Devdas and Parvati (Paro) are childhood playmates and next-door neighbours who declare their love for each other just before Devdas leaves for Calcutta (England, in the 2002 version) for his education. On his return, Paro’s family approaches Devdas to secure their daughter’s marriage to him. Devdas’ father however rejects this proposal on the grounds that Paro’s trading family is lower in status to his own as zamindar (rich landowner). Stinging from the insult, Paro’s family hastily arranges her wedding to a wealthy, elderly widower with grown children. Defying all convention, Paro comes to see Devdas in the middle of the night to plead with him to save her from a loveless marriage. Devdas, however, is unable to defy convention or his father’s authority. Disappointed with himself, he seeks solace in the arms of the city and its attractions, while an old friend takes him to a brothel. There he meets Chandramukhi who falls in love with this young man who pays to see her yet never sleeps with her. From the city, Devdas writes an insincere letter to Paro: ‘It never occurred to me that I desire you’. On receiving this letter, Paro now has no option but to go ahead with her marriage. She goes on to become a perfect wife and runs her husband’s household and huge estate with aplomb. Never once betraying her husband in deed, in her heart she still loves only Devdas. Meanwhile, Devdas has degenerated from drink to oblivion. He is cared for by Chandramukhi who reforms herself to be with Devdas only to realise, that he can never love her as he loves only Paro. At the end of the film, Devdas after a tortuous train journey (‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll come to you’, he had said earlier) comes to die at the threshold of Paro’s home. She runs to meet him when she is informed of a ‘stranger’ at her doorstep. But he dies just before she can see him even as the massive gates of her feudal home shut her inside.
The sentimental love story of the self-destructive Devdas, his childhood love Paro, and the reformed prostitute Chandramukhi, adapted from the eponymous novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee (1917) is Indian cinema’s oft-told tale. A number of versions, adaptations, and remakes, including Devdas (Naresh Chandra Mitra, Bengali, 1928), Devdas (Bimal Roy, Hindi, 1955), Devdas (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Hindi, 2002) and others, exist as testimony to the tale’s magical hold over generations of Indian cine-goers. The first popular versions of were made simultaneously in Hindi and Bengali, and directed by P. C. Barua for New Theatres. Barua cast himself as Devdas in the Bengali version and the legendary singing star K. L. Saigal in the Hindi one. Bimal Roy’s remake,1 starring Dilip Kumar in 1955, is perhaps the most beloved version of Devdas, especially amongst the post-independence generation. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s recent spectacular and operatic version (2002) starring Shah Rukh Khan, brought Devdas back into the collective consciousness of Indian and diasporic audiences while Anurag Kashyap’s wildly divergent remake in 2006 finally broke the Devdas spell for a contemporary audience impatient with a maudlin, self-destructive addict, and impotent hero.
A ‘mythological reference point for Hindi melodrama’, 2 Chidananda Dasgupta, the pioneering film critic noted with a mixture of irritation and wonder:
“it is surprising that this immature piece of fiction3 should have created such an archetypal hero, a romantic, self-indulgent weakling, who finds solace in drink and the bosom of a golden-hearted prostitute.”4
Is Devdas ‘only a weakling who finds solace in drink?’ 5 In a passionate defence of the film,6 Nandy attempts to restore director P. C. Barua’s rightful place in the canon of Indian cinema greats. Nandy traces the biography of P. C. Barua, the handsome, charismatic and talented son of the Raja of Gauripur, and his links with the fictional Devdas, and shows Barua himself as a Saratchandra hero inhabiting a Saratchandra universe. His pathological identification with the character of Devdas, especially his alcoholism and narcissism, his failed love affairs and his longing for a maternal utopia are captured in Barua’s own words: ‘Devdas was in me before I was born, I created it every moment of my life much before I put it on the screen’. 7
While critics like Kishore Valicha accused Devdas for being ‘a love devoid of any sexual significance’, 8 others like Ziauddin Sardar9 and Poonam Arora attempt to trace the significance of his chastity. Sardar sees in Devdas not an imperfect but an unconditional love that longs not for physical but spiritual union with the lover. He reads the tortuous train journey that takes a dying Devdas to Paro, at the end of the film, as a metaphor for the spiritual union between the two.10
Arora,11 in a complex reading of the film’s sadomasochistic undercurrent in the relationships between men and women sees in the film’s psychosexual dynamics a resistance to colonialist ideology. Devdas’ chastity is perceived as his ‘manly self-control’ rather than a lack of agency. Devdas was the ‘Bengali babu’s’ response to the charges of effeminacy by the colonialists. If the colonialists sought to infantilise and feminise the babu’s incapacity for psychological self-determination and political self-rule, then Devdas’ chastity – his manly self-control – was actually proof of his ‘political and psychological coming of age’ and would as such be read as agency rather than a lack of it by audiences who were perhaps constituted by a class sympathetic to the babu.
The Bengali babu’s links with European aestheticism and the Sorrows of Young Werther have been noted, though the connection is probably superficial; the Devdas story is more evocative of the story of Krishna and Radha and their viraha (love in separation). This is made overt in Bimal Roy’s film when, as Corey Creekmur points out, Paro pays a Vaishnava couple (replacing the three women in the Saratchandra novella), with three rupees she is holding for Devdas.12 In the novel, the songs move Paro though their meaning eludes her; the film, however, draws attention to the songs, grounding the eternal love story in the mythical tradition of Krishna and Radha, familiar to an Indian audience. Their eternal yet otherworldly love is portrayed through cinematic choices that reveal extraordinary directorial vision. Both the Barua and Roy remakes are replete with such instances.
Ghatak, who was a great admirer of Barua and considered him one of the greatest directors of Indian cinema, used his films to teach cinematography to students of cinema, praising Barua’s use of the ‘subjective camera’. 13 It is possible that Barua was familiar with German expressionist films, as he uses parallel editing to convey telepathy between lovers, emphasising a supernatural and otherworldly connection between them. In the film’s oft-cited ‘telepathic’ sequence – Devdas cries out in anguish on the train, the film cuts to Paro as she stumbles while carrying out her daily household duties, and then cuts back to Devdas collapsing in the train.
The relationship between Devdas and Paro is cast as one between devotee and god.14 This is conveyed through a relay of gazes that Ravi Vasudevan defines as the ‘darsanic’ and which serve to ‘deify the male object of desire’. 15 But the god fails and through the course of the film Devdas becomes a fallen hero who has taken the self-destructive road to his own end. However, at the end of the film, through the purity of his love and his lonely spiritual journey and death, he rises to the stature of an almost-tragic hero. His rebellion is attractive but remains so in words only, in deed he is narcissistic, masochistic and weak. Creekmur calls him a ‘Hindu Hamlet’ 16 and Gayatri Chatterjee places him in the genre of the ‘self-destructive urban hero’. 17 His overarching emotion is self-pity rather than anger, and audiences identify with his pathology rather than emulate him as a hero.
Perhaps the greatest point of audience identification was that he was the ‘first successful hero in Indian cinema who seemed to seriously negotiate the anguish of the first generation of rural elite entering the pre-war colonial city’. 18 This journey between the village and the city is emblematic of a whole generation of Indian audiences ‘refashioning themselves in response to the changing demands of Indian modernization’. Devdas is portrayed as distinctly ‘modern’ in his education, dress, habits and opinions. When he first returns from Calcutta (England, in Bhansali’s 2002 film) the novel describes his attire: ‘foreign shoes, bright clothes, a walking stick, gold buttons, [and] a watch – without these accessories he felt bereft’. 19 Devdas challenges the idea of arranged marriage (at least in thought); he smokes cigarettes (in the novel, the hookah), drinks alcohol, visits the city brothels, and has cosmopolitan friends like Chunilal. However, Devdas’ ambivalence toward a new urban modernity, his simultaneous alienation from tradition, and the tragic inability to reconcile the two is dramatised in his doomed love for Paro and everything she stands for.
1. Roy was Barua’s cinematographer in the 1935 versions.
2. See Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, p. 244.
3. Sarat Chandra wrote the novel when he was 17!
4. Dasgupta 1991: 29, and cited by Nandy in Dwyer and Pinney 2001: 145.
5. See Nandy in Dwyer and Pinney, p. 145.
6. See Nandy’s brilliant essay, in Dwyer and Pinney, pp. 139–60.
7. Cited in Poonam Arora, p. 262.
8. Kishore Valicha, The Moving Image: A Story of Indian Cinema, Orient Longman, 1988, p. 49.
9. See Ziauddin Sardar in Nandy (1998), pp. 31–2.
10.See Sardar in Nandy pp. 31–2.
11.See Poonam Arora (1995).
12.See Corey Creekmur (2001).
13.Cited by Nandy in Dwyer and Pinney, p 140.
14.See Sardar in Nandy, pp. 31–2.
15.See Ravi Vasudevan (2000) for a detailed analysis of the sequence from Devdas.
17.See Gayatri Chatterjee (2003).
18.See Nandy in Dwyer and Pinney, p. 146.
19.Cited in Creekmur.
Cast and Crew:
[Devdas (Bengali, 1935). Country: India. Production Company: New Theatres. Director: Pramatesh Barua (P. C. Barua). Cinematographer: Nitin Bose. Music: Timir Baran. Lyrics: Bani Kumar. Cast: P. C. Barua (Devdas), Jamuna (Parvati/Paro), Chandrabati Devi (Chandramuki).]
[Devdas (Hindi, 1935). Country: India. Production Company: New Theatres. Director: P. C. Barua. Cinematographer: Bimal Roy. Music: Rai Chand Boral and Pankaj Mullick. Dialogue and Lyrics: Kidar Sharma. Cast: K. L. Saigal (Devdas), Jamuna (Parvati/Paro), Rajkumari (Chandramukhi).]
Poonam Arora, ‘Devdas: Indian Cinema’s Emasculated Hero, Sado-Masochism, and Colonialism’ in The Journal of South Asian Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1/2, Miscellany (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall 1995), pp. 253–76.
Gayatri Chatterjee, Awaara, New Delhi: Wiley Eastern, 1992; rpt. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2003.
Corey Creekmur, ‘The Devdas Phenomenon’. Available at: www.uiowa.edu/~incinema/index.html, 2001 (accessed: 21 November 2012).
P. K. Nair, ‘The Devdas Syndrome in Indian Cinema’, Cinemaya 56/57, Autumn–Winter 2002, pp. 82–7.
Ashis Nandy, ‘Invitation to an Antique Death: The Journey of Pramathesh Barua as the Origin of the Terribly Effeminate, Maudlin, SelfDestructive Heroes of Indian Cinema’ in Pleasure and the Nation: The History, Politics, and Consumption of Public Culture in India, Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 139–60.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, London: BFI, 1994.
Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Dilip Kumar Made Me Do It’ in The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, Ashis Nandy (ed.), London: Zed Books, 1998, pp. 19–91.
Kishore Valicha, The Moving Image: A Story of Indian Cinema, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1988, pp. 43–60.
Ravi Vasudevan, ‘The Politics of Cultural Address in a “Transitional” Cinema: A Case Study of Indian Popular Cinema’ in Reinventing Film Studies, Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams (eds), London: Arnold, 2000, pp. 130–64.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.