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The Devdas syndrome in Indian cinema

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel has lent itself to 12 screen adaptations. A poster of the 2002 Sanjay Leela Bhansali version.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel has lent itself to 12 screen adaptations. A poster of the 2002 Sanjay Leela Bhansali version.  

When Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote Devdas in 1917, he made an impression not only on Bengalis, but on the entire nation. Since then, the novel has lent itself to 12 official screen adaptations (10 completed and two abandoned), from the 1928 Naresh Mitra silent version produced by Eastern Film Syndicate to this year’s glossy by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The subject has also been the inspiration for scores of Indian films made in several languages. So deep-rooted is the theme’s impact on the Indian psyche that the film almost rises to the level of a myth in the Indian context. No wonder, Indian filmmakers return to the subject every alternate decade with the intention of looking at it afresh, giving it a fresh interpretation and reaching a new audience. As D.K. Sircar (the son of Birendranath Sircar, the original owner of the famous New Theatres) mentioned the other day, it’s going to be an unending innings with many batsmen still waiting in the wings to enter the field.

Tragedy as box-office material

We all know cinema started as a vehicle for providing leisure-time entertainment for the masses. For many of its early years, films had to have a happy ending so that the audience left the theatre with the confidence that the hero and heroine with whom they had identified would live happily ever after. Even the world-famous German director F.W. Murnau had to provide an alternative happy ending to his classic film The Last Laugh, where the doorman, brilliantly played by Emil Jannings, wins a lottery and becomes the owner of the very same posh hotel from where he was earlier kicked out after being humiliated and stripped of his uniform. Murnau justified the alternative ending through a title card that states “After all, we are watching a film and I should not disappoint my audience”. What a frank and bold statement to make within a film in 1924!

Devdas was perhaps the first Indian film to break the hitherto accepted convention that ‘tragedy is taboo’ for cinemagoers. In fact, the 1935 New Theatres’ versions in Bengali and Hindi directed by P.C. Barua were such a huge success that thereafter tragedy became a mainstay for the box-office success of a film. Actors who specialised in such tragic roles became icons of Indian cinema. (The name to be mentioned here is Dilip Kumar, who played the title role in the 1956 Bimal Roy version).

The tragedy of Devdas—a young man from a rich zamindar (landowning) family who, unable to marry his childhood sweetheart Parvati due to social taboos and parental pressures, seeks solace in the company of a dancing girl Chandramukhi and takes to drink, ruining himself by embarking on a path of self-destruction—caught the sentiments of the people. The tremendous popularity of the film made Devdas a cult hero of the mid-1930s, gradually becoming a negative influence on the impressionable youth of the country. The sociological impact of the character was so strong that many young men who had similar ill-fated love affairs took to drinking and followed the Devdas path to self-destruction. Director V. Shantaram was terribly upset with the popularity of Devdas. In order to counter the hero’s negative philosophy of life, he came up with Aadmi in 1939, a love story between a policeman and a prostitute. The dejected hero, let down by the woman he wants to marry, rushes to commit suicide. He climbs to the top of a precipice to jump, but at the last moment, changes his mind and walks back home. Significantly, Shantaram titled the film in English as Life is for Living, thereby making a point.

The Devdas syndrome

Actors P.C. Barua and K.L. Saigal, who portrayed Devdas in the 1935 Bengali and Hindi versions, respectively, virtually extended their screen performances to their real lives. Both encountered premature death through excessive drinking and personal frustrations. Nevertheless, Devdas became the most sought-after role for the idols of the Indian screen. Dilip Kumar, who had specialised in tragic roles earlier (Mela, 1948; Andaz, 1949; Deedar, 1951; Daag, 1952 and Amar, 1954) was considered the ideal choice when Bimal Roy planned a remake in the mid-1950s.

The other actor/ director who had so much of Devdas in him was, of course, Guru Dutt. No wonder, the film-within-the-film in his Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) is Devdas. The memorable song sequence ‘Waqt ne kiya’ is an eloquent testimony to the filmmaker’s homage to Devdas and his deep involvement in both the film and the character. Even in his earlier film, Pyaasa (1957), there is so much of Devdas’ Chandramukhi in the delineation of the character of Gulab, the courtesan played by Waheeda Rehman, and the sacred relationship between her and the poet (Dutt) is definitely a take-off on Devdas. Ironically, the alcoholism and suicidal instinct inherent in the Devdas character carried Dutt away in real life.

The Devdas syndrome also took its toll on Ritwik Ghatak, the erratic genius of Indian cinema. Ghatak’s biggest problem was a lack of recognition, at least during his lifetime, as compared to his illustrious contemporary Satyajit Ray. This probably resulted in frustration and self-annihilation. I remember when he took over as vice-principal of the Film and Television Institute of India in the late 1960s, he had asked me to blow up photographs of two of his favourite cinema idols, the famous Russian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko and P.C. Barua of Devdas fame. Ghatak regarded Barua as his alter ego. And though they had nothing in common professionally, they shared similar traits in real life—both had premature ends to their creative life and the common element again was alcohol.

Devdas (1956) by Bimal Roy.

Devdas (1956) by Bimal Roy.  

Some of the classic performances of Indian cinema that remind one of the Devdas syndrome are: Dilip Kumar’s in S.U. Sunny’s Mela and Amiya Chakravarty’s Daag, Raj Kapoor as a TB victim in Aah (1953) and a bed-ridden Rajesh Khanna in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand (1970).

Akkineni Nageshwara Rao identified himself with the character so intensely in the 1953 Vedantam Raghavaiah version that it remains one of Telugu cinema’s outstanding performances. Devdas comes up again for discussion and analysis, both as storytelling and as real-life parody in Shyam Benegal’s intriguing rendering of Dharamvir Bharati’s novel Suraj ka Satwan Ghoda (aka The Seventh Horse of the Sun) in 1992.

The eternal triangle

At the basic plot level, Devdas is a tragedy of three people—a man, a woman and another woman—drawn from different strata of society. In film trade circles, this is often referred to as a ‘triangle story’. Some great films in the history of cinema have been made on this basic plot, from Bed and Sofa (1927), Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) and Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) to our own Mehboob’s Andaz (1949), Raj Kapoor’s Sangam (1964) and Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964), to mention only a few films. It’s the triangular relationship that provides the emotional conflict, though the points of the triangle do not need to be confined to the stock husband-wife-lover situation, but can be extended to other permutations and combinations.

However, Devdas cannot be reduced to a mere love triangle with a tragic end or discarded as a ‘rich boy-poor girl-other woman’ plot; it is much more than that. The social strata of the three characters, their views on life and their values are important elements in understanding their complex relationship. They are not characters specially designed for the screen but taken from life (at least when Sarat Chandra wrote the story). This could explain the popularity of the film, and the gradual mythification of the characters.

Devdas is basically a man of good nature, but one who has been raised in a feudalistic set-up. He cannot help believing that the world revolves around him. In the classic scene where Parvati comes to his room in the middle of the night to discuss marriage, he is more concerned with the possible stigma on his reputation from her daring action, rather than her humiliation. It is only when Parvati dares to question his pseudo-feudal values that he begins to view the outside world differently. In the company of the ‘other woman’, he experiences, perhaps for the first time, pain and concern for others. By the time he finds his humanistic self, he has reached a point of no return. However, there is tremendous faith when he confesses that he is indebted to the two women in his life who made him realise the meaning of life and death.

The two women

Parvati and Chandramukhi are classic examples of the projection of two archetypes of women in Indian cinema—the woman of the house and the woman of the world. The first is the devoted, ever-loving and self-sacrificing, tradition-bound housewife. The second is also self-sacrificial, though she has taken on herself the task to please not one, but many. She is always there to help the hero in distress, very often at her personal risk. This character used to be referred to as ‘the prostitute with a golden heart’.

In the case of Chandramukhi, her sacrifice, in the final analysis, is made for one man only. This places her on par with Parvati in Devdas’ eyes, a respect that she reciprocates by devoting her life to his well-being. We may call one woman ‘the wife’ and the other ‘the mistress’. The indispensability and co-existence of the two in a man’s life is something Indian cinema has exploited in scores of films, be it Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982) or K. Bhagyaraj’s Chinna Veedu (1985). Perhaps one can trace the rationale behind this ideology to Devdas.

The relative importance of the two female characters in the story has been a bone of contention for many an actress. Vyjayanthimala, cast as Chandramukhi by Bimal Roy, refused to accept a supporting actress award, claiming hers was the main, and not the supporting role. While it’s a matter of opinion, it would be interesting to examine how interpretations vary with the passage of time.

The Man-Woman Relationship

Let us consider a couple of identical scenes from the Barua and Bimal Roy versions and see if there are any perceptible differences in the attitude of the filmmakers to the presentation of the man-woman relationship. Once again, let’s take the scene where Parvati comes to Devdas’ room at night. There is a marked difference in the mise-en-scène of the two versions. While in the first the camera captures both favourably, the same cannot be said of the Bimal Roy version where the composition is more favourable to the hero played by Dilip Kumar. The Barua version has dialogue. When Devdas asks, “Where will you go for shelter?” Parvati remains standing and nonchalantly replies, “At your feet (tumhare charanon mein)”. In the latter version, Suchitra Sen, playing Parvati, kneels down, takes the dust from under Devdas’ feet and puts it on her forehead. While Jamuna who plays Parvati in the Barua version stands out as bold and strong compared to Devdas, Suchitra Sen is marginalised and reduced to a pathetic creature demonstrating an ‘ignoble servility to man’ (the phrase is taken from the amended Censor Code).

Again, in the famous hitting-with-a-rod scene near the pond, in the Barua version Jamuna lashes out at Devdas’ male chauvinism, but reconciles with him after he inflicts a wound on her; while in the Bimal Roy version, Dilip tears off a bit of cloth from his shirt and puts a pretty bandage on Parvati’s forehead. And as she walks away holding a water pot, the hero turns around and the frontal shot of his face almost fills the frame, reducing Parvati to a diminishing object in the distant background. The entire action is focussed on Dilip Kumar, and the actor virtually dominates the scene.

And take the last scene. While in the Barua version there are no visuals of the dying Devdas, and all information about the death and identity of the dead person is conveyed to Parvati (as well as to the audience) through a third party’s narration, it is the very opposite in both the Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali versions. The long, drawn-out dying scene, which starts with the chanting of a ritual prayer over a close-up of the actor’s face and the pouring of the holy Ganga water, seems to have been stretched deliberately to cash in on the popularity of the stars. Strangely, the final shot in the original Bengali version is of Parvati and not Devdas. By shifting the focus from the woman to the man, the filmmakers have made their stand on gender equations known. Eventually, it is not the actors’ faces nor the technical gloss, gorgeous costumes, jewellery, glamour, gaiety, and flamboyance that matter, but something else… If the soul is missing, what can one do?

Excerpted from the essay ‘The Devdas Syndrome in Indian Cinema’ in Yesterday’s Films For Tomorrow, a compilation of writings on Indian cinema by legendary archivist late P.K. Nair; edited by Rajesh Devraj and published by Film Heritage Foundation.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2020 9:26:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/the-devdas-syndrome-in-indian-cinema/article17750122.ece

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