Okay, I’ve talked about all the important Devdases, all the good ones that are closely related to the novel and deal with the ideas of hidden tragedies and casual disasters and all those cool things. Time to deal with the one that is just really really really pretty!
This might end up being my shortest Devdas post of them all, partly because there is less to discuss and partly because I already said so much in my previous posts about the novel and the other interpretations and how this one relates to them. But on the other hand, it may end up being the post that is most read, since the Bhansali Devdas is the one people are most familiar with. At least, English reading people who might find my blog.
Here’s the problem with Bhansali’s Devdas in a nutshell: it’s too pretty! And here’s the best part of Bhansali’s Devdas: it’s so pretty! So, there’s a conflict there.
Or not. It can be pretty and still a bad film, because a film should be more than prettiness. Really, the problem with Bhansali’s film, and this is true for most of his movies, is that if you removed the prettiness, there would be nothing else there. Get rid of the costumes, the songs, the make-up and jewelry. Get rid of the elegant dialogue and gorgeous stars. And, what’s left? Is there anything at the core of the movie, any soul to the story or the characters that can support this whole pretty pretty infrastructure? Generally, no.
I love Khamoshi, and I love Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. I think they had really interesting things to say, and the characters made me believe in real pain, not just poetic romantic pain. When (SPOILERS) Manisha’s little brother dies in Khamoshi, or when (SPOILERS) Salman loses Aishwarya at the end of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, (SPOILERS OVER) that felt like it was more about these characters and how they felt, than about Bhansali standing back and saying “Now, if I make this happen next, I can paint this pretty picture about it.”
(Also, this song is better than anything in Devdas. Especially the opening and closing. An old woman trying to cheer up her grandchildren and hide her own feelings while the piano she loves is sold to raise money for the household, that makes me feel something)
I can understand Bhansali’s temptation to make movies that are just about the pictures, because his pictures are really really pretty. But I wish he would stop trying to hang them on top of characters and story, because the story and characters always ends up getting short shrift. If he just went full MF Hussain and did movies that were abstract loosely connected concepts just in service of the images, I wouldn’t mind as much.
(pretty! And ultimately meaningless! Besides providing us with a moment of beauty. Also, a more realistic vision of the life of a prostitute than anything in Devdas)
Devdas is where Bhansali first switched over for me to feeling like he started with the images and dialogue he wanted, and filled in the plot later. And, unfortunately, when he filled in the plot, he decided to use the same names for his characters as in the novel Devdas, and lift a few images from Bimal Roy and Barua’s earlier versions.
Or maybe he started with Devdas, with the loose outline of a boy and girl who had a push-pull relationship since they were neighbors as children, almost got engaged as adults but it fell apart, and then he went on to be an alcoholic who hung out with a Tawaif who fell in love for him, while she went on to marry a rich widower. And then the boy died lying in front of the gate of his childhood friend. He kept that outline, but then built and built and built on it, until it was basically hidden. Feel free to ask in the comments, “was this bit in the novel? Or this? Or this?” But really, you can safely assume NONE OF IT was in the novel. Or any previous version. 90% of the plot is a complete invention of Bhansali.
That wouldn’t be such a problem, I mean Kashyap also invented all kinds of things and made a bunch of crazy changes, but Bhansali’s changes show that he missed the point of the story entirely. The point of the story is too look past the surface, that the disgusting alcoholic may be hiding a kind nature that makes him too weak to fight for his own rights, whether it is his inheritance or his true love. That the boring matron, beloved by her children and her charities, might be hiding a passionate nature that once would have done anything for love. That the glamorous Tawaif may be hiding a practical sense of money and tender nursing skills. And, most of all, that the most boring everyday story can hide a certain beauty. The beauty isn’t supposed to be right there on the surface wopping us in the face all the time!
(Wop! Wop! Wop! THEY ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AND DRAMATIC AND PERFECT LOVERS OF ALL TIME!!! BOW DOWN IN ENVY OF THEM!!!)
Devdas is supposed to be a drama-less tale. A poetry-less tale. No one besides Dev and Paro even knows their hearts were broken. That is their tragedy, that they are awkward and unable to convey their emotions. That they don’t want to make any issues or cause concerns for their family, so they never tell anyone how they feel and keep it all inside.
(Bhansali’s Paro. Not exactly keeping her feelings to herself.)
Now, if you only saw the Bhansali version, did you get any of that? Here’s some other things that were important in the novel and the previous versions: Paro is so beloved by her new family and children, that her son is even willing to break with his new wife over a perceived slight to her; Chandramukhi is good at her job, but is a somewhat average Tawaif, a little over the hill and small time without much in savings, forced to economize when she gives up her career because of her love for Dev; Dev by halfway through is such an unpleasant addict, begging his brother for money, dangerously thin, and full of nervous energy that his old friends find him kind of gross and only Chandra can put up with him. Did you get any of that either?
Back in my first post, I broke down the 5 important points, as I saw them, from Devdas the novel that were carried through into the most important Hindi Devdas adaptations, Barua in 1936, Bimal Roy in 1955, and Dev D in 2009. Here they are again:
- 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.
(Chandra, having given up her career now that love for Dev makes it feel empty, is living on 20 rupees a month and struggling to get by with the bare minimum, while Paro has grown old before her time, is the respected dowager of the house, beloved by her grown children and only interested in her charitable works. Two women who would never make you think of romance or tragedy are hiding their secret in their hearts, never to be spoken or even hinted at, while society overlooks them. That’s what this song makes you think of, right?)
So, basically every point there is missed by Bhansali. I think it’s that point 1 where he lost his way. The novel, and the Roy adaptation have this bright shining beautiful view of childhood, and their passionate connection, and long days spent together. It is the loss of that, the loss of their beauty and passion and faith and love, that is like 70% of the novel, and the films. The romance happens so fast, it is over before the realize what they have lost, and then the rest of their life is spent slowly discovering how their lives were forever changed.
But Bhansali just really liked the idea of the beauty and passion and love and kind of got stuck in that mode and couldn’t let it go. It would be like if someone made an adaptation of A Christmas Carol and just made it about Scrooge going around being cheap and miserly for two hours, and then ended.
But, okay, I’m going to try to set aside what this adaptation could/should have been, and deal with it on its own, as though it were an original story.
And you know, I still don’t really like it! Ram-Leela is more or less an original story, and I don’t like that. Same for Bajirao. I just don’t like Bhansali! Well, latter-day Bhansali.
Here’s my problem with Devdas, setting aside the missing the point of the source. I never get a sense of these people as characters who, like, go to the bathroom. Or get hungry. Or sometimes just don’t feel like talking. They are all perfect all the time, like it is their life’s goal to be beautiful and charming and clever. Isn’t that just kind of shallow? To have no purpose in life besides beauty and “loooooooooooooooove”?
I know this sounds like a silly complaint, since isn’t that what all romance characters are like? But, no! They aren’t! Especially not in Indian romances. Romance isn’t just about “looooooooove”, it’s about what that love means for society, how it can break up society or make it stronger, how it can shake people up and give them greater goals, how it can make you a better deeper person in ways unrelated to your love story.
Like, Sultan! That film laid it out very clearly. He cared what Anushka thought about him, which made him look at himself and care about how he was seen in the world, which made him into a better person. It started with caring about her, making a connection outside of his regular circle, but it lead him on a journey to making a better world.
Devdas, not so much! Dev himself just drinks and drinks and drinks and never really gets any better (or worse) than he was in the beginning. Paro is beautiful and faithful, and that’s kind of it, start to finish. Chandra is lovely and elegant and “fun”, and that’s all she is, start to finish.
(She’s wearing slightly plainer clothes, and doing it with a different purpose, but she is still dancing and singing for men just like before. She isn’t struggling for money and only dancing when she has to, in order to survive. And saving Dev through careful nursing, and paying for his expenses and financial support)
Okay, I have to do another novel/other versions comparison. Not because it “should” have been like the novel, but just to give you another example on how this could have worked for the characters, how their broken hearts could have made them better people. In this, Chandra saves Dev’s life by “distracting” him, the doctor tells her never to let him be bored. So she is even more constantly fun and amusing than she was in the beginning. In the other versions, she comes back to the city after living in a village just to find him, and then nurses him back to health through, you know, nursing! Messy, unpleasant, unpretty nursing. In the end, Dev goes from seeing her as just a distracting, a fake woman, to seeing her as noble and generous and enduring, and with a depth at the heart of her that no other man has been allowed to see.
Paro goes from a flighty flirty passionate woman who is always getting into fights, to one with great compassion and generosity. Once she loses Dev, she doesn’t want anything for herself, which makes her incredibly generous both to strangers (through charities and so on) and to her family, being wise and compassionate and giving to her new daughter and sons and daughter-in-law. Her broken heart turns her into a better person.
(She dresses plainly and gives all her jewelry to her daughter and daughter-in-law. She tells her daughter to think of her as “just another servant” in the house. She gives so many clothes to charity, her daughter-in-law is forced to take control of the household accounts. Yeah, that’s what I think when I see this picture)
And then there’s Dev. He slowly loses all the fight in him. In Bhansali’s version, he walks out of his house after a huge knock down drag out fight with his family over money. In all the other versions, there is no fight. That’s the point. He signs away his inheritance without a second thought, because he doesn’t want to cause a bother, to demand anything from anyone. It is the same reason he never calls for help from Chandramukhi or Paro at the end of his life.
(A man who lets his inheritance go through just not caring enough to ask for it, slowly fading from the lives of all who knew him. Or, not)
But in Bhansali’s version, “love” makes no real change in any of these people. They suffer for it, sure, in the most cinematic and dramatic fashion possible. But this suffering never teaches them anything, and they never seem to really fight against it, instead they glory in it. It’s selfish, really. Enjoying their misery with no thought as to how it affects others or why they should try to be better.
And boring! Who wants to spend time with people who are all “Dev Dev Dev” “Paro Paro Paro” “Dev Dev Dev” all the time? Get some other interests, for goodness sake!
There is one thing that Bhansali really nails, the song sequences. Because song sequences are all about evoking one solitary emotion to the nth degree. His songs convey what he is too unimaginative to evoke in the rest of the film. Well, some of them. He also falls into the trap of conveying the same thing over and over and over again until I have had surfiet of it.
(Right there for the first 2/3rds of this song. And then by the end Paro is holding the lamp out of the paliquin and Shahrukh is helping to carry it, and I am thinking “Oh just GET OVER YOURSELVES!!!”)
Oh! That’s what I am thinking of! Twelfth Night! Now, in case you don’t remember the original play, Viola is in disguise working for Orsino, who thinks he is in love with Olivia. But the point is, he isn’t! He is always swanning around, asking for the musicians to play on “if music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.”
Orsino thinks love means being miserable, playing music, reciting poetry. But Viola knows it is something different, it is about actually doing something, making an effort. This is her suggestion for how to court Olivia: “Make me a willow cabin at your gate, and call upon my soul within the house; write loyal cantons of contemned love, and sing them loud even in the dead of night; halloo your name to the reverberate hills, and make the babbling gossip of the air cry out ‘Olivia’ O, you should not rest between the elements of air and earth.”
By the end of Twelfth Night, the lovers have been sorted into fools and fakes, and real loves with successful stories versus fake loves that ended in a laugh at how silly it all was. Orsino ends up with Viola, not Olivia. Olivia ends up with Sebastian, not Viola who she thought she loved, mistaking Viola’s love for Orsino for love for her. It is that second half which is missing in Bhansali’s Devdas. These are all fools! Terrible shallow fake fools who would rather play music and wait for their love to die away, than make an effort to be happy. But Bhansali’s film never seems to recognize or acknowledge their shallowness, or invite us to laugh at them.
I have some other problems with this film, like the fetishization of Indian history in an almost “Look! It’s Colonial Calcutta Disneyland!” way.
(Bhansali’s idea of prostitutes/courtesans in colonial Calcutta, versus PC Barua’s version as someone who actually, you know, hung out with high class prostitutes in colonial Calcutta)
Or the way it was packaged and sold to the west as “the” Indian film, as though this pretty people having pretty problems in olden times is all there is to the entire history of Indian film. And this is in a year when Company came out!
(The “other” break out hero of India in 2002. Less dreamy romance, more gangster struggling for survival and afraid to let any weakness show, even love. And also the “other” break out director of 2002, less about big dreamy expensive scenes than brilliantly filmed dirt cheap and dead simple)
Or the way it minimizes the female characters even more than the male, making Chandramukhi into yet another prostitute who just does it for, I don’t know, fun?-instead of economic necessity. And Paro into yet another rich socialite who only cares about her broken heart and never considers using all her wealthy to do any good in the world. And that’s not even talking about how all the older woman in the film are shown to be short-sighted, petty, and status-focused.
(Meanwhile, that same year, Jaya Bachchan in Koi Mere Dil Se Pooche is encouraging her daughter-in-law to remarry even if it means she has to kill her own son.)
But, as I said, very pretty! A very pretty film. I could watch the songs over and over again. And have. I only hope I still can, now that I know the movie that surrounds them.
(Thank goodness, Madhuri is still wonderful)
Colonial Culcutta Disneyland! I couldn’t agree more.I couldn’t finish Devdas much as I wished otherwise.I blame Bhansali for reducing everything to ‘love.’ His movies give the message that ‘Without love, life is worth nothing.So the lover/lovers might as well die.Only make the death as visually stunning and attention grabbing as possible’.Never mind finding someone else (chandra) or something else (charity in Paro’s case) as a worthy goal which makes life meaningful.His movies urge one to give up rather than survive.
As usual TV takes its cue from Bollywood.So all the historical soaps Jodha Akbar, Chakravartin Ashok Samrat all have beautiful people,swanning about in spectacular sets moaning about their love.And to hell with duty, honour, patriotism etc.It literally made me sick the way ambitious ruthless men like Akbar or Ashok would neglect the affairs of their kingdom to moan about their love for this one perfect woman.Never mind that these men were polygamists.
Sure Ashutosh Gowariker also made Jodha Akbar very opulent and focused too much on the love-life of the emperor.But his movie had some semblance of a plot and never boring despite the 3 hours of drama.
Ashutosh had to do such a reach to connect the Jodha-Akbar love story to tax reforms, of all things. But at least he made the reach! He realized that just “Akbar and Jodha fall in love” is meaningless without the second half, “and then that love inspires them and brings about real change in the world and makes them better people.”
This is also why I love the genre of “lost my first love and married someone else” films, because usually they seem to end with a message that passionate young love is nice, but it doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t followed by building a live together. Like, Jab We Met! That’s a nice movie with a lovely message about how love shouldn’t make you miserable and suicidal, but should make you invent a new cell phone! (or whatever it was that Shahid did at the end, I was never very clear on what his company made)
“My first love is incomplete!” — all time favorite line.
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Thanks for the in-depth comparisons of the Devdas films! I disliked the SRK version, but couldn’t quite pinpoint why until reading this post.
Glad you liked the posts!
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I understand that SRK’s Devdas doesn’t follow the book, and I appreciate that despite that, you agree that the songs are amazing, but I’m surprised you don’t discuss the implications of Dhola Re Dhola more. You have so many thoughts on male love in Hindi films, doesn’t the relationship between Madhuri and Aishwarya strike you in some way? Plot wise the idea of two women, one respectable and one not, coming together because they both love the same man and want to help him, though neither can truly have him, is compelling. But throw plot to the wind and you have a dance where two women would clearly rather be with each other than anyone else in the world, and it is striking. I’m addicted to chemistry, and I admit to not being great at telling the difference between romantic chemistry vs friendship or familial, but to me it doesn’t matter, give me two actors who together are more than they are apart and I am smitten. For me Dhola Re Dhola stands apart from the movie as a whole as something truly amazing.
Oh wow, that had never occurred to me! I saw it as part of the tradition of “sister wives”, they are joined together in their love for Devdas (or Krishna in the lyrics of the song). But that was my blindness, you are completely right, it is one of those moments that is open to a different interpretation.
On Sat, Oct 12, 2019 at 8:14 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Dola Re Dola (and what lead to it) was like a sunbeam in this – imo wellmade – mess of a love story. First I read it like this ‘both love the same man in an unfullfilled way’ which gave them a common ground. Then it changed into ‘looking forward at a friendship because they like each other’. The third step was ‘They don’t only have a common ground, they feel for each other’. There is potential for either changing Devdas’ life or leaving everything behind to get a life together’. And then the son-in-law destroyed everything possible…oh, I really loathed this guy.
I went in to watch SLB’s Devdas with ZERO expectations of it matching up to the novel OR the older film and just went in to see Shah Rukh in pretty clothes with pained eyes. I love it when he’s wearing his “will the teardrop trail down his cheek, or will it not” expression. Gorgeous, beautiful, and like you said, VERY PRETTY.
The rest was horrible.
It is! It is so horrible!
By the way, if you are just trolling for SRK content, check out this post for all the Shahrukh games I’ve got going: https://dontcallitbollywood.com/games-games-games-games/
On Sun, Apr 19, 2020 at 11:12 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
Hey thanks! Is it really apparent that I am only on the SRK posts? 😛
I want to start a JHMS rewatch, but I need to fortify myself to protect the ovaries from exploding. He looks his BEST in JHMS, I will fight anyone.
What you should do is, start JHMS, then pause after ten minutes and read my first post, then play, then pause and read, then play, then pause and read, and so on. Safer for your ovaries, and makes the experience last so much longer.
On Wed, Apr 22, 2020 at 6:32 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I rewatched Devdas after more than 10 years and I was shocked because I saw many things I didn’t see years ago e.g how obnoxious Devdas was. But also how bad SRK was! Please don’t hate me but he was unwatchable. Even Ash was better in her scenes.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that SRK’s Devdas doesn’t look like somebody who is an addict or ill. Bhansali wanted only pretty people and nice things in his film, but if Devdas looks in the end just like he looked in the beginning how I can see his tragedy and decline?
Exactly! The novel, and the other film versions, wanted to start with the idea of “you know that disgusting addict you try not to see when you pass them on the streets? Once upon a time he was young, and handsome, and had people who loved him”. But Bhansali’s Devdas makes you think “hey, addiction is HOT”.
My theory of Bhansali’s direction is that he works best with actors who just follow direction. So, ex-models and/or dancers do great in his movies because he can move them around like little action figures. Shahrukh isn’t like that, he’s gonna want to come up with his own thing for his character. So you’ve got Shahrukh doing his thing, and also Bhansali’s thing, and it is just way way too much. Ranveer is the same, I think, in Padmavat especially. But his character is supposed to be ridiculous, so it works as a performance.
On Sat, May 16, 2020 at 10:20 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:
I found SRK very fake in this film. I didn’t see love, and I didn’t see the sadness in his eyes. He was like: oh I’m here pretending and being a little bit silly.
The only moment I felt something was when he caught his sister-in-law stealing, but his mother thought he is the one who stole the keys and threw him from home. At that moment I believed his anger and grief, in the rest of the movie no.