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One hundred years of Sarat Chandra’s ‘Devdas’

Tags: devdas sarat film

Devdas_Sarat ChandraSome time back, there was an interesting discussion between Ashok Kumar Tyagi and Hans about the story of Devdas and as to why Sanjay Leela Bhansali took so much liberties with it. I doubt if they realised that it was the centenary year of the publication of Sarat Chandra’s eponymous novel. Such coincidences have often happened on SoY. When I was planning to celebrate 2014 as the centenary year of Anil Biswas, his daughter Shikha Biswas Vohra happened to visit SoY, and on my request, she wrote the inaugural article of the series on him. Last year, a new visitor RS Ramaswamy visited some old posts and commented about MS Subbulakshmi. It happened to be her centenary year, and N Venkataraman wrote an excellent tribute to her.

It is believed that Sarat Chandra wrote Devdas in 1901 when he was just 25. He was against its publication as he thought his writing was immature and the character was over-sentimental. But on the persuasion of his friend Pramathnath Bhatt, he allowed its publication in his journal ‘Bharatvarsh’ (March 1916 – April 1917), and later as a book on 30 June 1917. Its first film adaptation was in the silent era, in 1928, directed by Naresh Mitra, and starring Phani Sarma, Tarakbala and Niharbala. Its next adaptation was in the early years of the talkies – the bilingual (Bengali and Hindi) versions in 1935 by the New Theatres, both directed by PC Barua, he also playing the lead role of Devdas in the Bengali version, which was played by KL Saigal in the Hindi version. This became a landmark in the history of films, making the New Theatres the Gold Standard of film making, and KL Saigal a national sensation as a singing star. Its cinematographer, Bimal Roy, remade the film in 1955 as a tribute to PC Barua and KL Saigal. This, too, earned a wide acclaim as the most authentic film adaptation of the novel, and a great classic. The third Hindi version, in 2002, by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, which triggered the discussion between Tyagiji and Hans, has evoked mixed responses. People have been awed by its opulence; it has also won several awards, but serious lovers of cinema have been critical of the ‘liberties’ Bhansali has taken with the book.

There has been a highly stylised inspiration Dev. D (2009), directed by Anurag Kashyap. This, obviously, can’t be called an adaptation. Along the way, there have been numerous film adaptations in other languages.

Whenever a classic is adapted into a film, the two most common questions asked are: How far is the film faithful to the source? And whether the book or the film is superior. But another, and more important question in the context of Devdas is: This is the story of a weak-willed character who, unable to defy parental objection to his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, dissipates himself and self-destructs in alcohol. What is there in it that has charmed millions of readers transcending barriers of language and culture for a hundred years, and has inspired generations of filmmakers? Let us take a look at the book, the author, and the three Hindi film versions to seek answer to these questions. That would also be a fitting tribute to the classic novel Devdas on the centenary of its publication, and to Sarat Chandra.

Devdas: The Novel (published on 30 June 1917)
Author: Sarat Chandra Chatterjee

Devdas_Sarat Chandra 2The novel opens with the village pathshala scene where the monitor, at the behest of the guruji, is minding the class. The children, Devdas and Paro, are inseparable friends – he, troublesome and arrogant, causing so much exasperation to the teacher that he is not allowed to go out during recess; she, proud, sensitive and sympathetic. She stays behind to give him company in his punishment. Devdas, out of mischief and anger, pushes the monitor off the stool on a heap of dirt and grime. Paro is beside herself with laughter. The guruji is furious, Devdas runs away, the class is sent after him to catch him; Devdas causes further mischief, pelting stones on the pursuing crowd and injuring several of them. Guruji leads a delegation of angry and hurt students to Devdas’s father, the zamindar Narayan Mukherjee, who is furious at his son’s wayward behaviour. The novel has some more scenes of Devdas’s wild pranks, his hiding in the expansive orchard out of fear of his father, and Paro stealthily bringing him food. Finally, Devdas’s father decides enough is enough and packs him off to Calcutta for studies under the guardianship of his Mamaji. I should add here that among the three Hindi film versions, only Bimal Roy’s adapts this faithfully. PC Barua’s Devdas (1935) opens with the adult Paro (Jamuna) being drawn towards Devdas (KL Saigal) singing Baalam aye baso more man mein under a tree. Bhansali’s opens with scenes of excitement at Mukherjees’ haveli at the news of the return of Devdas (Shahrukh Khan) from ‘London’ after completion of his studies.

A fairly substantial part of the slim novel is devoted to the childhood of the principal characters. This helps delineate their characters and their relationship. Devdas takes Paro for granted, and considers it his right to boss over her and also hit her if he thinks she deserves punishment. But Paro is no doormat either. While deeply in love with him, she is full of pride and self-respect. When they grow into adult lovers, it is an extension of their childhood relationships, and this helps in understanding many critical scenes between them which lead to irretrievable disaster later in their lives.

Many years pass by. Devdas comes to his village Tal Sonapur off and on during vacations from Calcutta and meets with Paro and Chhoti Chachi (i.e. Paro’s mother). The lovers have free access to each other’s houses and are treated with great affection by each other’s families. In this scenario, it was natural for Paro’s mother and grandmother to think of her marriage with Devdas as the most natural thing. But they did not anticipate that their lower social status compared to Mukherjees and their old tradition of accepting money in daughter’s marriage would be an insurmountable obstacle. Neelkanth Chakravarty (Paro’s father) himself detested this practice, and was confident that his daughter would be married on her own merits. But when Paro’s grandmother broaches this with Devdas’s mother, she does not get instant endorsement. Devdas’s mother gives a wry smile which conceals several emotions. For the moment, she disposes the proposal by saying that ‘’He” (Devdas’s father) would not agree. However, she gingerly mentions this to her husband at dinner time, hoping against hope that he would agree. But seeing his gross contempt for Paro’s family, she does not press further, rather owns up herself that she had rejected the offer.

The news of rejection makes Paro’s father furious. He is angry at his mother for inviting this humiliation to his family by her ill-thought approach. He would avenge it by arranging Paro’s marriage in even a richer family than the Mukherjees. He is true to his word, Bhuvan Chaudhary of Hathipota village was a bigger zamindar. The fact that he was 40 years old and a widower with grown up children was trivial compared to the pressing need of ticking off the Mukherjees.

Paro is unconcerned at this news, because her ‘swami’ was Devdas. She was confident that whenever Devdas was married, it would be to her. Therefore, she is not afraid of stigma, or people recognising her when at the dead of the night she walks across to Devdas’s house, and going past the darwan, confidently goes up to his bedroom. In the first turning point in the story, Devdas falters. Unprepared for such an eventuality, he asks in shock: So late in the night? Have you come alone? Were you not frightened? How did you enter the house, didn’t anyone see you? Did anyone recognise you? How would you face slander and shame? Paro is cool, no I am not scared of ghosts and spirits; yes, darwan might have seen me; people know me here, some of them might have recognised me; and where is shame in coming to you? You are my swami, I know you would cover my shame and protect my dignity. I have come to surrender myself at your feet. Devdas cannot get himself to commit in the face of parental objection, and quietly escorts her back to her house. In the morning, he does tentatively mention marriage with Paro to this father, but he is unmoved. Back he goes to Calcutta in a thoroughly lost and disoriented state.

Paro is still hopeful, but in the second turning point in the story which becomes irreversible, she gets a letter from Devdas that he can’t marry her by making his parents unhappy. He compounds it further by stating that he never thought of his relationship with her as love. His only pain was that she was suffering so much on his account. ‘Please try to forget me, you have my blessings from the core of my heart that you be happy.’

After dropping the letter(-bomb) in the letter-box, Devdas is immediately filled with remorse. He has shifted in the meanwhile from his Mama’s place to a mess. As he is tossing and turning in his bed restlessly, a co-boarder Chunnilal, who has been trying to complete his BA for nine years, returns that night unusually early for him at 1AM, and finding Devdas in great torment, offers to take him to a place of pleasure where such pains vanish. However, the next day, Chunni Babu finds a determined Devdas, all packed up, and ready to leave Calcutta for good and go back to his village.

In the next turning point, Devdas is fishing at the village pond where Paro usually comes to fill her water pitcher. She tries to go her way after doing her chores, but Devdas calls her, I have come back. “So?”, she snaps. Devdas tells her he would persuade his parents for the marriage. “And what about my parents, their honour and wish do not matter?” An apologetic Devdas asks her, have you forgotten me? Parvati is unsparing and turns the screw some more, “How can I forget you? From childhood, I have known you and I have feared you. You want to frighten me again? Leave my way; if you are big people, my father is not a beggar either. Go ahead, if you want to malign my character.” And, in what is by now a familiar iconic scene, Devdas exclaims, Oh such pride! It is not good to be so beautiful, it makes one arrogant, even moon has a black spot. He hits her hard on the forehead with the butt of the fishing rod.

As Devdas tears his shirt and tends to her wound, this becomes one of the most moving scenes in the story. No two persons loved each other more intensely, yet they are destined not to unite. For Sarat Chandra, unrequited love is the highest form of love. Paro gets married to Bhuvan Babu, becoming the mistress of a big household and mother of two grown-up sons and a married daughter. A defeated, helpless and forlorn Devdas goes back to Calcutta with nothing on him. He spends the entire night wandering around in the city aimlessly. Finally,  he staggers towards the mess where Chunni Babu takes care of him. Devdas is not in a mood to resume his studies or sit for examination. He asks Chunni Babu to take him where the latter goes. He also needs some relief from his miseries. In this state of mind, even his family retainer Dharma Das’s entreaties to come back for the sake of his inconsolable mother has no effect on him. Chunni Babu takes Devdas to the kotha of Chandramukhi. But Devdas is bitter with life, with women, with love, and does not conceal his contempt for her. She had never seen a customer like him. She instantly develops a deep empathy for him, but he is too far gone down the cliff for even her most sincere affection and care to be able to retrieve him. As he leaves, throwing money at her contemptuously, Chandramukhi returns the money to Chunni Babu, and pleads with him to bring Devdas once more after he recovers.

It is downhill all the way for Devdas. Chandramukhi’s entreaties to give up alcohol is of no avail, because now it is not an addiction, it has become his life. At the funeral of his father, Paro also comes for giving him comfort. She has by now come to know that alcohol has taken over Devdas. Her entreaties, too, to give up alcohol are met with a painful reply: Is everyone capable of doing everything? Can you promise not to remember me ever? Can you run away with me? Finally, on her earnest pleadings to let her take care of him, Devdas replies in a heart-rending voice: OK, if this gives you any satisfaction, I shall remember it, I promise I would come to you before I die.

Now we know the inevitable. The widowed mother goes off to Kashi for six months. In Calcutta, Chandramukhi has renounced everything and has wound up her Calcutta establishment to shift to a small village, only waiting to meet Devdas once before leaving. Both Paro and Chandramukhi separately go to Tal Sonapur looking for Devdas as they have heard of his pathetic condition. They miss him, but knowing that he might be somewhere in Calcutta, Chandramukhi goes back there looking for him. She finds him finally, and her care improves his health to some extent. But his drinking continues unabated, which has eroded his body to a point of no return. On Dharma Das’s insistence, Devdas goes to Allahabad, Lahore, Bombay etc. for recuperating. But his body has been ravaged, afflicted with serious illnesses. It is frightening to look at him. Finally, he takes a seemingly endless train journey. As the train stops at Pandua, he remembers that this is the place where one has to get down for going to Hathipota, Paro’s sasural. As his life is ebbing away, he desperately asks the coachman to go faster. The coach is indeed able to reach him there in the midnight when he is still not quite dead. By the dawn, a crowd starts collecting around his dying body. When he is finally gone, no one is willing to touch his body; it is given over to chandals who consign it to vultures and animals. From the letters, tattoo etc. found on his body, it is clear he is Paro’s Devdas from Tal Sonapur. She runs to meet him, but this would be scandalous, therefore, her family and servants run after her to stop her. The huge gates of the haveli are banged shut on her. Her limp body is brought inside.

Sarat Chandra’s description of Devdas’s death may appear more graphic and macabre than we are familiar with in the film adaptations, but his deep sympathy for the character is quite obvious, as he (the author) says in the end:

Now at this distance in time, we don’t know what happened to Parvati or how she is, nor am I interested in knowing about it. But for Devdas, my heart cries out, and anyone who reads this story would probably be as pained as I am. If you happen to know anyone as unfortunate, reckless, wayward and sinful as Devdas, please pray to God for him, that whatever may happen, he should not have this kind of death. Death is inevitable, but there must be a touch of a loving hand on his head, so that he dies in peace looking at a compassionate face and tears in the eyes of someone.

The author: ‘आवारा मसीहा’ Sarat Chandra Chatterjee
(b. 15 September 1876; d. 16 January 1938)

Sarat_Awara MaseehaSarat Chandra was the third pillar of the great trinity of Bengali literature after Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore. But no writer faced as much slander and controversies about his personal life as him. Bankim Chandra was revered as the father figure of Bengali literature and a leading light of Bengal’s renaissance. He was the inspiration for Indian nationalism based on our great cultural traditions. Rabindranath Tagore, born in an aristocratic family, was a man of multi-faceted talents: writing, painting, music. Widely regarded for his internationalism and humanism, he won the Nobel Prize for literature – the first Asian to be given this honour – for his transcendental poetry. He became an icon of Bengali pride.

Sarat Chandra, on the other hand, had no such pedigree. Born in village Devanandpur in Hooghly district (Bengal) to Motilal Chatterjee and Bhuvanmohini, Sarat Chandra was second among five siblings: an older sister Anila, two younger brothers Prabhas and Prakash, and the youngest sister Susheela. He had an impoverished childhood, as Motilal was more of a dreamer having interest in arts and literature, and incapable of holding a regular job and providing for the family. But, lineage mattered more in marriage and, thus, he was married into a well-known aristocratic Ganguly family of Bhagalpur.

When Bhuvanmohini found it impossible to manage the household even after selling off her jewellery, she had no option but to seek shelter with her father Kedarnath Ganguly, and her uncle Aghornath Ganguly when Kedarnath was no more. Sarat, thus, spent a large part of his childhood and adolescence at Bhagalpur in different spells. The Gangulys welcomed them with great affection, even when their own financial condition deteriorated. But, living as gharjmai was never an honourable option for Motilal. As for Sarat, in spite of all the affection showered on him, and in spite of being more a friend with several Mamas who were his age in the large joint family, he had a sense of discomfort, which is reflected in Devdas leaving his Mama’s house for a boarding house in Calcutta.

Sarat Chandra was a mischievous child; he had a constant companion Dhiru in his pranks. Sarat and Dhiru of Devanandpur became the children Devdas and Paro of Tal Sonapur. Sarat was a reckless and wayward adolescent during his Bhagalpur days, but he was extremely popular among his ‘gang’ for his story-telling abilities and his melodious voice. One of the more notorious members of the group was one Raju, who fascinated him, because Raju was not afraid of any danger when it came to helping outcasts of the society. This Raju became Indranath of ‘Srikant’, Srikant himself being quite a good deal the restless wanderer Sarat. With Raju, he often visited a tawaif Kalidasi. The main attraction for Sarat was his interest in music and melody. He did take liquor, possibly to the point of being addicted. Whether he savoured more than music at the kotha is irrelevant. What impressed him most was her large-heartedness. She was a pious lady and one day renounced everything. There is no doubt that Chandramukhi was based on her character.

Sarat Chandra also became very friendly with one Vibhutibhushan Bhatt whose elder sister Nirupama was widowed at a very young age. She was extremely talented; Sarat became her mentor and inspired her to write, but was saddened that because of the shackles of widowhood, she could not realise her full potential.

While Sarat’s studies were in shambles, Bhaglapur became the cradle for his creative urges. He was a voracious reader of classics from all over the world. He wrote many of his later well-known works here, known only to his friends, who formed a literary club to discuss their writings. It was during this period that he wrote ‘Devdas’. ‘Shubhada’ (c.1898), depicting extreme penury and a sacrificing mother with infinite patience, looking after her family in the face of a no-good husband, is a slice from his own life. ‘Kashinath’ was born here.  During this period, Sarat submitted his story ‘Mandir‘ for a prize competition, but in the name of his Mama and friend Surendranath Ganguly. This story won the first prize among 150 entries.

From Bhagalpur he wandered off to different places for varying periods of time. His wanderings took him to Muzaffarpur where he set himself up in a dharmshala as a saffron-clad sanyasi, as this would help him in seeking alms. But because of his melodious voice and story-telling abilities, he was noticed and hosted by the prominent Bengali family of Nishanath and Shikharnath Bandopadhyay who had already heard of him from Nirupama (of Bhagalpur) who was their bhabhi. Another young Bengali, Pramathnath Bhatt, who was greatly impressed by him, would play an important role later in bringing out Sarat the great writer before the world. A young scion of a Bihari aristocratic family, Mahadev Sahu, who was fond of Bengali, became fascinated with Sarat. They were companions for kothas and drinks. The Sahu family blamed ‘the young Bengali who had come from Bhagalpur’ as a bad influence on Mahadev.

Sarat lived a completely bohemian life in Muzaffarpur. The news of the death of his father jolted him to the realities of life. His mother had passed away a few years ago during the birth of his youngest sister. The elder sister was married in Govindpur, but he had three younger siblings to take care of. After setting them up with different relatives and benefactors, Sarat himself headed towards Calcutta in search of a regular job. While he was staying with one of his Mamas, Lalmohan, his Rangoon-based advocate Mausa, Aghornath Chattopadhyay, happened to come to Calcutta and stayed with Lalmohan. Sarat was fascinated by the romanticised stories of Rangoon: How the sahibs lap up Bengalis landing from ships and offer them lucrative jobs, how its streets are strewn with wealth, and how a pauper reaching there becomes wealthy in a short time. When Aghornath invited him to Rangoon to assist him, Sarat was already determined his destiny lay there. Apprehensive that his Mamas and friends would discourage him from leaving, he somehow arranged for fare, and one early morning at 4AM took a steamer for Rangoon. The bohemian, wayward youth who had so far lived a life of dependence on others, embarked on another uncertain journey into future a la Srikant. He had started writing ‘Charitraheen’ by then.

He spent about 13 years in Burma from 1903 to 1916, but it was far from a land of dreams. Sarat was his father’s son, not cut out for leading a regular life and holding a steady job. He could not pass exams in Burmese language or accounting. He did odd temporary jobs at different places. When his Mausa passed away, he lived with friends, in lower class worker’s colonies. Women always felt attracted towards him. A beautiful young woman Shanti took shelter with him, as her father was trying to marry her off to an old man. Sarat lived with her as a couple, they aso had a child, but her and their child’s death in plague shattered him.  One gentleman from Bengal, Krishnadeo Adhikari left his daughter Mokshada under Sarat’s care as he could not get her married properly, and one day disappeared. When malaria and plague broke out, Mokshada looked after Sarat with great devotion. Sarat renamed her Hiranmayee. She lived with him till his end as his wife, though the orthodox Bengali society questioned whether the marriage was sanctified by rituals.  A few days before his death Sarat had made out his will in favour of Hiranmayee.

During this period, one of his stories, ‘Bordidi’ (The Elder Sister) which he had left behind with his friends was published in the monthly journal Bharati (April-May 1907). It instantly heralded the arrival of a great writer, but he was an unknown name, living far away in anonymity in Rangoon. Many people speculated that only someone of the calibre of Gurudev could write such a powerful story, and he might have decided to write it anonymously. Gurudev himself was impressed and clarified that he was not the author. The third and the final instalment disclosed his name.

Thereafter, there was an unfortunate incident of fire in his home in Rangoon, which destroyed his completed manuscript of ‘Charitraheen‘ of 500 pages and his other writings. This was his effort of almost fifteen years. A dejected Sarat Chandra was not in a mood to write again. But on the persuation of his friends and admirers who were aware of his talent, he started writing after a gap of about six years. The publication of his three stories, Ramer Sumati, Path  Nirdesh and Bindur Chhele in quick successiones in Yamuna magazine (1913) created a sensation and refreshed the memory of the readears of Sarat who had made a great impact six years earlier with Bordidi. He had also started rewriting Charitraheen from memory. The publication of its first instalment in October 1913 created a sensation, and alarm for its theme.  Sarat’s stories and novels got published regularly in magazines, including some of his very young days, left behind with his friends.

Sarat had left Calcutta as an aimless and restless youth. He returned in 1916 as an eminent writer. He was soon translated widely into various languages. He became the most widely read fiction writer of Bengali, but the Bengali society had conflicted views about him. He was seen as a charitraheen, who lived in seedy places, visited places of ill repute, who glorified prostitutes, and eulogised widows falling in love and married women from decent families eloping with young men. None of such relationships led to union – perhaps this was Sarat’s concession to the tradition-bound society, but what he wrote was enough to jolt and shock. He was ostracised by his relatives from ceremonial occasions. Sarat himself never bothered for acceptance, nor did he ever care about the unflattering stories, often exaggerated, circulating about him.

When Tagore once asked him why he didn’t write his autobiography, Sarat replied, “Had I known I would become such a famous person, I would have lived my life very differently.” But in that case, he wouldn’t have been the Sarat who created fascinating female characters like Paro, Chandramukhi, Rajlaxmi, Kiranmayi, Hemangini, Bindubasini, Narayani and Sabitri. The writer who had no intellectual pretensions, who wrote stories in simple language, tales of relationships, oppression of young widows, their ‘forbidden’ desires and the hypocrisies of the society in dealing with them, of noble and compassionate tawaifs and sex workers. These characters were not fiction, these were real people he met and lived with in his life. The man for whom नारीत्व was superior to सतीत्व. Who valued character more than chastity.

He wanted to spend the rest of his life in the peace of a . He constructed a house in Samtabed near Roopnarayanpur river, but he had to often come to Calcutta for medical treatment. Considering his frail health, on Hiranmayee’s persuation he built a house in Calcutta. He spent his last three years flitting between the city and the village. His body too, like Devdas’s, had suffered excesses. During his last years, he was suffering from many serious ailments like dyspepsia and liver cancer. He finally passed away at a relatively young age of 61 years in 1938.

The film Devdas (Hindi, 1935): Making of a metaphor and birth of a legend
Director: PC Barua
Cast: KL Saigal, Jamuna, Rajkumari, Pahadi Sanyal, KC Dey
Music: Timir Baran

Devdas_SaigalWhen a drunken KL Saigal, lying on the pavements in Calcutta, appeared on the screen, singing Abdul Karim Khan’s iconic thumri Pya bin naahi aavat chain, or another time when he sang in his pathos-filled voice, Dukh ke ab din beetat naahi, I guess that was the time when ‘Devdas’ became a metaphor for a dejected lover drowning himself in alcohol and finally destroying himself – ‘Kyon Devdas bane phirte ho?’ At the same time, KL Saigal became a legend as the greatest actor-singer and a beacon for future generation of singers.

Saigal’s first three films with the New Theatres, Mohabbat Ke Aansoo, Zinda Laash and Subah Ka Sitara, all in 1932, sank without trace. Nothing is known about these films, nor even whether he had any songs in these films. He came into prominence with Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933) and Chandidas (1934), but Devdas made him a national sensation. His non-film song, Jhulna jhulao ri, said to be his first recorded song, had been released in the meantime to stupendous reception. Even though he was not formally trained in classical music, he was respected by the likes of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyyaz Khan and Pandit Omkarnath Thakur. On hearing his Piya bin naahi aawat chain, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan was so impressed that he gifted his harmonium to him with his blessings. When Saigal once approached Ustad Faiyyaz Khan to take him as his disciple, the Aftaab-e-Mausiqui placed his pearl necklace around Saigal and told him: There is nothing that I can teach you. You have gifted a voice blessed by God.

The film also put the New Theatres in a class by itself. The main sources of our early films were mythology, or fantasy costume drama taken from Parsi theatre. The studio’s first sound film Dena Paona (1931, Bengali) was also based on Sarat Chandra’s novel. They kept their tradition of sourcing material from high literature. With RC Boral, Pankaj Mullick, Timir Baran, KL Saigal, KC Dey and Kanan Devi in their stable, they were the Gold Standard of film making in the studio era.

The film is available on YT, but I must caution that you have to approach it as a piece of history. In 1935, our film making was constrained by limitations of technology. With our poor record of preservation, the film lacks in production values. But there is a still more serious problem. The stilted acting of female characters and the dialogue delivery sounds very awkward. It is also jarring to hear Devdas say, ‘Main apne waaldain ki udool-hukmi nahi kar sakta’, or Paro mouthing dialogues like, ‘Aur mere waaldain ki razaamandi zaroori nahi?’ I had earlier written on KC Day’s songs in the film (yes, he is there and has sung three songs), in which I have made a mention of these aspects. In their later films, the New Theatres were able to arrive at a more acceptable Hindi/Hindustani language.

But the everlasting music and the songs make up for everything in the film. Let me part with this film with Saigal’s immortal songs, written by Kidar Sharma and composed by Timir Baran.

Baalam aye baso more man mein

Dukh ke ab din beetat naahi

Piya bin naahi aawat chain

And now let us hear the original Jhinjhoti thumri, sung by the maestro Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, which had made Pt. Bhimsen Joshi restless in childhood. Its impact was so powerful that he left home wandering from place to place in search of a guru.

The film Devdas (1955): Poetry on celluloid
Director: Bimal Roy
Cast: Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Vyjayanthimala, Motilal
Music: SD Burman

A sad, lonely and drunken Devdas wandering aimlessly in desolate mangroves, shooting birds with his airgun is a sight etched in memory. And when he (Dilip Kumar), sitting by the pond, sings Mitwa, mitwa naahi aye, laagi re ye kaisi anbujh aag, and touches the desolate trees which once came to life with their childhood pranks, you cry with him. And you admire the sensitivity of Bimal Roy and his eye his detail. On the tree, there is a solitary bird, as still and sad as the trees, the surroundings and the characters. When the child Devdas and Paro played around the same trees, the same bird also chirped in happiness as the kids sang O albele panchhi tera door thikana hai. The scene cuts to Parvati reading her friend Manorama’s letter describing the pathetic condition of Devdas. She rushes to Tal Sonapur only to find him gone. And then comes the immortal scene of Paro returning in palaki when her pensive eyes meet Chandramukhi’s who is walking along the ridge of the fields in the opposite direction on the same mission. She would also come back empty handed. This is poetry on celluloid.

Devdas_Poetry on celluloid

Mitwa mitwa nahi aaye, laagi re ye kaisi anbujh aag by Talat Mahmood from Devdas (1955), lyrics Sahir Ludhiyanavi, music SD Burman

One can’t imagine any actor surpassing Dilip Kumar’s Devdas. Chunni Babu deserves a special mention. In the novel, his character is not very well etched out. Moti Lal has made him a lovable character. Yes, he drinks and frequents the kotha, but he has an innate sense of goodness and humour. When Devdas asks him to take where he goes to drown his worries, he is surprised, and tries to dissuade him that such places are not for him.

A fellow respected blogger, and regular at SoY, Madhu (Dusted Off) has a section in her reviews: “What I didn’t like in the film.” There is nothing in the film that is out of place. Bimal Roy does more than pay a tribute to PC Barua and KL Saigal. He creates a masterpiece as tall as the novel itself.

The film Devdas (2002): The mauling of a classic
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Roy, Madhuri Dixit, Jackie Shroff
Music: Ismail Darbar

The first film to cross 100-crore budget, opulent, lavish sets, operatic. These are the terms by which Sanjay Leela’s Bhansali’s Devdas is described. The rich golden hue, perhaps a favourite of Bhansli, permeates the entire film. Donald Trump has also done up his penthouse in New York in gold. The characters have to be larger than life, loud and melodramatic to fit in such a film. The film opens with the mother of Devdas, Smita Jaikar, prancing around the mansion, shouting instructions to the servants, generally creating a ruckus that her son is coming from London after completing his studies.

That is not enough. The characters also need dramatic scenes and thunderous dialogues. For that, Bhansali makes her a vicious character. How dare a lowly Kiron Kher (Paro’s mother) think of Paro’s marriage in her family? Such persons have to be shown their place. She deviously invites her at the gode-bharai of her expectant bahu (the wife of the elder son, and bhabhi of Devdas). Kiron Kher is touched by this gesture – so, the initiative to broach the subject of marriage has come from them. Smita Jaikar requests her with a sly smile to perform jatra dance, which Kiron Kher had given up long ago. But she has to reciprocate the graciousness shown by Devdas’s mother who is much superior in status. After the dance is over, Smita Jaikar hurls choicest abuses on Kiron Kher for their lowly past, and going to the extent of using their pretty daughter to ensnare her son. Kiron Kher is herself a powerful actor, and she retaliates soundly by cursing destruction on Smita Jaikar’s haveli, and climaxes it with the most horrific curse: I had come to bless that तेरे घर बेटा पैदा हो, लेकिन जा तेरे घर भी बेटी पैदा हो.

The battle of mothers

Where did Bhansali get all this from? This is not Sarat Chandra. Devdas’s mother definitely not, nor do I think any mother in Sarat Chandra, was given to such villainy.

The desolate pond, trees, orchards would mar the lavish sets. Therefore, Bhansali shifts the iconic scene of Devdas hitting Paro on the forehead to interiors. A brooding, silent Devdas does not match with the opulent sets. A dejected lover can also be aggressive and violent. Shahrukh Khan has a high-octane scene with his greedy bhabhi who refuses to hand over the keys of the cash chest to the mother.  Shahrukh Khan has no option but to sprinkle petrol all around the floor and set it to fire. Kiron Kher watches the soaring flames coming out of the haveli with some vindication.

In the classic, Paro and Chandramukhi are engulfed in deep sadness in the knowledge that they can’t unite with the man they love, and their sole aim in life now is to somehow take care of him to save him from self-destruction. Bhansali gives them a makeover by having them perform a high-energy item dance number Dola re dola re dola re.

Paro and Chandramukhi perform item dance

In his penchant for high voltage confrontations, Bhansali creates a new character, not there in the novel – a lecherous son-in-law, played by Milind Gunaji. After Dola re dola re, he makes some offensive comments about both Aishwarya Rai and Madhri Dixit. Madhuri Dixit lashes out at him with thunderous dialogues: Sharminda to inhe hona chahiye, kyonki inhi badnaam muhalle me ye bhi jaate hain, jahan inke purakhon ne apni aiyyashiyon ki nishaaniyan chhodi hain. Kabhi socha hai Kaali Babu ki unhi kothon mein kisi tawwaif se aapki bahan paida hui hogi? Bahan kyon, ye to apni beti ko bhi..As he tries to raise his hand, a resounding slap lands on his cheek. (Wah, wah, taaliyan).

Chandramukhi slaps Paro’s (Bhuvan’s) son-in-law

Bhansali does not spare even Chunni Babu. He creates a loud Jackie Shroff with his irritating tukbandis.

I have since seen some laudatory reviews of the film on the net, written, obviously, by people more knowledgeable than me. But to me, Bhansali has drowned the pathos and tragedy of Devdas in the spectacle of his 100-crore budget. The beauty of Devdas lies in its minimalism. The best I can muster is: if you blank yourself of the novel or the earlier versions, Bhansali has made a paisa vasool film; there are scenes when you would rise from your seat and clap with the janata wildly in cheers. But if you see it with reference to Sarat Chandra and Bimal Roy, he has not taken liberties with the story, he has mauled the classic.

What is so special about ‘Devdas’?

When we read in newspapers about a spurned lover destroying himself in alcohol bit by bit, we hardly feel any sympathy for him. We don’t even have pity for him, but contempt: why couldn’t he pull himself and move on? It is easy to be judgmental about Devdas. The misfortune has been brought upon by himself. This is where the power of the creator comes in. When Devdas says, पल भर में क्या से क्या हो गया? पारो शादी के रास्ते चली गयी और मैं बरबादी के. एक छोटी भूल और उसकी इतनी बड़ी सज़ा? क्यों पारो बार बार मुझे याद आती है?, all judgment withers away. We are no longer detached observers, but we become a participant in the events. Devdas’s tragedy affects us as it affects his near and dear ones.

The story is not only about Devdas, but also about Paro and Chandramukhi. And you marvel how Sarat at the age of 25 could create characters of so much depth, courage and compassion. When a married Paro tells Devdas, come with me I would look after you, you are not scandalised, you feel the pathos of the situation. Paro at that moment is full of dignity and courage. When Manorama is aghast that Paro could could think of taking Devdas with her, Paro simply replies, where is the shame in taking my own thing with me? The tawaif Chandramukhi has all her life traded in ‘love’, but feels love for the first time. But she seeks nothing in return from Devdas. She deeply respects Paro who loved him so intensely, therefore, she couldn’t have betrayed Devdas, he has betrayed himself. What empathy a ‘fallen’ woman has for a respectable woman! For Sarat, there is no distinction between a ‘fallen’ and a respectable woman; a point comes when they both converge; there is something very universal and profound about womanhood and love, beyond the surface distinction of chaste and unchaste.

The novel or the film?

This question has relevance only for Bimal Roy’s version. No film can be a substitute for a literary classic. The two are different mediums. A novel has passages of description of paces, situations, or even writer’s own reflections. There is a different kind of रस in reading such passages which are difficult to be adapted on the screen. The visual medium has its own strengths in capturing a scene which would require long text in writing. Bimal Roy has brought Devdas’s tragedy and its surroundings alive. Dilip Kumar as Devdas, Suchitra Sen as Paro, Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi, Nazir Hussain as Dharma Das, Moti Lal as Chunni Babu are unforgettable characters of cinema. The scenes have a picture postcard beauty. As I have said, Bimal Roy has made a classic, as tall as Sarat Chandra’s. If not a substitute, Bimal Roy’s Devdas is a valuable supplement to Sarat Chandra’s Devdas.

Acknowledgements and notes:
1.    I have taken Sarat Chandra’s profile from his highly acclaimed biography, ‘आवारा मसीहा’, written by Vishnu Prabhakar. This has been translated into several languages.
2.    My access to the novel is through its Hindi translation which would always be short of the original. SoY is fortunate to have many erudite readers who would have read Sarat Chandra in original. I would look forward to hearing from them.
3.    Bombay’s answer to Saigal, Surendra debuted his acting-singing career with Birha ki aag lagi mere man mein (Deccan Queen, 1936, music Pransukh Naik), which was almost a carbon copy of Balam aye baso mere man mein.  He also played a Devdas-type character in his next film Manmohan (1936).
4.    However, it is said that V Shantaram was concerned at the romanticisation of ‘Devdas’.  Therefore, to counter its ‘unhealthy’ influence on the youth, Prabhat Films made the bilingual Aadmi (Hindi)/Manoos (Marathi) in 1939 with a positive message. In this film, the Havildar wants to marry the prostitute, but she withdraws for the honour of his family, but not without making sure that he moves on with life. Having seen both the films, I would be very surprised if V Shantaram himself made any such claims about his film. In my opinion, the experts who are making this connection on the basis of the ‘message’, are trivialsing both Devdas and Aadmi.

This post first appeared on Songs Of Yore - Old Hindi Film Songs, please read the originial post: here

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One hundred years of Sarat Chandra’s ‘Devdas’


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