he deserved.
-Both his heroines though repressed by society, come across as strong positive characters who are lovable, have a lot of inspiring traits in them and in spite of their contrasting personality are bound together by the common thread of their undying love for Devdas. Both fall for this man knowing his weaknesses and seem happy to share their journey of life with him for whatever little time they are destined. Bound by society’s rules and conventions they could never make him their own and in the end are left pining for him.
-All three are depicted as normal human characters who behave the way they do in the story because of the circumstances and the diktats of the societal structure prevalent in those times. Hence the essence of the story or characters can neither be fully understood nor discussed about in isolation of the rural setting of the Bengal of 1900s.
A FEW SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS…
-Right from childhood the relationship between Devdas and Parvati is shown to be quite unique. As a child whenever he would get angry, he would hit her violently and yet she puts up with him because she liked to spend time with him when he was not in his foul mood. This violent nature may be the explanation behind his behaviour when years later he hits with a stick on her forehead and injures her a day before her marriage just to teach her a lesson for being arrogant and to give her a permanent scar which would always remind her of their unfulfilled love. She in turn accepts her wound without any misgivings.
(This kind of violence can be seen in the film Awara also where Raj Kapoor hits Nargis on the beach after she calls him ‘junglee’ and ‘awara’ and she does not utter a word of protest. Here again they had been childhood playmates)
–For that era, Parvati is shown to be a woman of extraordinary character who is both lovable and gutsy and there are many instances in the story where this trait of hers comes to fore. When she comes to his house in the middle of the night to declare her love for him and is ready to elope with him she is not bothered about the smear on her reputation that this can cause. The day before her marriage when she meets Devdas by the river bank she happily embraces him for one last time and lies when her people ask her about the injury on her forehead.
-Later in the story, when Devdas’s father dies, she comes to meet him again in the middle of the night and pleads with him to give up drinking and to allow her to nurse him back to health. For a married woman to freely come and meet her lover like this must have been unheard of in those times. In the last scene when she comes to know that the man who had died in front of her house was none other than her Devdas, she starts running towards the main door not caring about her marital status, her position in the society or the fact that by running like this she had exposed her eternal love for Devdas.
-Though Devdas loathes Chandramukhi’s very presence initially, much later in the story he does comes to respect her and is unable to understand her devotion for him much like he could not understand Parvati’s love for him. This not only shows his inherent inability to understand the feelings of the two women in his life but also perhaps reflects on his reluctance to acknowledge his own feelings for them.
A FEW QUESTIONS…
So what is it about this tragic tale of unrequited love that seems to have such a potent formula for our producers and directors to go back and dig out the script every once in a while?
Is the story accepted by every generation because basic traits like patriarchy, male dominance, chauvinism and female subjugation never changed and remain the same in society even today, almost a century later? Is it because even today in our society caste, religion and language differences continue to cloud our thoughts when seeking marriage alliance and parents continue to have the final say in the marriage of their children? After all, even today men do bow down to family pressure and women are asked to adjust or compromise in life in many sections of our society…
Is it the easy ‘relatability’ of the behaviour of the three characters which make them easy to identify with for the readers and viewers? Or is it the imperfection in their characters which makes them more humane and the story more open to interpretation and discussion thus making it a vibrant story which can be retold again and again?
There is something about the story which maybe cannot exactly be pin-pointed yet it engulfs us, makes us privy to the emotions of the characters, gets us involved in their inner turmoil and draws us into its enigmatic fold…
THE DIFFERENT VERSIONS
The first attempt at creating a celluloid version of the story was a silent film made in 1928 by Naresh Mitra after which the genius director Pramathesh Chandra Barua or P C Barua as he was more popularly known as accomplished the extraordinary feat of making three talkie versions in three languages in three consecutive years- Bengali in 1935, Hindi in 1936 and Assamese in 1937. Though he tasted extraordinary success with the Bengali film itself where he himself reprised the title role, the film became a national obsession only after the release of the Hindi version. Since then it has been made in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bhojpuri and Bengali languages as well by several accomplished directors.
Today most of the different versions of ‘Devdas’ are available online for us to see, compare and reflect upon…
-It is rumoured that Gulzar had also wanted to make his version of ‘Devdas’ with Dharmendra, Hema Malini(Parvati)and Sharmila Tagore(Chandramukhi) !Wonder how that one would have turned out to be…
-All the versions have met with box-office success irrespective of whether they followed the book to the T or made their own alterations. Actors who attempted to play the title role of ‘Devdas’ as well as the two female leads not only turned into celebrities and found overnight stardom but were also appreciated for their histrionic abilities. The film thus gave a great fillip to their careers.
-While the version with Saigal directly starts with a song where Devdas and Parvati are shown to be adults, the book starts with their childhood antics in exactly the same way as shown in Bimal Roy’s version. The dialogues of both these films were almost the same and both are heavily borrowed from the book. Bimal Roy had been the cinematographer for the Saigal’s version made twenty years earlier.
-The actor who plays the step-son of Parvati in the 1936 Hindi version has an uncanny resemblance to P C Barua himself…so did the director himself decide to play the role of the son in his Hindi version???
-Saigal had a walk-on part in the Barua’s Bengali version and sang two Tamil songs in the Tamil version made in 1936. Unfortunately copyright prevents me from embedding the audio here but do try pasting this link on to a new page and the song will be played although clarity is not very good.
-In Bimal Roy’s version, there is a scene where Suchitra Sen and Vyjayantimala travelling in opposite directions come face to face for a few minutes, this never occurs in the book.
-Some versions showed Devdas’s father threatening to commit suicide if Devdas did not listen to him and abide by his decisions. such a deviation affects the essence of the story.
-Director Bhansali took extraordinary cinematic liberty while deviating from the plot. His emphasis on grandiose sets, ostentatious get-up, artificial settings and loud confrontation scenes were not only jarring to the eye, they also took away the simplicity of the village lifestyle and ended up murdering the very soul of the story. Here Devdas returns from London and we even had Parvati and Chandramukhi dancing together!!!
-‘Dev D’ was a modern take on the same story set in the rustic and colorful Punjab and also explores the dingy, morbid, dark underbelly of Delhi. Again a stark deviation from the original.
-The Bhojpuri version had the audacity to change the ending by not only showing Parvati actually crossing the threshold and meeting Devdas but also had Chandramukhi joining her in to cry along with her !!! Which makes us wonder how do these people get the right to deviate from the story so much?
-Another funny deviation I came across was regarding the age of Parvati, her widower husband and his children. In the actual story Parvati is a young teenager who marries a man around 40 years of age and who has three grown up kids. Except for the heroine Jamuna Barua who looked girlish and very young, all the other heroines looked older and consequently the age of the widower also increased. They were doddering old men with the number of children in the Tamil and Telugu versions suddenly becoming more than three with the smaller ones being 4-8 years of age!
-It is said that when Sarat Chandra was shown the Bengali version of the film he loved it so much that he felt it was almost as if Barua had been born to play the role and give it a memorable status. He was all praise for the way Barua ended the film showing the door closing on Parvati which he felt was the touch of a genius. He had not ended the book that way and according to him that one cinematic moment conveyed what a thousand words could not have done.
-Having studied filmmaking in Europe, the techniques employed by Barua in the film were very advanced for that era. The use of ‘jump cuts’ was astounding for the effect it had-for instance, towards end there is a scene when Devdas vomits blood while coughing in the train, he calls out Parvati’s name and the next scene showed a window opening in Parvati’s bedroom with violent winds and she rushes towards the window as she hears her name. All this added magic to the celluloid version !
-Sadly C.R.Subburaman, a harmonium player who gave music to the Telugu version Devadasu did not live long enough to see how popular his music for Devadasu would become. He passed away before the release of the film.
-Unfortunately only six out of the fourteen reels of the first ‘Devdas‘ starring Barua are available and that too have been obtained with great difficulty from the film archives of Bangladesh.
-Much like the character ‘Devdas‘ in the story, both P C Barua and K L Saigal in real life took to alcohol and died prematurely making their real-life images almost merge with that of the character they immortalized on screen…
Though many attempts have been made to re-incarnate this character again and again, the success and impact which Saigal’s ‘Devdas’ enjoyed remains unbeatable. After seeing several versions of the film I feel that though many accomplished actors tried to add their own persona and interpret the character in their own way none could leave as lasting an impression as that of Saigal as ‘Devdas’… He remains the original, others only recreated him.
Sarat Chandra Chatterjee created the hero in print, P C Barua put life into him with his brilliant directorial vision and ultimately K L Saigal transformed himself and became ‘Devdas’ on screen…