"Devdas" - Bimal Roy (1955)


The story of Devdas, based on the novella Devdas by Bengali writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhya (1876-1938), has been a popular romantic narrative for the Indian people ever since its publication in 1917 (though the story was apparently composed in 1901 [1]). Just why this tale lingers in the popular mind may be a matter for discussion, but its persistence is undeniable: the story has been filmed at least sixteen times in various languages on the Indian subcontinent – and this doesn’t even count popular variations on its themes, such as Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). Among all those productions of Devdas, however, probably the most well known is the 1955 version directed by Bimal Roy (who had been the cinematographer for an earlier 1936 production directed by Pramathesh Barua).

The basic plot outline is essentially a modern (circa 1900, anyway) tragedy in which a combination of societal restrictions and the protagonist’s characterological flaws lead to ruin.  Viewers may place different weights on those two factors, but to me the primary problem is the latter one – the selfish character of Devdas, himself.  His hesitancy and relational dishonesty are responsible for his downfall.  Indeed a single missed opportunity that cannot be recovered is the main tragic theme of the story, and much of the film wallows in the despair induced by missing that opportunity.  For some viewers Devdas’s lengthy self-pitying may be unbearable, but others may partly identify with him and appreciate the melancholy that the film induces.  So it is not surprising that a key to how much one appreciates this film turns on the performance of Dilip Kumar in the role of Devdas.  I will discuss that issue later on.

Of course, this being a large-scale Bollywood studio production, the film features some comic relief and a number of lilting and romantic songs, all composed by Sachin Dev Burman and dubbed by professional playback singers.  By here not dwelling on this music, I do not mean in any way to downplay its importance.  The music probably constitutes this film’s greatest virtue.

The story of the film passes through four stages, or theatrical acts, covering the life of Devdas.
1.  Childhood playmates
The opening scenes show Devdas Mukherjee and his playmate Parvita (aka Paro) as naughty young children of relatively well-off, upper-caste families living in a provincial town. Devdas, perhaps an early teenager, is particularly obstreperous and resists the authority of his schoolteachers, which only makes his younger friend Paro admire him all the more. At one point we get a view of the boy’s high-handed attitude while he is hiding away from the grownups in a grove on his family’s estate. Paro finds him there and joyfully converses with him; but when she doesn’t obey one of his commands, he rudely slaps her on the face and makes her cry.

These two soul-mates soon make up, though, and they go out to the grove again and sing a beautiful song (dubbed, of course) to the wild birds there.  Devdas’s incorrigible behaviour continues, however, and finally his strict father decides that his son should spend the rest of his youth in Calcutta, where he can learn some more discipline. 

Now Paro is alone, and she is consoled by a pair of wandering Baul performers who sing to her a song about the legendary romantic pair, Krishna and Radha (Radha expresses sadness in the song, because she misses Krishna). 
Then some time passes.

2.  Devdas and Paro
There are several “familiar images” in this film – this is a well-known cinematic technique in which contextual settings that are returned to repeatedly have a cumulative psychological effect on the narrative experience. One of these is the stone stairway leading down to the river bank where Paro goes to fetch water. Another familiar image is the external stairway leading down from Paro’s upstairs room of her family home. On numerous occasions she is seen rushing up or down those stairs during moments of emotional stress.

Anyway, it is now about ten years after Devdas had left for Calcutta (at the end of “Act 1"), and a grown-up and beauteous Paro (played by Suchitra Sen) is seen fetching water at the familiar image river bank.  Her friend comes to tell her that Devdas (Dilip Kumar) has returned  – “with a cane in his hand, a watch on his wrist, and a gold buttons chain.  He has become a real gentleman!”  From Paro’s breathless reaction, it is evident that she has been pining for him.

Paro is now of marriageable age, and with Devdas back in town, Paro’s mother approaches Devdas’s mother in the traditional fashion to propose a marriage between the two (Devdas and Paro are not part of this interaction).  But the Mukherjee family, being wealthier and supposedly of a higher subcaste, rejects the proposal.  Paro’s father is personally affronted by this rejection and angrily vows to marry Paro off to an even wealthier man.  In no time he finds his candidate for Paro – a wealthy older widower from the village of Manepur with some grownup children.

Desperately in love with Devdas, Paro decides to take matters into her own hands and do what is basically unthinkable for a respectable woman in a conservative society. In the middle of night, she sneaks over to the Mukherjee household and goes to Devdas’s room, where she begs him to marry her. Hoping that he will stand up to his parents’s objections and insist on marrying her, she basically throws herself at his feet. But Devdas, no longer the headstrong youth seen in Act 1, seems diffident and helpless.  He worries that Paro’s defiant action will create a scandal.  “Why did you do this?”, he timidly asks, “won’t our heads hang in shame tomorrow?” His unresponsiveness at this critical moment is something that he will long regret.

Devdas does go to his family the next day and meekly asks for permission to marry Paro, but his father threatens to disown him for such impertinence.  Angry with this reaction, Devdas abruptly returns to Calcutta without saying goodbye to Paro.

Back in Calcutta, Devdas pens a polite but unromantic letter to Paro wishing that she go on to have a good life without him.  There is a key line in the letter whose precise interpretation is significant. According to the English subtitles, it says,
“But let me make it clear here, I never realised that I loved you.” 
Not knowing Hindi or Bengali (the language in which the original Devdas story was written), I do no know what was expressed precisely.  I have seen two other English translations of this line [2] that are slightly different:
  • "It has never crossed my mind that I desire you."
  • "It has never occurred to me that I desire you."
Depending on how the original line was written, this could be interpreted in two different ways:
  1. Devdas is saying that he has never, ever had any desire for Paro.
  2. Devdas is saying that he had not realised before what he now knows to be true – that, deep down inside, he really does love her.
After posting the letter, Devdas’s conscience scolds him, and he rushes back to his home town to intercept the letter before it is delivered, but he is too late. Paro reads the letter and clearly gives it the first of the two above-mentioned interpretations. 

Devdas goes down to the (familiar image) river bank hoping to meet Paro, where she is fetching water, but she gives him the cold shoulder. In response, Devdas, echoing his earlier teenage outburst of anger, savagely beats her across the face with a long stick, giving her a permanent scar on her forehead.  Though he then repentantly attends to her wounds, he clearly acknowledges that they will be going their separate ways. 

This is the decisive split that takes place only one-third of the way through the story.  Devdas returns to Calcutta, while Paro prepares for her upcoming arranged wedding to the older gentleman.  While she waits, Paro is serenaded by the Baul duo again with another enchanting song about marriage.

3.  Devdas and Chandramukhi
Back in Calcutta, Devdas carouses with his worldly and dissolute friend Chunnilal, who invites him to join him in drinking alcohol and visiting an upscale club that features exotic dancers (nautch girls) offering their “services”. The main dancer is Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala), and she seductively serenades him with a song and dance presenting the irresistible offer, ”I Leave it to You”. One of those in attendance is an inebriated Chandramukhi patron (played by Johnny Walker), whose presence in the film is clearly for comic relief [3].

Chunnilal arranges for Devdas to be alone with Chandramukhi, but Devdas angrily walk outs, calling her a shameless prostitute, and leaves her some money without touching her.  But Chandramukhi is nonetheless attracted to Devdas and entreats Chunnilal to get Devdas to come back another time. This he succeeds in doing, and eventually Devdas takes to drinking more alcohol and becomes a regular patron of Chandramukhi’s salon, even though he never touches her and spends his time mooning for his lost love, Paro.  But Chandramukhi has fallen in love with the reticent and unresponsive Devdas, and she sings another seductive song to him, in which she entreats him sweetly to stay awhile: “Oh, heartless one, wait for some time, it’s very difficult out there.”

These scenes of Devdas in Calcutta are interleaved with Paro In Manepur adjusting to married life with her new family.  Eventually both Paro and Devdas are separately informed of the death of Devdas’s father, and they return to their home town to attend the funeral, where they meet briefly. It is evident that the now-married Paro still has strong feelings for Devdas, but Devdas remains aloof in front of her.  Seeing that Devdas has become an irresponsible drunkard, Paro asks him to give up alcohol.  But Devdas refuses her request, telling her that there are some promises that you cannot make, offering as an example the pointedly mocking question: “then can you elope with me tonight?”

4.  Devdas in decline
Devdas returns to Calcutta and looking up Chandramukhi finds that she has given up her profession and wants to devote her life to him. She selflessly acknowledges that he prefers Paro to her and even appreciates how much Paro must really love him – she says, “I came to know from myself how much Parvati must love you.”

Now without her previous steady income, Chandramukhi leaves Calcutta to go live in a provincial dwelling (that turns out to be owned by the Mukherjee family).  But when she hears that Devdas’s heavy drinking is killing him, she rushes back to Calcutta and finds the drunken Devdas lying in a gutter.  When he is taken back to her hotel room, she expresses her continuing love by singing and dancing for him once more. 

The next morning, though, Devdas collapses, and a doctor informs him that he must get away from the temptations of the big city and leave town before the alcohol kills him.  Before leaving, Chandramukhi asks him to promise not to drink, but once more he says he can’t make that promise. 

So Devdas takes off on an aimless train trip across India. Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, he happens to encounter his old pal Chunnilal, who promptly tempts him with alcohol.  This, of course, leads to the final ruination of the self-destructive Devdas.  Now dying, he attempts to go make one final trip to Manepur to see Paro, but he passes away just outside the gate of her estate before she can see him for the last time.
So the final two-thirds of Devdas chart the relentless and miserable decline of the titular character as he drowns his sorrows in insobriety. Devdas never consummates his relationships with Paro and Chandramukhi, in fact he never even embraces them. This hardly seems like a narrative formula that would guarantee widespread success; and yet Devdas remains undeniably popular. Some people see this popularity arising from social factors – the star-crossed lovers were denied their chances of being together by outdated class-bound social restrictions. A variant on this theme is the idea that Devdas’s withdrawal is to be seen as something heroic, a defiance of the subservient babu characterization of Bengali males that arose from the British occupation. In fact one commentator asserted that the film/story’s eternal popularity is due to the sexual chastity of Devdas and Paro (by means of which they assert their independence from colonial and archaic social practices) [2]:
“The enduring appeal of the Devdas narrative inheres not so much in its ability to represent the ‘weak’ hero of Indian cinema but in its subversive potential for indirectly opening up the space for a (tragic) resistance to imperialist gender ideology.”

In fact tn this respect, I have often encountered expressions of the view that the entire Indian culture was emasculated by Western (specifically British) imperialism.  But I don’t agree.  In my opinion, the subtleties of India’s rich and philosophically deep culture are far more complex than can be encompassed by such simplistic schematizations primarily based only on relatively recent (from the broad historical perspective) state-level operations. 

No, what makes Devdas linger in the minds of the public is its expression of romantic longing. This film is fundamentally about love and how deeply it can affect people, even though they (particularly men) may not discuss these matters explicitly with others.  And this presentation is enhanced in the film by both the cinematography of Kamal Bose and the music of Sachin Dev Burman.  These two go together, because the musical pieces are particularly well staged by Bose’s camera work.  The musical pieces, particularly those associated with the enamored courtesan Chandramukhi, are infused with sweetly passionate yearning for the beloved.

This brings me to the topic of the three main characters – Devdas, Paro, and Chandramukhi – and how they are characterised by the actors who perform the roles. Certainly, one would assume that the main character, the primary center of focalisation, is Devdas, and so the story is really about him. But I would say that the performance of Dilip Kumar in this role is so weak as to almost undermine the whole film. (Note that “Act 1" of the film, showing a teenage Devdas not played by Kumar, is full of vitality and quite different from the mournful despondency established by Kumar in the remaining acts.) It is often the case that the modern cinematic antihero is reticent in the face of social turmoil.  But Kumar’s listlessness in this film is soporific.  When we watch characters played by people like James Dean, Jean-Louis Trintignant, or Robert De Niro, they may often be reticent, but there is some emotive expression displayed. The viewer gets some sense of the unarticulated but internally felt emotions of the characters.  With Kumar here, however, we only get enervating indifference.  Other antiheros are almost always alert to their circumstances, but Kumar here just seems always to be in a fog. 

Kumar’s blank performance reduces the character of Devdas to be that of a hopelessly self-pitying narcissist.  Of course, we know that Devdas is selfish (we all are to some degree), but the extreme selfishness of Devdas here turns us away from any kind of empathy.  He doesn’t seem really to love Paro and want to give himself to her; he merely laments the fact that he couldn’t possess her.  This is the way this idle patrician (he doesn't work; he merely lives off the landlord-collected rents) is with everything. His unrelenting self-obsession made him similarly incapable of responding to Chandramukhi and seeing her as a person.  The fact that he is always clean-shaven and his hair is always similarly coiffed, no matter how degenerate he has become, is a cinematic flaw in cosmetics that only further contributes to his blank-slate persona.  A much better presentation of this kind of character is Guru Dutt’s portrayal in his variant of the Devdas theme, Kaagaz Ke Phool.


On the other hand, the characters of Paro and Chandramukhi are almost pure embodiments of selfless love. The passionate expressions of Suchitra Sen (Paro) and Vyjayanthimala (Chandramukhi) convey all the unfulfilled longings that are absent from Kumar’s expressions. Interestingly, these actresses are not slender nymphs connoting some ethereal affection, but full-figured young women whose expressions and gestures suggest loving physical engagement. They never meet each other in this story (and hence do not know what each other looks like), but on one occasion they happen to pass each other and exchange unknowing gazes while they are heading in opposite directions along the road. Their performances invigorate the film and help sustain interest in the Devdas decline (the final two-thirds of the film) to such a degree that we could say the film is at least as much about them as it is about Devdas.

In the end what redeems this Devdas is the music, the cinematography, and the emotive performances of Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala.  But a more involving and nuanced cinematic expression of these general themes is presented in Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool made a few years later.
★★★

Notes:
  1. “Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay”, Wikipedia.
  2. Poonam Arora, “Devdas: India's Emasculated Hero, Sado-Masochism and Colonialism”, (1997), Jouvert, a Journal of Pre-colonial Studies, ISSN 1098-6944, North Carolina State University.
  3. Johnny Walker had a similar role in Kaagaz Ke Phool.

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