If you ask about the three most important writers of the late 19th and early 20th century, the list will invariably include Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sarat Chandra Chatterji. Add to this list three great film directors — P.C. Barua, Bimal Roy, and Satayjit Ray – and you have a sextuplet that has illuminated the literature and arts Bengal. Three of these – Chatterji, Barua, and Roy have been associated with a classic that has fascinated at least four generations of South Asians since 1917, the year Devdas was first published.
Before trying to figure out what enthralls the readers and viewers of Devdas, we need to look at the context which enabled creative writers and artistes to churn out one masterpiece after another. Bengal became the first strong seat of British power in India after their victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. In the next hundred years, Bengalis would have the most interaction with the British who had ruffled the waters in bays and rivers alike. In the process, Britain impoverished Bengal economically but also enriched it intellectually.
Perhaps the first Bengali intellectual who got inspiration from the British — and tried to bring about change in the mores prevalent in Bengal — was Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833). He established Brahmo Samaj in 1828 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and refused to accept the authority of the Vedas; he had no faith in avatars (incarnations) and questioned the belief in karma (causal effects of past deeds). With these iconoclastic ideas, the Brahmo Samaj rattled the surface of tranquil Hinduism not only in Bengal but all over India. This was also the beginning of the period called the Bengal renaissance that gave rise to such creative geniuses.
For almost a century, the Bengali renaissance rejuvenated the art, culture, and politics of eastern India. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, Bengali intellectuals nurtured their soil with the notions of reformation. Most of these fertile minds were secularists from Hindu families, while most Muslim Bengalis were involved in Muslim League led by feudal lords such as Nawab Salimullah. The Bengal renaissance came to a sad and gory end when Hindus and Muslims massacred each other in the pre-and post-partition years of the late 1940s.
Sarat Chandra Chatterji (1876-1938) was a stalwart of the Bengali literature with a rural background and firsthand experience of fanatic orthodoxy and unproductive morality. Like his predecessors and contemporaries mentioned above, he had witnessed shrewd manipulation of the socially powerless segments including women at the hands of the powerful. Most of his novels deal with the inhibition of naïve passion by social conservatism. One of his illustrious and highly-acclaimed novels was Parineeta which has also been made into successful films multiple times. Though Parineeta was published in 1914 – three years earlier than Devdas – it has attracted relatively less attention.
Both Parineeta and Devdas have strong female characters that try to break away from the social shackles but are restricted by either cowardice or complicity of their male leads. In Devdas, the storyline revolves around the youngest son of an affluent Brahmin family in rural Bengal. The novel opens with Devdas and Parvati (Paro) who are very good friends and grow up together in the same neighbourhood. They are separated when Devdas is sent for higher education to Calcutta and becomes friends with some happy-go-lucky youth.
After years, when Devdas returns to the village, Paro expects to be married to him but her wishes are shattered when Devdas refuses to face his family’s opposition to the proposal and goes back to the city to dissipate his life on alcohol and a prostitute, Chandramukhi, with whom he never sleeps. Paro is married off to a wealthy widower but never forgets her first and only love who ultimately comes to die at her doorstep. So, what is so fascinating in this story? More than Devdas, one finds both Paro and Chandramukhi to be courageous, decisive, and outgoing. Similarly, the women of Paro’s family are more caring and confident than her father.
Apart from the novel’s intricate and well-structured narration, its popularity has been enhanced by over a hundred translations in various languages and more than a dozen film productions – including two Pakistani films made in 1965 and 2010. The first director who introduced Devdas to a wider Indian audience was an Assamese landlord, P. C. Barua. In three consecutive years from 1935 to 1937, he directed three different films on Devdas in Bengali, Urdu, and Assamese languages. In the Bengali version of 1935, Barua himself played the role of Devdas and for the Urdu film he selected a Kashmiri actor and singer, K. L. Saigal.
The film is still a delight to watch if you are a fan of Saigal with his sonorous rendition of ‘Balam aaye baso morey man main’. The dialogues are in chaste Urdu and even the letter that Saigal writes to Paro is shown in a clear Urdu script. The ghazal, ‘Chhutey aseer to badla hua zamana tha’ haunts you even after the film ends. However, the monotonous dialogues and mostly expressionless acting appears a bit dated now; and both Chandramukhi and Paro are Mother-Theresa look-alikes! Despite his resounding voice, Saigal too appears to be ineffectual.
Yet, the film was a smash hit and captivated the audiences for over two decades till 1955 when Bimal Roy directed Dilip Kumar as Devdas. Suchitra Sen as Paro and Vijayanthimala as Chandramukhi are perhaps the best duo to perform these roles. Especially Suchitra Sen brings out a stellar performance in the scene at night when she enters Devdas’ home and wakes him up. Here she is a rule-defying woman who dares her man to prove his virility. But he is a quintessential indecisive and timid male who whiles away time thinking about people’s reaction (log liya kahegey).
Vijayanthimala — though a bit buxom for the role of a young Bengali prostitute — is equally good, if not better than Suchitra Sen. In some of the scenes and songs — such as ‘Jisey tu qubool kar ley wo ada kahan sey laun’ – her performance is deep and touching. Chandramukhi is shown to be a conscientious and responsible woman who tries to rescue Devdas from his mire of filth, and that too without any material benefit. But Devdas neither confesses nor consummates his love with any of the women; he is out there simply to destroy himself.
Dilip Kumar won the Filmfare Award for arguably his best performance ever.
In comparison, the remake directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali in 2002 is a lavish but valueless attempt to equate Devdas with a tawdry Star Plus drama. All women covered with dangling jewellery from head to toe and the mise en scene throughout the movie is so extravagant that one wants to smash the screen. Most — nay all — stars indulge in overacting; especially Shahrukh Khan and Jackie Shroff. Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit both waste their beauty and talent in this overblown and overstretched melodrama full of hyperbole and pomp.
If you want to watch any one films, go for the one directed by Bimal Roy and savour the superb acting with Sahir Ludhyanvi’s poetry and S.D. Burman’s mellifluous music.