Cast: Shahrukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Jackie Shroff
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Music Director: Ismail Darbar
Nutshell: epic is hyped as being the most expensive film ever produced in Bollywood!
Reviewed by: Faiz Khan
A shock of muted crimson assaults the eye as the titles roll out, with exquisite background music setting the scene for what must be the most awaited film of the year. Devdas, a film made three times before, is a dark and tragic novel written by Dr Sarat Chandra Chattopadhya, telling the story of weak man, broken by love and ultimately consumed by alcohol. Perhaps the most famous and most memorable version of Devdas is the one with Suchitra Sen, Dilip Kumar and Vyjayantimala and it is inevitable that comparisons will be made with that earlier effort. Having seen the earlier Devdas many moons ago, I was prepared to see the film with a clean slate with no preconceived notions.
The film opens with the impending return of Devdas. His house, somewhat akin to Tara from Gone with the Wind, lavish to the extreme and filled with garishly overclad women, mother (Smita Jaykar) bursting with joy at her son’s return from England, running amok in her haveli, resembling more a teenager in the first throes of love than a middle aged mother awaiting her younger son’s arrival. Into this fray walks Soumitra (Kiron Kher), her overtly garish neighbour, all hair and red lipstick, mother of Paro, Devdas’s childhood friend. Conniving daughter in law (Ananya Khare) sows the seeds of doubt in mother-in law’s mind as to her son’s ultimately doomed friendship with Paro. Paro (Aishwarya Rai), now blossomed into a swan, diya in hand, kept lit for the ten years that Devdas has been away, dances with joy. The inevitable happens and Devdas, much to chagrin of his overexhuberant mother, drops off to see “his” Paro first.
Romance blooms between the two but of course, the England returned Devdas is the son of a Zamindar, a higher caste than Paro, the daughter of the gauche Soumitra, previously a nautanki performer. Plotting with her daughter in law, she humiliates Soumitra at a function whereby Soumitra promises that she will marry her daughter into a much richer and much family than Devdas’s. Devdas does not fight for his Paro, the ultimate letdown for Paro who acquiesces to her marriage to a much older man.
Devdas realises his folly and returns to Paro on the day of the wedding but pride and hurt stop Paro from marrying him and she goes through with her marriage. This sets Devdas on the path of self-destruction. Introduced to the kotha by Chunnilal, a debauched but congenial character who has too much money and nothing else in his life, Devdas comes to the Kotha of Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit). Despising as he is of her, she falls in love with him and decides to mend her ways. But Chandramukhi knows that Devdas lives for Paro and alcohol is the crutch he uses to exist.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali has brought to the screen a lavish and visually stunning film. Every scene is resplendent with stunning colours, costumes and extraordinary sets. However, it is this which sometimes takes away a certain credibility that the film strives for but does not manage to attain. So opulent are the sets that you cannot imagine that this could form anything but a bollywood film on a huge canvas. Reality does not emanate from it. In fact, the opening sequences are so theatrical and unconvincing and one is almost stunned at how subtlety has been relegated to the sides in place of overstatement and overblown melodrama certainly not required at this stage of the film. Certainly, I doubt whether havelis like this existed in the Bengal, where the film is set, neither Devdas’s haveli nor Paro’s blue glass panelled haveli. If only Bhansali could have tried to create a world which was much more accessible could one perhaps have considered more of the pain of the film. For it is a gargantuan tragedy, but one that leaves one somewhat untouched and lacks an emotional depth that you so hoped that it would have.
Having said that, it was Bhansali’s intention to brighten up what is a stark and sombre novel and one should view his vision in that light. He deviates from the plot by having a friendship of sorts develop between Paro and Chandramukhi, which if a little far-fetched and unlikely, still appears to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the film with the leading ladies dancing to the beat of “Dola dola” in what is a supreme piece of audience manipulation. A stunning sequence brilliant executed by Bhansali but playing to the gallery. But it is his success in being able to craft a film as dark as this and make it accessible to audiences today, without taking away the essence of the story. This is not Dr Sarat Chandra’s Devdas but simply an adaptation and embellished by Bhansali.
Shahrukh Khan in the role of Devdas is understated and gives one of his better performances. However, you feel that he has not entirely got into the grain of this tortured man. He plays him as a meek, benign and somewhat impulsive person who is oblivious of the trauma that he is about to endure by reason of his own weaknesses as a human being. Whether this is because of his torturous relationship with his father thereby not wanting to go against his wishes and hence, the rejection of Paro when he should have stood by his ideals, or whether it is by reason of his love for his family, we shall never know although the later does not really come across. Hence, the trauma of the lovers parting and his “bereavement” is somewhat lacking in passion.
Aishwarya Rai as Paro looks magnificent almost through out, and manages to underplay her character, coming up with a good performance though not remarkable. Her earlier scenes with Shahrukh are very well executed and one wishes that perhaps there had been more of that.
The film comes ablaze with the arrival of Madhuri Dixit. Now, in the sunset of her career, she sets the screen on fire the moment she appears, seen first putting kajal in her eyes as Devdas stands at her door. Hers is a more cliched role, the tawaif turned jogan and could have done with a some fleshing out. But Madhuri brings to Chandramukhi just the right nuances within the confines of what her character is. To say that she is the soul of the film is not an overstatement and one wishes that hers could have been a more substantial role.
Hats off to Jackie Shroff in taking the small role of Chunnilal and bringing to it a certain “Jackie” charm.
Stunning choreography, photography, designs only seek to raise the film to greater heights. It is also rare to have such wonderful dialogues in a film these days. The music of Ismail Darbar is a classic and exceptional in every sense of the word. However, I would say that the songs themselves could have been better. They are not in the league of songs that would be remembered for years to come. Having said that, the tunes are unusual and by today’s standards, are something to rejoice. Monty’s background score is superb.