"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.