Bit of a controversial one, sorry if you like it, but I just don’t! And if you also don’t like it and have a hard time articulating why, maybe this review will help you.
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)