Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas is an assault on the senses
If you find something amiss in this equation, I would like to know:
500,000,000 = 3.15 hours.
I would like to shrug that off with just the same nonchalance that Devdas displays when Paro asks him how many hours there are in 10 years, six months and three days. He cannot answer her question.
Just the same quandary you might find yourself in, when faced with another: did Sanjay Leela Bhansali have to mount his tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers on this scale?
Hindi cinema's most expensive film ever is a responsibility most directors might bow under. But it must be said: Bhansali sails through his Devdas with just the same panache that Baz Luhrmann did in his Moulin Rouge.
Both films are musicals. Both films assault the senses. Both flaunt dramatic elements, costumes and sets. Both have lead actors (Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman) that sing and dance. Just like Devdas and Paro.
There is a difference. Christian and Satine cannot shed tears with the same ease that Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) and his childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai) display in Devdas.
This is why they must shed tears: Paro's mother Sumitra (Kiron Kher) forcibly marries her off to Zamindar Bhuvan (Vijayendra Ghatge) in a fit of indignant pique. Snubbed by Devdas' mother Kaushalya (Smita Jayakar), Sumitra vows to marry her daughter off to a man far superior in status to Devdas' family.
The ease with the tears might have probably made sense if Paro were just another Hindi film heroine. But here, Bhansali invests in her character a passing whiff of individualism. She is shown just as arrogant as Devdas. (She once declares, 'Devdas is my love, Devdas is my pride.') She is unfearing enough to sneak into Devdas' home, at 2 am, asking him to elope with her. Pretty progressive, for a woman in a film set in the 1900s. She is also not one to meekly cower in the face of taunts --- witness, in her marital home, she treads heated ground with her stepdaughter's mother-in-law.
Why then, you wonder, does Paro meekly run off in tears when Devdas' father insults her as being a woman with loose morals when she sneaks off to see Devdas in the middle of the night?
Perhaps as a foil to Paro is courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit). Introduced when Chunni Babu (Jackie Shroff) drags the lost, heartbroken and disheartened Devdas to her brothel, she turns out a gentle woman, all heart. Initially intrigued by Devdas' immunity to her charms, she soon falls irrevocably in love with him.
She heals Devdas, or tries her best to do so, given that he wallows in alcohol-induced stupor. What makes her character so interesting is that she is a giver in contrast with all of Paro's taking. Just as Paro loves Devdas with all her being, in a sense, she also saps him of all emotion for anyone else.
And that is what leads Devdas to his final ruin and death. Which does not speak much for his own will power: he finds it too easy to remain in dullened inebriation; he finds it easy enough to proclaim himself dead.
What Bhansali does here is introduce lavishness in practically every department of filmmaking. From the first frame of a red-petaled tree to the last, which frames a supine Devdas, there is colour, grandeur and melodrama.
Doom finds exaggerated mention throughout the movie --- in the loud gongs sounding off whenever a scene opens with any of the palatial havelis (mansions) designed by Nitin Chandrakant Desai. Or the plaintive violins and pakhawajs that precede a momentous scene.
The narrative is flush with often tiresome dialogue (Prakash Kapadia) ["Tawaif ki taqdeer hi nahin hoti (A courtesan has no destiny)!"]. Or Binod Pradhan's camera that does not hesitate to flood the frame with so much light you almost think it makes fitting contrast to the characters' inner gloom. Even the music (Ismail Darbar) haunts --- Bairi piya, Maar dala, to name two.
As for the performances, you cannot help but think that for Aishwarya Rai, Devdas is a mere continuation of her last work with Bhansali, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. She might want to curb her overeagerness in whatever she does, be it emoting or dance.
Shah Rukh Khan in the title role of Devdas lends helplessness to his character. His screen charisma is undisputed. It would have helped him more had he not fallen prey to his onscreen theatrics. Witness the shaking hands and quivering voice and the quirky smile that are now Shah Rukh Khan trademarks.
Which begs the point: the day a director succeeds in reining Rai and Khan, that will be the day the two turn in a stupendous performance.
The most understated role and perhaps the one that is most lingering, in terms of virtuosity, is that played by Madhuri Dixit. As Chandramukhi, she is simply stunning, lending passion, fire and gentleness with such consummate ease that watching her perform is sheer delight.
In Jackie Shroff is invested the best lines of the film. In Shroff's character is also invested a lot of questions: Who, for instance, is he? Why does he keep popping up at opportune --- and inopportune --- times?
It should also be mentioned that this movie is the fourth interpretation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's 1917 novel on Hindi celluloid. The first was a silent film in 1928. PC Barua then made his version in 1935 with Kundan Lal Saigal. In 1955, Barua's cameraman Bimal Roy made the popular version of Devdas with Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala and Suchitra Sen in the main roles.
As Bhansali has often reiterated, the 2002 Devdas is his interpretation of the novel. Which is fair enough. But the appeal of a good tragedy lies in its ability to move your heart. This movie --- thanks to the effusivenes that pervades --- falls short. Way short.
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit, Jackie Shroff
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Producer: Bharat Shah
Music: Ismail Darbar, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Monty
Lyrics: Nusrat Badr, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Sameer
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