Devdas! Or rather, Devdas, Devdas, Devdas, Devdas, Devdas, Devdas. Because I have now read the original novel, and seen 5 separate film versions. I wrote about Dev D already, the most inventive and yet faithful remake. Now, I want to talk about the PC Barua Hindi version from 1936, and the Bimal Roy Hindi version from 1955. I have to talk about them together, because they are so similar, they really can’t be separated. And because I am talking about two movies, this post is going to be split into two parts.
In my last post on Devdas, I talked about the essential meaning of the novel. And I am going to quote myself here, because it’s easier than re-writing it, and probably easier for you than clicking back and re-reading that post:
After consuming all these versions, it seems like there are 5 main points necessary to make it work.
Childhood as a time of innocence and happiness and promise, although already over-shadowed by personality flaws that will ultimately destroy them.
A failed romance that never even really starts in adulthood, truly over before it began, before they can fully grasp what they have lost.
Chandramukhi as a figure who starts as a one dimensional fantasy, and slowly becomes more solid and practical and “real” than anyone else, the only character to talk about rent and groceries and money.
Dev as a figure who becomes not just tragic, but kind of gross. He is described in the novel, and somewhat played in the ’36 and ’55 and Dev D films, as being ill, unpleasant to look at, with sunken eyes and cheeks and an odd demeanor. In the novel, after death, his body is half-burned, then pecked by vultures and then fought over by dogs. It’s not exactly a lovely “dying with his hand outstretched!” image.
Paro as a character who becomes kind of sapped of life. She is good and generous and charitable, but she also retires to become the sort of dowager of her home, on her wedding night she tells her husband not to worry about their age difference because “Women age quickly”, which is exactly what happens to her.
If you look at those points up above, you will see that this is basically an unfilmable story. The happiest time is childhood, which means child actors have to carry the emotional weight of the plot. The “hero” and “heroine” both age into dull unpleasant characters, a drunkard and a dowager. The second heroine, who starts out as a kind of appealing slightly older courtesan, eventually turns into a practical nurse and homebody. And the ending is a super downer, you don’t exactly leave the theater with a smile on your face.
Devdas is kind of an exception that proves the rule sort of thing. It has been so popular and so successful in so many different eras of film and so many different regional industries, that some outsiders (as in, many many many film writers and reviewers in the west) think that Indian film is essentially tragic and romantic. But, no! It’s essentially happy and practical! There are very very few tragedies, Devdas is just super successful because PC Barua was brilliant at turning a non-filmi story into a film.
(Highest grossing film of 1955, and arguably much more influential on Indian film than Devdas. A romance based on realities like salary, housing, and future income, which ends with determined optimism in the face of disaster)
PC Barua was the perfect person to figure out how to film this unfilmable novel, because he was kind of a Devdas in real life. Born to a wealthy zaminder family, he came to Calcutta as a teenager (already married, he left his wife back home to run the estate). He fell in love multiple times after that, and married at least twice more (it’s unclear if he married any of his many other laisons). His second marriage was against the wishes of both families, they lived together in a little rented room and sobbed each other to sleep every night. According to his biography “it was the happiest time in his life”.
This is a man who was only happy when he was sad, so of course he wanted to make a movie about the hero of all sadsacks, Devdas. Oh, and of course he fell in love with the teenager he discovered to play Paro in his Devdas. But, bucking the trend, they actually lived happily together for several years. Well, until Barua drank himself to death. Like I said, total Devdas. Oh, and he was a regular in the red light district of Calcutta, visiting many of the courtesans who were still there decades after the novel was written, keeping up the tradition of Chandramukhi by distracting artistic young men from their self-inflicted sorrows.
Let’s not forget that Dev himself was originally written by a somewhat dramatic young man. Although the novel wasn’t published until 1917, it was written in 1901, when Sarat was only 17. I mean, it’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but it has a certain kind of glory in suffering and dramatic pronouncements that feels very teenage.
So PC took this unfilmable book, which spoke deeply to him, and managed to film it in such a way that it could speak deeply to others as well. There were a few things that had to go by the wayside to make it work. Paro didn’t turn into a total matron, and Dev didn’t turn into a total disgusting drunk, because who would want to watch that? The childhood sequence was cut, and replaced with a very brief glimpse of Dev’s life as a teenager before being sent to Calcutta.
There were also a few things that were expanded. Barua added a brief sequence of Dev arriving in Calcutta and meeting his cousins and their friend, Chunnilal, for the first time. Being mocked about his country clothes and turned into a “proper city gentleman”. This sequence, I have to wonder if it was more based on Barua’s actual experience when he came to the city from his estate as a teenager, rather than Sarat’s novel where Dev is much younger.
Chunnilal is given a larger character in general in this version, but that feels more for practical reasons, it is easier for the audience if we can identify him by name and face, recognize him from that first meeting in Calcutta, through the introduction of Chandramukhi, all the way to the end.
The end is where Barua’s brilliance really came through, he invented the “train carriage” scene! I was sure, after watching movie after movie that ends with Dev traveling the train through India and never setting down anywhere, that this must have been an element in the novel. But, no! In the novel, Dev takes off traveling, but there is no long train sequence. He just travels here and there through out India, visiting his mother, running into Chunnilal again, and finally noticing that the train has stopped at Paro’s village. Barua is the one who came up with the idea of the train carriage, as a final place where your humanity is lost, where you go when there is no place else for you to go. It’s an idea so good, Salim-Javed stole it for Satyen Kappu’s character in Deewar.
And Barua came up with the idea of the final mode of suicide being a drink with Chunnilal, after Dev had been keeping himself clean for weeks or months, being seduced again through good friendship and past memories, into drinking himself to death with Chunnilal. Who then leaves, unaware of what he has done. It’s brilliant, tying the whole idea of the city mentor, urbanization, and westernization, into what kills Dev. And that it kills him casually, lovingly even, without realizing what he is doing. Just like the British/modernization/urbanization damaged Indian society without meaning any harm.
What was really brilliant, was the use of voice overs. I have no idea if voice overs were common in Bengali or Hindi film at this time, I know in America they were used frequently in film noirs. But there, they were more a matter of saving money, easier to have a voice over a montage than to film multiple actors saying dialogue. Although they also became a stylistic technique, letting our hard-boiled friendless hero reveal his inner thoughts and plans to the camera, if to no one else.
But in Devdas, Barua uses the voice over not to cut through the confusion and mystery of the rest of the film, but to create it. On the surface, all is calm and peaceful, there was mention of an engagement but it never happened, Dev is in the city and Paro is married off to a good husband. We need the voice overs to show us what is happening underneath, the inner torment Dev is going through. The curse of the Devdas character is that he is never able to fully reveal himself to anyone else, he is constantly seen as either more noble or less noble than he really is. Giving us his voice overs lets us fully understand what he is feeling.
In later films, both Devdas remakes and others, the song sequences serve a similar purpose, showing us the torment going on under the surface. I’m thinking about something like the way “Bulleya” was used in Sultan, for instance, to tell us how Salman felt about Anushka, when all we see on screen is him watching her leave a temple. But Barua and later Bimal Roy chose to only use diagetic songs.
(My all time favorite of this “inner monologue” type songs, from one of my all time favorite movies)
“Diagetic” means songs that are actually happening in the film, not just in the character’s heads. Bhansali used a mixture of both diagetic and non-diagetic music. For instance, “Hamesha Tumko” is non-diagetic (what we see onscreen is actually happening, but the music is just their inner voices), while “Maar Dala” is diagetic (Madhuri’s character is actually singing and dancing). In modern Indian film, this mix is the most common. There will be a nightclub song and/or a wedding or festival or religious song that “really happens”. But there will also be total fantasy songs, where characters picture themselves on mountain tops, or partial fantasy songs, like “Bulleya” or “Humesha Tumko”, where they imagine a soundtrack to their everyday life.
In the early years of film, non-diegetic music was not really thought of. Films were immitating religious plays and Parsi theater and other older types of performances, were song was integrated into the story as part of the plot. Barua would have been very unlikely to think of having a song that was not actually sung by a character. He does have lots of songs, including many by Devdas revealing some of his feelings, but they are always sung by the character, aware that he may have an audience, not as an inner monologue.
By the way, the ’36 Devdas is one of the few Indian films surviving from back before non-synch sound. So all the songs of Devdas are actually sung by K.L Saigal. He has a very nice voice, but I found it just as believable watching him singing, as I did in the 1955 version when it was Dilip saab just lipsynching to Talat Mehmood.
Barua used diegetic music as a matter of course, but by the time Bimal Roy came along, diegetic musical sequences were no longer the norm. Raj Kapoor had already conquered the dream sequence with “Ghar Aaye Mera Pardesi” in Awara, and a few years after Roy’s Devdas, KA Abbas would craft lovely musical montages for Mother India. So Roy must have seen something in what Barua did, something he wanted to hold onto for his own version of Devdas.
As everyone knows, Barua basically founded the film industry in Bengal and, when it began to die in the early 50s, many of those he mentored, including Roy, migrated to Bombay to work in the Hindi cinema instead. Roy worked on Barua’s Devdas, and worked closely with him for years before and after, and you can see Barua’s stamp on all his work. 90% of the 1955 Devdas is just shot for shot Barua’s version. But that extra 10% is what takes it up over the top.
I already talked about some minor changes and additions Barua made to the novel. But what he kept was the wonderful pacing of the story (well, except for the necessity of removing the childhood parts) and how it helps to understand the characters. While their childhood years (or, in Barua, Dev’s early time in Calcutta) seem vivid and vibrant, the years of adulthood flow by almost without notice, and the bond between Paro and Dev, the brilliance of their personalities and relationship, flows away too.
In the novel, it is explicit how this time affects them. In the beginning, they became close friends during a magical year when they were both out of school, Dev for misbehaving and Paro because she lied to her parents that bruises from a fight with Dev were from the teacher. They spend a year climbing mango trees and running wild on their parents’ land from morning to night. Until Dev’s parents decide it is time he takes up his schooling again, even if it means sending him away to Calcutta instead of keeping him at home. Now, Roy’s film condenses this part, going fairly quickly from leaving school to being sent to Calcutta. But it has the same effect that it had in the novel, because the child actors are so charming, it feels like we spent a year with them.
While we need to see the golden happy childhood, the time of life that is always so vivid to them in future, that is really just a set up for everything happens afterward. The story isn’t about the happy wonderful time full of promise, it is about what happens to people when that time is over. And how it can end so quietly you don’t even notice it when it happens. In the novel, again, the get the message across through the details they are able to provide, Dev is sent to school as a matter of course, not as a massive dramatic punishment. Paro runs after his carriage, and reads his letters over and over again. But then, she gets bored. She starts to forget Dev and writes him less and less, and finally asks her parents if she can go back to school, because without Dev to direct her in her daily tasks, the days drag along.
Dev, meanwhile, returns for vacations regularly at first, and then less and less as the years go by, almost forgetting her by the time he is an adult. It’s sad that this relationship, which was so vivid and vibrant in their youth, has turned into a forgotten fragment of childhood as they age. But it’s not a tragedy, it’s just life moving forward.
In the novel, the sensation of life moving on is conveyed through a few words describing the slow decrease of letters between them. In both Barua and Roy’s films, it is conveyed through a cut, from Dev arriving/leaving for school, to Paro getting water from the local spring and hearing that Dev is returning from vacation from her friend, and putting up with her friend teasing her for being excited, since Dev has only been home a handful of times in the past few years and doesn’t seem that eager to meet her.
In one brilliant gesture of film, we feel the change of the years, Paro as an adult, with friends of her own besides Dev, and her connection to Dev now a matter for light teasing and unconcern, since clearly their bond is gone. While this works well in Barua’s film, as we cut from Dev arriving in the city as an innocent teenager to Paro being teased about him as a young man, it works slightly better in Roy’s version, in which it comes after a lovely song conveying all the longing and pain of their childhood connection. A diegetic song, significantly, Paro pays wandering minstrels to sing to her, using the rupees she got from Dev. They sing a song of, I think, Radha and Krishna, calling back to another great childhood love story, while Paro weeps. It’s a beautiful song, Geeta Dutt has such a gorgeous voice, but it is also a simple painful song, very in keeping with the simple pain of childhood.
(Same little girl played Guru Dutt’s daughter in Kaagaz Ke Phool. Will she never get a happy childhood!?!?)
And then we go from that to this blooming young woman carrying jugs of water, laughing about her childhood crush, while still half-ashamed of her feelings. Roy adds a brilliant line here, Paro’s friend teases her that Dev has returned from the city a man, “with a jacket and cane”. The cane, as a symbol of his sudden assumption of adulthood/westernization, will come back in a few scenes to perfect effect.
The first meeting between Dev and Paro in adulthood is almost brutal in its simplicity. It’s the same as it is in the book, Dev stops by her house sometime after arriving home from school, sees her lighting a lamp, and leaves immediately excusing himself due to being tired from travel. It is so fast, the power of the moment is more in the memory of it, than in the few seconds during which it happens. Bhansali slows this down, lingers over it teases us with false starts, and ultimately his whole multi-scene many-minute sage is less powerful than the few seconds of screen time Barua and Roy give it, a young man enters a room, a woman looks up in surprise as the light hits her face, and he turns and leaves.
Barua crafted it, came up with the idea of using the natural light of the candle to illuminate Paro’s face, so we see her just as Devdas did. But Roy perfected it, thanks to the more sophisticated filming techniques available to him 20 years later. When Suchitra Sen raises her face and Dilip glimpses her, and immediately leaves the room, we have that same shock followed by confusion that they must have felt.
That scene has to have power, because it is the extent of their courtship. In the novel, Sarat describes Paro’s mother going to visit her good friend and neighbor, Dev’s mother, gently raising the possibility of an alliance, and Dev’s mother bending over backward to turn it down without causing offense or hurt feelings. Followed by Paro’s father learning of this, feeling embarrassment that his neighbor’s should think they need to ask for an alliance (not anger, or if anger, only at his own family for bringing it up, not at Dev’s). And on Dev’s side, they are so joyful at Paro’s successful marriage, they provide the jewelry and host the wedding. There is no feud between families, no effort at come-uppance, no drama.
That is the key, that on the surface of this all nothing has really happened. The two families had a small rough patch, quickly gotten over through mutual generosity and love. Paro made a good match, Dev went back to Calcutta. Done, settled, over.
Only Dev and Paro see it as more than that. Well, really, Paro. She is the one who tells her friend, in a scene word for word the same in the novel and Barua and Roy’s version, that she will definitely be marrying Devdas, not the man her parents have chosen. Her friend is shocked and confused, and in the moment it feels liked she doesn’t understand “true love”. But, no! The real point is that Paro is delusional! She has built up these few moments into a great love, sure it will all work out, with no concept of how the world is.
Which is the big point of the next scene, when Paro goes to see Dev in his room. She is begging him to give her “a place at his feet”, somehow thinking it will all magically work out if he accepts her, and he is focused on the shame and scandal that will come to them if she is found in his room. But the point is, there is no shame! In the novel, Sarat specifically says that the watchman saw her arrive, and assumed she was a maid.
In both the Barua and Roy versions, there is this brilliant edit that Barua came up with, showing that they have their passionate speech, and then sit there thinking together as the clock moves from 2am to 4am, trying to solve the riddle of how to smuggle her out with causing a scandal. Finally, Dev dramatically declares that he will take her home, and if they are caught, they can both be destroyed! But again, THESE KIDS ARE IDIOTS!!! There is no scandal, the watchman didn’t notice her, they are caught up in the drama and missing the larger picture.
Which is also why Dev goes storming off to Calcutta. In the Barua version there is hardly any drama about it. In the Roy version, there is slightly more, Dev throws on his jacket and grabs his cane and strides out. But there is certainly no huge family fight or any reason he has to flee.
In Calcutta, Chandramukhi! But first, Dev’s great letter scene. I love how Roy plays this! Barua’s version is okay, but Roy let’s Dilip go all out with the acting. He has two distinct voices in his head, the cautious and scared boy, and the passionate man, and he is torn between the two. Dilip delivers the voice over perfectly, but he also manages the facial expression, slowly moving himself between two sides of a frame so that alternate sides of his face are showing to match the alternate concerns in his head, between Paro and his family. I wonder how they filmed it? Did they have the voice over playing while he was acting so he knew what to emote to? Did he do a scene that was twice as long and they just edited it to match the voice?
The end result is that Dev writes a stupid letter to Paro saying he never loved her and she should forget him, which makes her agree to the marriage. And that night, Dev meets Chandramukhi for the first time. And we meet Vyjantimala/Rajkumari!
What I love about both the Barua and Roy versions, is how cheap Chandra’s room is. In Barua’s case, it could just be that he didn’t have the money. But Roy could have gone bigger if he wanted to, and he chose not to. He had a small room, about the size of a standard family room, with a few men sitting on the floor watching Vyjantimala sing a little song and do a little dance. She isn’t the most beautiful woman in Calcutta, or the most talented dancer, or the most famous and successful courtesan. She is just “a” courtesan, one of many in the city, with her own tiny group of patrons, who just happen to include Chunnilal, Dev’s friend.
In the novel, it is mentioned that she is “old” for a courtesan, 24. She is no shy young thing, or blooming beauty. This is her job, and she is good at it. Which is why Chunnilal leaves her alone with Dev to cheer him up. In the novel, it is mentioned that she doesn’t know what to do with Dev’s honesty, because she is used to flattering man. That doesn’t quite come across in the Barua and Roy version, but it is still there a little.
Part of the problem is casting. Barua cast a young girl, 14 according to somethings I can find (there is so little information available about early Indian film, and it is hard to tell what to trust), and she looks 14. It’s kind of disturbing, I want to reach through the screen and give her a hug and some hot cocoa and make her do her homework instead of dancing for men. I have to wonder if he did that on purpose, if he wanted to convey an innocent new courtesan, one who possible had not yet had her virginity sold, instead of an old experienced one past her first naivety. Either way, it pulls away from that sense of her being shaken by Dev’s brash youth.
Vyjantimala is slightly wrong in a different way. She’s just too beautiful! She was not Roy’s first choice, he wanted Nargis or Suraiya, or even Nutan. Actresses with a more real beauty, and natural grace. Instead, he got sparkling wonderful Vyjantimala, with the twinkling toes and bright smile. She perfectly conveys the confidence of a practiced Tawaif, but she isn’t quite the over the hill small-timer I was picturing from the book. But, that’s a small thing, at least her room and audience match the book concept, nice but small and casual. Oh, and her audience includes a very young Pran, who only gets a few lines, and Johnny Walker! I loooooooooove Johnny Walker!!!!
And then there’s the wallet thing, an invention of Barua’s, to have Dev not just throw money at her in order to get away, but to throw his entire wallet in his haste. When she comes out to return it to Chunnilal to pass on to Dev, she gently asks Chunnilal to bring him back. And her attitude is not that of a femme fatale commanding her loyal follower, but rather a friend speaking to a friend and asking a favor. Again, Chandra is not some other wordly beauty with power over men, but a working dancer, like many others, who is friendly to her regular clients, who are not Princes and Millionaires, but simple businessmen who are looking for a little distraction at night.
And Dev returns, to find Paro again at the spring, carrying water and talking smack. Now, he is the one in love with love, obsessed with the idea that they should be married, he can just talk to his parents and make it happen. And Paro is the one to hold back, claiming her pride and her family’s pride will not allow her engagement to break. And pointing out that she is beautiful and smart as he is, why should she marry any less?
By the way, this is one of the few times Paro is mentioned as “beautiful”. Even Chandra is not beautiful. I mean, sure, I suppose they could be, but it is not their defining future. They have the natural beauty of young womanhood, but not such that it requires constant mention or acknowledgement. Suchitra Sen, the classic Paro, is lovely in a subtle way. And Jamuna was even quieter. If you look at the text, when Dev describes the appeal of the two women, this is how he sees them:
‘She [Paro] is proud and stubborn, you [Chandra] are calm and restrained. She cannot tolerate the slightest affront, you put up with everything. She is honoured and respected by every one, you are looked down upon as a fallen woman. Every one loves Parvati. No one really loves you except me.
Beauty is not a part of it. Of course, the filmmakers had to make some allowances here, otherwise no one would want to watch the film, but at least Roy and Barua attempted to cast more unusual beauties. And Anurag was brilliant in his casting, discovering two actresses with amazing screen presence and power, and a beauty that sneaks up on you. Bhansali, as usual, totally missed the point.
By the way, in an earlier scene, Chandra says of Dev “‘Devdas, underneath your sharp and dry exterior there is great inner beauty. Few can see it. But whoever does see it cannot stop being attracted to you.'” So, Shahrukh was brilliant casting, only it should have been difficult unlikeable Shahrukh from Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, not charming bouncy youthful Shahrukh from Mohabattain.
(See, this should be Dev at Chandramukhi’s, disgusted and kind of unattractive in the middle of all this fun.)
Anyway, in the novel, Dev says that “even the moon has a flaw” and hits her with his flute, which he then promptly breaks in guilt. A little bit of an obvious “oooo, they were Radha and Krishna but now he has broken it by hitting her, so he breaks his flute!” Barua doesn’t make it a flute, that would be too obvious, but he uses the imagery of the strike followed immediately by the breaking of the stick over his knee, and it’s a lovely moment of youthful sudden regret.
But Barua is so much better! Remember that “cane” that was mentioned ages ago as a sign that Dev was now an adult? Here it comes back, with that same cane used to strike Paro, and then immediately thrown away with disgust. Dev has come into his power as a wealthy westernized young man, and he used it to strike down a woman. And immediately rejected it, never to take it up again. Wah! Wah wah wah! Brilliant!
And so, Paro is married. It is just that sudden. He hits her, ties up her forehead, and then they are interrupted when other women come to the well. And next we see, she is married and in her husband’s house.
Okay, this thing is ridiculously long, I am going to have to stop here and come back later to deal with the last half of the two films.