Devdas adaptations are always important, kind of a barometer for where India is right now and what issues surround the country. Plus, this was the film that announced Anurag Kashyap as a real true talent to watch. But on the other hand, 2009 was such an amazing year, I don’t know if it really can be limited to just Dev.D even as amazing and important as Dev.D is.
I avoided Devdas in the first few years of my film obsession, because I had a firm rule against watching movies where Shahrukh dies. Which wasn’t the biggest limitation you might think! Basically, it just ruled out Devdas, Baazigar, Anjaam, and Darr (reincarnation and double roles don’t count, just the films where he dies and stays dead). And then about 5 years ago, a friend lent me her copy of Darr, which turned out to be BRILLIANT, and broke the seal on my “no SRK death” rule. So then I went on to watch Baazigar and then I watched every other SRK movie, but I still didn’t want to see Devdas.
See, I’d missed the window where I could appreciate it. I read too much film history and analysis by that point, and I knew that the SRK Devdas wasn’t the “real” Devdas, and was in fact just a pale imitation of the 1955 version. So clearly I had to watch the 1955 version before I could see the 2001 version. But before I could watch the 1955 version, clearly I had to learn to appreciate the actors, director, and general 1950s film genre.
So, now I have seen Mughal-E-Azam for Dilip Saab, and Sangam with Vyjantimala, and Bombai Ka Babu with Suchitra Sen (MAN! Was young Dev Anand hot or what?). I mean, I’ve seen them in other stuff as well, but these were their great non-Devdas Hindi performances. And I saw Bandini, so I felt good with Bimal Roy. And I cranked through all the Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor classics, plus some other classics of the era, so I felt pretty good with the 1950s in general. So, finally, I could watch the 1955 Devdas any time I wanted to. Except, why would I want to? It’s Devdas! It’s super sad and unpleasant!
But I woke up early this Saturday and suddenly it hit me, today is the day I conquer Devdas! So I watched the 1955 version, then I went out and saw Dishoom in theaters and bought groceries, and then I came home and watched the 1955 version a second time to make sure I got all the subtleties. And then I watched the 2001 version (I cheated and skipped the songs, since I’ve seen them a million times already, cut a good hour off the run time). And then I found Dev D online and watched that. And then I slept for 5 hours, and then I woke up and found the 1936 PC Barua Hindi version on youtube, and then I found the novel in English in digital format, and then I went out and watched Kabali. And then I came home and watched stupid sitcoms for 6 hours and went to sleep. A perfect weekend! I would say it’s the silliest thing I ever did, but I also decided to read all the books and watch all of the Lord of the Rings movies over a one week period back when I was in college, which involved even less sleep and even more depressing and dark storylines.
So, after all of that, what was the end result? Did I actually enjoy any of the films? NO! I did not! I was right to avoid them all along! Somehow, the story of a 20-something guy who can’t get out of his own head and just pick a girl already did not resonate with me. But, I could appreciate them as works of art in their own right with interesting things to say and beautiful things to show. With that consideration, here would be my ranking:
- 1955 version: Every cast member is perfect, the camerawork is gorgeous, and it is all in service of an accurate representation of the story that manages to capture its essential meaning.
- 1936 version: This almost ties for second place with the novel. If I had read it in the original Bengali instead of a pretty bad English translation, I probably would have put the novel second. But seeing as I don’t have access to the better version, I am going with this film, which clearly largely inspired all the other film versions.
- The novel: Again, I couldn’t get any of the poetry in the writing. But the blunt images and way the story unfolds is very skillful. And the end message is lovely.
- Dev D: Anurag Kashyap is just the worst. But this film works, because he has a main character that is as self-obsessed and self-pitying as he is. Plus, Kalki is the perfect Chandramukhi.
37. 2001 version: An undeniably lovely film. I just think that Bhansali missed the point of the original novel perhaps to the greatest degree possible.
So, going back to the novel, it’s a very quick slight read (at least, in English. It’s not like I could really study over the beauty of the prose or anything, because there was no beauty in the prose). It hits all the main points of the story in the same balance as the 1955 and 1936 versions (totally different than the 2001 version). And then at the end, it gives a very blunt statement of what the whole point of this story is.
If you ever meet any wayward and unfortunate person like Devdas, please pray for him. Please pray to God that whatever else he has to endure, he should be spared the kind of death that Devdas had. Everyone has to die some day. But let him not die like Devdas, forsaken, alone. Let his forehead feel the touch of gentle and loving fingers at the time of death. Let the flame of his life be extinguished while gazing upon some affectionate face. Let him at least see one tear-drop in the eye of a caring human being. That will be happiness enough for him at the moment of final departure.
The message isn’t “Oh the pure and beautiful love of Dev and Paro!”, the message is simply pure human sympathy and understanding for the lowest of society. The point of the novel is to show how two brilliant and carefree children can turn into, respectively, a proper and revered wealthy matron and a sick and disgusting drunkard, dying on the pavement. And that we should have sympathy for both of them.
That’s why Chandramukhi pops up a couple of times in the middle of Dev and Paro’s story, to show how the Tawaif that we ignore or consider less than human, heartless and feelingless, can be noble and strong and giving, can have her heart break just like anyone else. She is a counter-example to Paro, the lady bountiful who apparently never wants anything for herself, and Dev, the drunkard. All of these people seem to have a certain place within society, but that is just their outward appearance, if you know their history and their pain and all of that, you would see that they have a story worth hearing.
But that whole message only works if the story is told in the right way, the way PC Barua and Bimal Roy and, to some degree, Anurag Kashyap tell it. 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.
I’m gonna start at the end, with Dev D, the most recent version (that is, assuming we are only talking about critically acclaimed famous Hindi language versions, obviously there are all kinds of other adaptations that I still haven’t seen).
(Good movie, vertigo inducing poster)
Dev D totally messes with the details and order of events from the book, but it keeps those 5 points above, the most important ones. In Dev D, we only get a little glimpse of our “hero” Dev in childhood, much less than we see in the 1955 version or in the book. But it gives us the two important points. We see young Paro come to bring him food and be slapped for her troubles. And we see his father yelling at him because he is drinking and skipping school and generally being trouble. That’s it, two scenes each only about 10 seconds long. And then we skip forward to his romance as an adult returned from exile in London with Paro.
The balance is completely off here, clearly influenced by the 2001 film version where the young adult romance was explored in detail. In the novel, and the other film versions which are faithful to it, the adult romance gets barely 10 minutes of screentime or just a few pages in the book. Dev returns from school, Paro is shy to meet him, he catches a glimpse of her lighting a lamp and is so struck by her adult beauty that he makes an excuse and leaves immediately. Immediately afterward, Paro’s mother proposes marriage to Dev’s parents, as the two children seem to like each other, and is gently refused. Paro’s father is embarrassed that her mother even asked, and decides it is time to get her married. Paro tells her friend that she is definitely marrying Dev, not some wealthy 40 year old, and that night sneaks into Dev’s room to ask him to marry her. Dev turns her down, never having considered being in love with her or defying his parents, and then goes to Calcutta to visit a friend where he writes her a letter explaining they can’t be married, which makes Paro agree to marry the older man. He regrets the letter, and comes back to talk to her, suggesting that he win his parents over and they can be married. Paro brags that she has pride as well and beauty, and Dev replies that “the moon is beautiful as well, but it has a scar” and hits her, scarring her forehead. He immediately apologizes and she forgives him, but gets married anyway. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. It took me about as long to write it out as it takes to see it onscreen in the 36 and 55 versions, or to read it in the original novel.
In contrast, we get a series of stories from their childhood, games they played on their teacher, fights they had, all of that.The point of the story isn’t two gloriously beautiful young people in love, the point of the story is these bright happy children with a special bond, who turned into heartbroken adults. The moment of heart break is the least important part.
But, like I said, Dev D was influenced by Bhansali’s version, so there are all kinds of flirtations and so on happening as young adults and only a few seconds spent on childhood. But those childhood seconds are so vivid, we really do get a sense of them as children. Whereas, as young adults, they are harder to grasp hold of. Abhay plays Dev as a cipher, never fully revealing what he is thinking or feeling. He wants to have sex with Paro, that much is clear. But does he also want to marry her? He is carrying around a ring, and when he is approached by another woman he turns her down at first, saying he has a girlfriend. But he seems to be holding back a little, resisting making a commitment to anything besides sex for some reason. While Paro is fierce and confident and sure of what she wants. But does she even know Dev? Why does she want him?
This is still recognizably Dev and Paro, Dev autocratic and demanding and Paro quick to anger but always loyal, but Kashyap changes the details of how their personalities lead to their ruin. In the original, Dev held back while Paro plunged forward, at first thinking that his family’s objections could never be overcome, and finally coming around when it was too late. In this film, Dev is a child of the 2000s, holding back because of family objections makes less sense. Instead, he hears rumors that Paro has been sleeping with other men, and chooses to believe them rather than Paro herself. In anger, Paro agrees to a marriage with another man, a wealthy widower, before Dev can realize his mistake. But the essential flaws are the same, Dev is quicker to consider others over Paro and ignores her request when she is right in front of him, and then pays for his cowardice with regret.
Paro, meanwhile, pays for her rash confidence by living a life of loneliness and emptiness. Or, not so much! This version goes to the limit of what the novel and other versions only implied, suggesting that perhaps Paro was able to find some level of happiness and contentment in playing “lady of the manor”, that perhaps this marriage was a better decision for her in the end than marriage to Dev ever could have been. Significantly, in this version, it is Paro’s father who is against the match. He arranges for Dev to hear the false rumors, while Dev’s father expresses regret that Dev never married Paro as he wished.
This twist makes the story stronger in two ways. First, it helps make their break-up and Paro’s marriage fully about Paro, as it should be. In every version but Bhansali’s, she wasn’t being rushed to marriage to “show” Dev, she was being married off because she was of an age for it and they got a very good proposal, Dev had nothing to do with it. In this, that is even more the case, her father doesn’t want her to marry this drunken loser from London, so he arranges things so that she will marry someone better. He doesn’t care what this does to Dev, because it’s not about Dev, it’s about his daughter.
And second, the reveal that Dev’s father would have supported the match brings back the idea of this as a slight casual disaster, not an epic inevitable event. It all happened so fast and Dev never seemed to see what was happening, he didn’t realize he could have proposed at any time, he could have married Paro at any time, the only thing that went wrong was his own indecision and weakness, there is no big “villain” in the story.
Now, in the novel and ’36 and ’55 versions, we first meet Chandra when Dev does, seeing her as a slight meaningless woman of the night. It is only after several meetings and scenes that we start to see her as a real person, with feelings and concerns and practical sacrifices.
There are 4 distinct scenes with her, first when she attempts to flatter and sooth Dev like any other man, and he is rude and abrupt to her, rejecting her false flattery, which intrigues her. Second, when he returns to Calcutta and drinks and talks with her all day (not at night, significantly, he is not interested in spending time with her as a dancer and entertainer, just as a person who will put up with his stories and abuse during the day). Third, when he comes back to Calcutta after the death of his father and finds her having sold all her belongings and invested her money, planning to live a simple life in a village rather than continue her life as a courtesan, because her heart isn’t in it any more. Fourth, when Chandra hears that he is living on the streets and dying of drink and returns to Calcutta, setting up a bare bones shop to support herself while she searches for him. It is only in this 4th interaction that Dev comes to openly care for her, telling her that he loves her and is grateful for her care, but still cannot bring himself to stay with her and feels the need to travel.
The reader takes this journey along with Dev. We first see her as the random courtesan character, who can be insulted and hurt just to prove the nobility of our central character. Later, she becomes more important, but only as a sounding board for his misery. Finally, in her third scene, she explicitly says that she is speaking for Paro, explaining how Paro must feel to Dev. This should be her grande finale moment, speaking as Paro to help Dev understand her, before Chandra quietly disappears from the story into her self-imposed exile.
Only, it’s not the end. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay brings her back one more time, to show us that she is more than just a tool in Dev and Paro’s love story, she is a person in her own right. And that is what Dev recognizes in the end as well, that this courtesan he abused and ignored has depths and love within her, that whether it is living a saintly life in a village or dancing to entertain men at night, she should not be ignored and cast aside as less than human.
I love that Sarat sees what, to this day, directors and writers often miss. That courtesans don’t just spontaneously appear decked out in jewels and living in fabulous mansions, there is some work and budgeting involved. Chandra can’t just walk away from her life without a sacrifice, and she comes back to it out of pure financial necessity, buying false jewels and fake furniture, just enough to get by while she is in the city. That is her final scene, teaching us that courtesans are just people and all their dresses and draperies are just disguises to make them appear more, or less, human than their clients.
Bringing it back to Dev D, Anurag flips the script on us. We start by seeing Chandra as a person, and then watch as she is built up into something that appears more than human. We even get the cool time-lapse sequence showing how the make-up and wigs and everything else is applied to her. Dev still follows the same journey in getting to know her, only slow coming to see her as more than just a fantasy, but the audience knows that all along. We see her as a school girl from a good family who makes a mistake, is married off, runs away from the marriage back to the city, and finds prostitution not as a desperate sacrifice, but as a job that can save her from a much worse life. We, the audience, know that Chandra is more than her costumes and make-up, but it takes Dev a little longer to realize that.
Anurag also breaks the firm 4 step process that the novel, and the ’55 and ’36 versions, followed closely. Yes, there are 4 meetings, but they are different. The first meeting he barely sees her, so drunk he passes out on her bed. The second time, he is angry and rude, that is when he intrigues her. The third time, that is when he is heartbroken and lost and comes to her over and over again just to talk out his misery. But that is also when they put in the wallet scene, which is an invention of PC Barua. In the novel, it just says that Dev pushed money on her and then walked out, eager to get away. But in PC Barua’s movie version, he changed it so that Dev is so eager to get out of the brothel, he throws not just money at Chandra, but his whole wallet. This time, Dev is still impatient and crazed, but it is to get in, not to get out. And, once again, Chandra proves that she has honor, and cares about more than just his money, and insists on returning the wallet to him.
This is the point when Anurag clearly decides to go a different route than all the other interpretations, and the original novel. His ending is completely different than all the others, but I don’t mind it, because it is still consistent with the characters as we know them. He just asks “what if something slightly different happened here, then what would they have done?”
When I run it through in my head, the point at which it changes is when Kashyap asks “what if Chandra doesn’t wait for Dev?” I mean, there’s a lot of other changes, he makes Dev into a killer by having him drive drunk and be brought up on manslaughter charges ala Salman Khan (which I just realized is a cool meta statement since Aish played Paro. Nice one, Kashyap!), he puts that “journey through India” sequence right after his father’s funeral instead of years later, and then he gives Dev a life changing moment when he barely escapes death, a car hitting the wall inches from where he was standing. But all of that could have still lead to the same ending, Dev unable to get out of his own head, slowly dying.
What really makes the change is that when he goes to see Chandra again, she isn’t there. The scene where she lets him know how he changed her, that she is moving to a village, that she understands how Paro feels, and where Dev finally sees her as a person he can care about, that isn’t there. Chandra moved on, was changed, but she didn’t need wait around and make sure Dev saw it. She just needed to do it for herself.
For once, Dev has to actually try for something in his life. Or rather, for once he decides to try for something. Paro removed herself from his grasp and he just let her go. But this time, he decides to work a little harder.
Now, it is the same as the final Dev-Chandra interaction, but with the genders reversed. Instead of a courtesan being the only one who cares, returning to her old haunts but holding herself aloof, just trying to find the man who is in even more trouble than she is, it is a drug addict returning to his old stomping grounds, resisting the temptation of drugs, and trying to save the one person in more trouble than him, a young prostitute. And in the end, they save each other. It’s beautiful, and it’s completely different than the end of the novel or the other films, and yet exactly right.
That excerpt from the novel that I quoted way at the beginning, it was about simple human kindness, looking at the worst of society and not turning away, but having compassion. And that’s what Dev D shows, in the end. These two broken people, the very worst of society, find each other and take care of each other and make each other happy. It was never Dev and Paro’s story, or Dev and Chandra’s story, it was a story about people being more than they appear on the surface, and that the very person you overlook and ignore, a prostitute or a drunkard, can be the person who saves you.