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The immortal lover

That the ``Devdas'' syndrome still holds sway is only too evident as the latest version starring Shah Rukh Khan has found its way to the Cannes Film Fest, writes RANDOR GUY.

Suchitra Sen and Dilip Kumar in Bimal Roy's "Devdas" (1955)... despite famous names the film failed to make it big.

LATELY INDIAN Cinema has been going places. ``Lagaan" went West to Hollywood to run at the Oscar race. And now another Hindi movie ``Devdas" with Shah Rukh Khan in the title role was screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. ``Devdas" has been the favourite of Indian filmmakers since the 1920s. The immortal novel of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee written circa 1917 has had an immense impact not only on Indian cinema but also the psyche of the love-lost Indian male!

The story is all about Devdas, a feudal lord's son, falling in love with a poor girl Paro. Due to differences in class and wealth, the weak-willed youth is not able to marry his childhood playmate and sweetheart and Paro marries an old man. However Devdas cannot forget Paro and to dispel his frustration he succumbs to the bubbly bottle. A golden-hearted prostitute, Chandramukhi, befriends him and tries to make him forget his past. But soon he runs away and goes to meet Paro... Heart-broken he dies in front of her house.

The film medium's `obsession' with the novel began in 1928 when the first version was made at Kolkata by Naresh Mitra who also played a major role in this silent movie. The cinematographer was Nitin Bose.Movie began to speak in India in 1931 and the first talkie version of ``Devdas" came out in 1935. The celebrated film company of yesteryear, New Theaters, Calcutta (now Kolkata) produced it in Bengali and Hindi. The prince-turned-actor-filmmaker, P. C. Barua, directed both language versions. Promatesh Chandra Barua (1903-1951), son of the Maharajah of Gauripur in Assam, had a lively interest in arts. He took up the popular Sarat novel for filming and in the Bengali version he played Devdas, in love Paro (played by Jamuna). Rajkumari played Chandramukhi. And the singing icon of Indian cinema, Kundan Lal Saigal was the harmonium-playing singer at the dancing girl's khotha. Saigal was not yet a star and cult figure he would be soon. (Saigal was the hero in the Hindi version.)

The Bengali ``Devdas" had many plus points. The brilliant technique used in the on-screen narration by Barua and his highly talented cameraman named Bimal Roy. Earlier Indian films were mostly photographed plays or canned theatre. These two creative souls changed all that. The parallel cutting to show two events at the same time to enhance emotional impact and increase suspense and tension, it was the first time such a technique was used in the Indian movies.

Next was the music by Timir Baran. A song by K. L. Saigal, ``Balam aaye baso more man mein..." became a hit and echoed all over the nation. Both language versions were solid hits. Not many are aware that New Theaters made a Tamil version in 1936 directed by P. V. Rao who played Devdas. Rao, a disciple of the forgotten pioneer, R. Prakash, was an active filmmaker during the Silent Film era and the early 1930s and directed many Tamil films at Kolkata and Pune. Sadly lack of discipline, addiction to the common vices generally associated with movies and more led to his decline into obscurity. He is forgotten today. Incidentally, Saigal sings a Tamil song at the khotha and his pronunciation of the words is not only amusing but also obscene!

The year 1953 witnessed the filming of the novel in Tamil and Telugu by the Kuchipudi dancer-choreographer-turned-filmmaker, Vedantham Raghavaiah (1919-1971) with the superstar, Akkineni Nageswara Rao as Devadas (Devadasu in Telugu) in both versions. That brilliant actress and multi-lingual star, K. Savithri was Paro while the dancer-actress, Lalitha played Chandramukhi. Both versions were major hits thanks to three factors. The excellent portrayal of Nageswara Rao who reached the heights of histrionics, the empathy-rich acting of Savithri and the memorably melodious music. The music director was C. R. Subbaraman (1921-1952). (Nageswara Rao told his pals later that the director shot all his scenes only at nights keeping him awake to get the drunken, droopy look to fit the role!)

Bimal Roy who made the grade as a top Indian filmmaker of significant films like ``Do Bigha Zamin" paid his homage to ``Devdas" (1955) dedicating the film to Barua, with Dilip Kumar, as hero with stars Suchitra Sen (Paro) and Vyjayanthimala (Chandramukhi). However in spite of Bimal Roy and the top stars the film did not rise to expectations. The multi-lingual star and filmmaker, Vijayanirmala made a Telugu version in 1974 with her star husband Krishna as Devadas. She was Paro and the buxom multi-lingual star, Jayanthi played Chandramukhi. The film had excellent music (Ramesh Naidu) but it did not do as well as expected. Interestingly when this film was released, the 1953 version (``Devadasu") was also released in competition and it attracted large crowds! The prominent filmmaker, Dasari Narayana Rao made ``Devadasu Malli Puttadu!" (Telugu, 1978) in which Devadas is born again while Paro is old and alive!

In Tamil came another re-hash of the tale, ``Vaazhvey Maayam" (1982) with Kamal Hassan as the hero. And a Malayalam ``Devadas" in 1978. At one time Sarat told his pals that if he only he had visualised the negative impact his book was going to have on the youth he would not have permitted his book to be filmed at all!

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