Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Devdas, or, Um, SPOILERS!!!



"You have to watch Devdas with me. I'm going to review it for the blog and someone has to share the misery, or at least make fun of it."

"The hell I do. I'm not watching Devdas again. It's sad."

"You've never even seen it!"

"Oh yes I did, you made me watch it. I saw the end, anyway. He's outside her gate and she's running to see him and then the [redacted] dies just before she gets there and I hate it. You couldn't pay me to watch it again."

"What if I offer something besides money?"

"No. Uh-uh. Hot as you are, not even that will work."

"I was thinking more along the lines of baked goods, but, okay..."


Sigh. I watched it, by myself, which meant that I had no one to hold onto during "Hamesha Tumko Chaaha," which meant that I shed unwilling tears with only a couch pillow for company.

Now, as I've said before, Devdas was the first Bollywood movie I bought. At the time I had never seen anything like it before, and was dazzled by the newness of everything. Now that I'm (slightly) more experienced, I can see that the movie bears many of the identifiers of SLB's work: melodrama to spare, a physically combative, immature relationship between the hero and heroine, amazingly shiny/sparkly/opulent sets, and beautiful, beautiful songs. What it doesn't have is a happy ending.

I've never read the novel upon which the movie is (somewhat) based, although I've heard plenty of complaints from literature devotees over the path Bhansali-ji's vision took, so I can't claim to in any way understand where the movie originated. I can only take it as a film, not as an adaptation. However, it's safe to say that as many Indian people who went to see the film knew the ending as Westerners know the ending to Romeo + Juliet, so I will assume that my readers (although non-desi for the most part) know the ending.

I also won't bother with a plot synopsis, just this once (although feel free to click here if you need one, along with a cast list). What I'd like to talk about is, this: does Devdas' portrayal of alcoholism ring slightly false to anyone else besides me? Don't get me wrong; I'm no expert on alcoholism or anything, but I grew up around a few (sober) alcoholics and have heard my share of their stories, and Devdas' brand of abuse seems... off. It seems more like a chosen form of slow suicide than an illness. The thing I find most baffling about it is that to many Indians Devdas' story is an embodiment of love. I'm apparently far too Western in my thought processes to understand this. To me, he seems like a great big wanker.

All narrative complaints aside, I must say that I'm as seduced by SLB's visuals today as I was the first time I watched the film. Paro's glass house, as transparent as her heart; the hundreds of candles surrounding Chandramukhi as she awaits Dev Babu's arrival, burning bright as her devotion and just as wasted; Deva himself, drowning in his sorrows as he submerges himself in the waters of the red lamp district. Or how about Paro, watching Dev's house through (appropriately) a set of opera glasses? Every character has a lovely visual introduction, giving tribute to the classic nature of the work the movie adapts. The scene wherein Devdas first sees Paro's face after their decade-long separation is practically perfect in every way:

The performances, on the other hand... Not so much. SRK can do (and has done) better, but the foremost strike against him is that he's too old to play a callow young man--and immature youth is the only excuse for Devdas' self-pitying slide into death, in my opinion. He was supposed to be in his early to mid-twenties, right? Don't get me wrong, he doesn't look his age, but he doesn't look 24, either. I think I'm supposed to feel compassion for Devdas' misery, but all I end up feeling is impatience. Aishwarya isn't given much to work with as far as Paro goes; she's described as "proud," but I'd call her pathetic to so obviously hang her heart upon her sleeve.
Now, Madhuri... Wow. She glows onscreen as the tawaif-with-a-heart-of-gold. Her dancing is mesmerizing in its delicacy and detail, and the wit she brings to her character makes her the most endearing person on the screen. Devdas doesn't deserve her worship, but she's a prostitute, not a woman with healthy self-respect, and as she tells Paro, "Lady, a tawaif has no destiny." Jackie Shroff, as the oblivious Chunni Babu, does a wonderful job--although again he's too old to play someone who was Devdas' school chum, just returned from London. I'm not sure why so many people call his performance overacting. To me he, along with Madz, keep the movie from turning into an unremitting Maalox moment.

However. The thing that makes me so glad, to this day, that I bought Devdas is the amazing music and the songs' picturizations. Although "Silsila Yeh Chaahat Ke" is kind of eyebrow-lifting in the obvious obsession it reflects, its temple-like atmosphere perfectly conveys the depth of Paro's worship for her Deva. "Bairi Piya" and "More Piya" are simply gorgeous (and speaking of gorgeous, how awesome is Kirron Kher as Paro's mom, especially in "More Piya?"). The tragic "Hamesha Tumko Chaaha" never fails, as I said, to make me cry, however much I don't want to because he brought it all on himself. Although it's ridiculously out of place in the movie, the buoyant "Chalak Chalak" is a delightful song. And of course Madhuri's introductory number "Kahe Chhed Mohe" is delightful for her sassy delivery as well as the number itself.

Naturally, the song that got the most attention (and airplay) was "Dola Re Dola," because it had Aishwarya and Madhuri dancing onscreen together:

I've been informed that it's historically unlikely that a woman of Paro's class would dance in public, so the concept itself is problematic subjectively speaking. Objectively speaking, it was a match-up between two of the best dancers in Bollywood and heavenly to watch.

The song that will make me forever grateful to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, however, is the all-around wonderful "Maar Daala:"

Chandramukhi's breathless joy at hearing Devdas' footfall, and her subsequent outpouring of delight, will always have a special place in my heart because "Maar Daala" was the very first Bollywood picturization I ever saw. Unless you count Bride & Prejudice, which I don't, or Lagaan, which I know I saw but cannot for the life of me remember. Sentimental value aside, Kavita Krishnamurthy's vocals in this song are the closest thing to perfection that I've ever heard. For that alone, I'm glad to own Devdas. Still, it's got too many problems to give a whole-hearted recommendation. The only way to approach the movie is to rent it first to see if you're one of the viewers for whom it works.


  1. Nice post, and I agree with your take on the fantastic music and the development of the characters. The sets were grand! I wish Madhuri did more this decade, because she's hands-down the best at pure Indian dance we've had in Bollywood for close to two decades now. Certainly in a league of her own.

    I find it interesting that a lot of my gora and gori friends in the west who have seen it think it is an effective portrayal of one man's love for a woman. I think it's a great story, and I actually liked the film to an extent, but I find it difficult to feel too bad for Devdas the character since he was quite a loser. I just didn't agree with his attitude toward Chandramukkhi ;)

    After reading your back-to-back reviews of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas, I think it's interesting to place Sameer and Devdas next to each other. There is a lot more depth to each character, but I thought the former was a lot more mature in his handling of a somewhat comparable situation.

    Lastly...maybe you should rewatch Lagaan, Ajnabi. Remembering nothing of it is *unacceptable* :P Of course, this is more than just a hopelessly biased recommendation from an Aamir fan =)

  2. i adore the opulence of this movie, the colours and everything. but i remain faithful to my bimal roy version because it is soooo faithful to the book. which i did a whole project on! i love madhuri as chandramukhi, i think she is much better than vjayantimala, though ash is strictly okay in here, not proud enough for the paro character, ans srk, he rocks here in his "i object" speech!

  3. I thought Devdas was an overrated movie. That's what I get for reading rave reviews. Madhuri is the best, of course. Beautiful music, gorgeous outfits, fine acting - that wasn't enough for me. I also thought Devdas was a selfish person.

  4. Your husband is a smart man! :-) I had fun watching this one because I watched it with a bunch of friends and we giggled and laughed our way through the histrionics and ridiculous dialogues - I think Kiron Kher's recurring "shatti Didi" (Bengali for "really, sister") in the most faux-Bengali accent ever, elicited maximum giggles.

    It is baffling that this is considered a romantic tragedy and that too Devdas's! I'd say it was more Paro and Chandramukhi's tragedy but then they had the good fortune to escape his clutches. Ergo, it isnt a tragedy after all!

    "does Devdas' portrayal of alcoholism ring slightly false to anyone else besides me?"

    Ajnabi, everything in this movie rings false! From a Bengali household that seems to be firmly situated in the midst of Rajasthan, to a 24-year old hero who looks anything but that! So, why should alcoholism be the exception?

  5. Hi Bollywood Fan! I don't have any gora or gori friends with whom to discuss Devdas, except online, and most of them are in the "he's such a jerk" school of thought, so I just figured it must be me being culturally obtuse. It's interesting that others think it's about love. I think it's about self-pity! LOL And, you're so right about Lagaan. Especially after seeing Jodhaa-Akbar I want to re-watch it.

    Rum--I thought SRK was OTT with the "I object!" speech--but then, I'm weird and don't like the way his voice sounds when he speaks English so that had some bearing on my lack of appreciation. You're right, the opulence is lovely.

    Nicki--who likes this movie? I'm asking honestly, cuz I've never read a wholeheartedly positive review online! :-D I honestly can't imagine anyone liking it for the storyline. Are there people who do?

    Beth--I e-mailed you! And I can't wait to read your post. :-)

    Bollyviewer--He's *very* smart. And, aww, man, the things I miss by relying upon subtitles! What about the house is like Rajasthan? I'm so curious!

  6. u watched it TWICE????
    girl, i'd shoot myself than watch it again- argh- ur a brave woman. On the other hand, I'd love it if Chandramukhi and Chunnilal somehow ended up together......:)

  7. Self-pity dominates, with you on that completely. But one take on this is that if that were the only contributing factor and love wasn't, Paaro might not have been part of that last scene. If it sounds like I'm defending the film, I don't intend to :) Devdas was obviously a jerk, refer to my 'loser' comment above, but that's the character from a book I haven't read, so I wouldn't know how good/bad the translation to film was. Now I'm curious to read it and see the Dilip Kumar version too!

    Take Madhuri (the reason I liked this, in addition to the music and sets) out of this, and all we're left with is a perfectly cast Devdas (take that as you may :P) but not much else.

    Shweta: I like your ending! That'd be cool...almost a merger of Kal Ho Na Ho with Devdas!!!

  8. Shweta: the things I do so I can force my opinion upon the Internet. I tell ya. ;-) I really like your version too. If I could somehow hook you up with SLB and K-Jo I think I'd end up liking their movies even more. LOL

    Bollywood Fan: You have a point about Paro and the ending scene. I suppose he could've just died in comfort in the train car or something.

    I'm with you, I want to check out the Dilip Kumar version too.

  9. I watched this 6 years ago so dont remember what exactly led me to conclude the sets were Rajasthani. But I think it was mostly the set-architecture, the opulence, the rich colors and the honor+tradition-bound (read callous, high-handed, horrifyingly male-chauvinist) behaviour of Paro's hubby (usually associated with filmi Rajputs from Rajasthan) that gave me that impression.

  10. Great job ajnabi!
    I saw this in a theater and it was also my first BW flick. I was really impressed. It still holds a special place in my dil, since it's the movie that turned me out to Bollywood. I laugh at thinking now how I was confused about how Devdas just couldn't go for that nice Chandramuki, her being such a great dancer and all. I didn't quite understand her profession. I've since seen so many more Bollywood and Indian films, yet Devdas still holds up, perhaps for sentimental value as you say. SLB's Devdas moved me to see Bimal Roy's Devdas, which was fantastic! It made me a Dilip fan for sure. I admit I still like the SLB version and have seen it a second time. I made the mistake of adding it to a list of movies for a friend to see and was reprimanded about the ending. Since they’d seen so much BW, they were expecting a happy ending. Opps!  I told them they needed to understand the way of the Bengali artisit, they like to bum us out.
    Anyway, I will stand by the story since I think plenty of people are in dysfunctional relationships and the movie modeled this so very well. I try not to jump in to defend the movie/book Devdas, but sometimes I can’t resist to say yeah, lots of people like people who mistreat them, so doesn’t it follow that SRK’s job was well done since he was so unlikable in the film? And I don’t want to spoil things for those who haven’t seen the Roy version, but Dilip’s Devdas is a bit more harsh with what he does to Paro’s face. Devdas is simply putting the repetitive compulsion theory into a piece of art, which is not so fun to see. Doesn’t this sound like what the story is trying to show us: “Many traumatized people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations reminiscent of the original trauma. These behavioral reenactments are rarely consciously understood to be related to earlier life experiences. This "repetition compulsion" has received surprisingly little systematic exploration during the 70 years since its discovery, though it is regularly described in the clinical literature. Freud thought that the aim of repetition was to gain mastery, but clinical experience has shown that this rarely happens; instead, repetition causes further suffering for the victims or for people in their surroundings.” (from http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/vanderkolk/) Seems like Paro, Devdas and Chandramuki all had a bit of childhood trauma they are work out, hai na? I think that just might be what Saratchandra Chatterjee was trying to show us, and SJB just served it up in his own style. And I really enjoy seeing SRK spitting up blood, he does it well and he does it often in his movies.

    All the best,

  11. So far i hv seen all Devdas flicks but Bengali Devdas remains best to me.Soumitra Chaterjee delivered an outstanding performance.

  12. Bollyviewer--thanks for clarifying that for me; I had no idea that's the filmi way to portray Rajasthani guys. Hmmm.

    Hello, Sita-ji, and thanks for dropping in and leaving such an insightful comment! I agree that SLB did what he could to establish Deva's terrible relationship with his father as the cause for his subsequent breakdown. (Haven't read the book or seen other versions so can't judge them one way or the other.) However, my quibble with the argument as regards Devdas is, what original trauma is he re-enacting? Being sent far away to school = abandoning the girl whose virginity you took, thus leading her to believe you were going to marry her? (And, oh yeah, I totally believe that's what he did, riverbank embraces aside.) I've known many people who have used their childhood traumas to become more empathetic, not great big jerks, so... Still, you're right, as a reflection of a human condition it does work for the most part, with the exception of the development of Devdas' disease which I still find unrealistic.

    Hi Saheli! I really want to check out the Bengali Devdas if I can ever find it. It's not available on Netflix and I haven't seen it on Nehaflix either.

  13. Ajnabi--this was also one of my first Bollywood films, and I didn't like it too much on first try. But after rewatching...Well, I noticed a lot more , as you did. And I actually liked it a whole lot more! Part of this is due to the enchantment of the sets, "Silsila Ye Chayat Ka"( I am obsesssed with this song, no pun intended) and "Maar Daala"(also obsessed, though strangely not as much as I originally thought I was). I actually had the same thoughts about Devdas's alcoholism--it did seem very fake. And the whole alcohol poisoning death-I'm not a medical professional yet--will have to re-evauluate later!:)

  14. this movie was in my opinion vastly overrated and sitting through it once seemed like a punishment...i am with the person above who thinks you are brave to attempt it for the second time...but the songs were beautiful and so were the sets...

  15. Nida, I was wondering if I was the only one to think that about the alcoholism thing. It's like, okay, he doesn't drink his whole life, takes one drink and *boom,* down the tubes? Hmmmm. I'll look forward to your professional opinion. ;-)

    Reviewer: I'm curious as to how the movie's overrated seeing I've never read a review from the blogosphere that was more than lukewarm. Others have said that too. Did it get good reviews on its initial release? I know it did very well at Cannes.

  16. I thought devdas was a wanker too! And i grew up in Asia, watching hindi cinema; so i guess its not a western thing.

  17. Anonymous--THANK you. Before I wrote this post I worried that I was somehow unable to understand a vital cultural experience because I disliked him so much. Now I'm starting to think that it's just freakin' Deva and his self-indulgent self. ;-)

  18. Dev D! Did you see that one (you most probably did. Finally a movie in which he is clearly made responsible for his own actions, rather than scheming sisters-in-law or evil fathers, or the 'horrid and unfair' caste system. Yay!

    I detest SLB's Devdas (I still don't understand the appeal of these horrible men, another one was Shekhar in Parineeta), but thought SRK did a good job, considering who was cast as the female lead. Dixit was lovely, Shroff..er, not so much.

  19. Supriya--I cannot seem to make myself sit through it, even though it's available on Instant Viewing and therefore easy as pie to access. It's ridiculous; I know I'll like it. And, I love Jackie. I thought he was lighthearted and kind, if not very deep, in the role. Just what I needed to keep from pulling all my hair out. ;-)


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