This Valentine’s Day sink your chocolate covered teeth in a beautiful and ultimately devastating Indian love saga in the Bollywood film “Devdas,” directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The film was initially released in 2002 and was nominated for a BAFTA in the Best Foreign Film category. It received rave reviews in India as well as overseas and was an official selection at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. The film stars Bollywood’s most influential actors, including Shahrukh Khan in the lead role as Devdas, Aishwarya Rai as the beautiful Paro and Madhuri Dixit as the courtesan Chandramukhi.
“Devdas” is based on a Bengali romance novella by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay which was published in 1917. It surrounds the events of a young man from a wealthy background named “Devdas” who lives with his family in an aristocratic home in early 1900s India. “Paro” is a young woman from a middle class background also living in the same village as Devdas. Devdas and Paro have known each other since childhood and share a deep bond of friendship, but as the years pass, their friendship transforms into love. However, their relationship was ripe with problems from the start due to the differences in their backgrounds. Devdas is from a wealthy upper class family, whereas Paro is from the “merchant” caste and of middle class upbringing. This does not stop the two lovers from meeting each other day to day until at the age of 13. Ordered by his strict father, Devdas leaves the village and heads to the city to study at a boarding school in Calcutta. Paro is devastated but hopes Devdas will return one day and be reunited and hopefully marry.
After finishing school, Devdas to his village and finds Paro waiting for him and still just as in love as the day she first met him. The two rekindle their flame and begin meeting each other much to the dismay of Devdas’s family, especially his father. As trouble heats up between the two lovers’ families, Paro discovers her marriage has already been arranged to a wealthy aristocratic man, who is a divorcee and much older than her. At this point, Devdas and Paro are at odds because she believes he did not stick up for her, and in anger, she decides to marry this wealthy man so she can be of the same status as he is. In a fit of rage, Devdas leaves and begins to live a life of vice as he stays at a brothel and meets the beautiful courtesan, Chandramukhi. The two lovers are still very much in love with each other, but Paro is now a married woman and Devdas his life away, one glass at a time. Breathing his last breaths, Devdas comes to see Paro one last time at the mansion where she is living with her in-laws, but fate does not allow this reunion. Paro learns of a sick man who is lying outside the mansion gates asking for her. She realizes it is Devdas and runs out to see him, but before she can reach him, the gates of the mansion close, ordered by her husband. Devdas passes away without ever meeting her for the last time. Paro is left collapsed and crying at the gates.
Although I have not read this novella, as it is quite difficult to find, I have seen the film adaptation numerous times. “Devdas” is probably my all-time favorite Bollywood film and Bhansali does a wonderful job of creating a beautiful backdrop of early 1900s India with the sets and costumes. The sets are elaborate, vibrant, and reminiscent of the aristocratic elements influenced by the British Raj. The score is also haunting and beautiful with classical Indian elements. It is a fantastic film that would appeal to non-Bollywood fans because it is not only a romantic musical, but it also deals with issues that are very realistic, even today, such as the pressure to conform to social norms. The musical numbers in the film remain to be one of the most coveted soundtracks in Bollywood and appreciated by people of all nationalities. Just YouTube “Devdas songs” and you will find an array of videos, including people singing and dancing to the songs from this film.
The actor who played Devdas gave an amazing performance portraying the angst and pain of this character who is in such deep turmoil that at the end it eventually takes his life. Aishwarya Rai plays Paro and attempts to portray the complexities of her character but ultimately does not fulfill this task to its potential. She is very striking on screen, but beauty does not equal acting talent. Her performance was a bit wooden and rigid and she did not adequately display the obsessiveness and innocent charm that Paro possesses. I believe Chandramukhi stole the show, played by Bollywood veteran Madhuri Dixit. Chandramukhi is a very sensual, yet graceful woman, and Dixit’s dialogue flowed like a river and was extremely sensual yet dignified. She is a trained classical dancer and the musical numbers she dances are performed excellently. Madhuri Dixit is one of my favorite Bollywood actresses and she truly amazes in this film as she portrays Chandramukhi’s longing to be loved by one man and not adored by hundreds. Bhansali is my favorite Bollywood director because he always has a touch of dream-like and almost magical elements to his films and “Devdas” is no exception.