One of the most enduring stories of Indian cinema, both mainstream and regional, has been Devdas.* Originally a novella written by Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay in 1917, the story of ‘Devdas’ has been adapted and reinvented across time and cultures, to suit cinematographers’ tastes and meet commercial demands. The focus of the narrative is Devdas, a scion of an aristocratic Bengali family. Devdas is a complex character cut in the mould of an individuated, Promethean-like Romantic-rebel figure; an aristocrat at odds with the materialist legacy of his land-owning family, a lover who cannot commit, and a repressed, politically disoriented rebel who meets a tragic end of his own making.
The first official screen adaptation, a silent film directed by Naresh Chandra Mitra, appeared in 1928. However, the first widely-influential version appeared in Bengali in 1935, directed by Pramathesh Barua, the doyen of Bengali cinema. Barua himself played the lead role and instantaneously made an impact as the love-torn tragic hero. For decades afterwards the persona of the fictional Devdas was associated with Barua himself. Barua followed the success of the 1935 Bengali version with a Hindi adaptation the following year, with K L Saigal in the lead. Box-office sales soared. Since then there have been numerous adaptations emerging from many of India’s film making centres – at least one Tamil version (dir. P V Rao, 1936), Assamese (dir. P C Barua, 1937), Malayalam (dir. Crossbelt Mani, 1989), two Telugu versions (dir. Vedantam Raghavaiah, 1953 and Vijayanirmala, 1974), and two further Bengali adaptations (dir. Dilip Roy, 1979 and Ashim Samanta, 2002).
The most prominent version after Barua’s masterpiece was undoubtedly Bimal Roy’s 1955 Hindi film, starring Dilip Kumar. Much later, Devdas appeared again, with mainstream Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan starring in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 version. And more recently again, Anurag Kashyap’s 2009 adaptation was named Dev.D, with Abhay Deol in the lead. At least two Pakistani versions have been made, directed by Khwaja Sarfraz in 1965 and Nadeem Shah in 2010, and two Bangladeshi versions, both made by Chashi Nazrul Islam in 1982 and 2013.
What accounts for the immense popularity of this narrative, across the ethno-linguistic clusters of Southasia? There is no simple answer. The influences of the original Bengali novella have faded as subsequent versions have shared intertextual references with each other. An interesting tapestry has been created, as in the remakes the respective auteurs kept the basic flow of the narrative consistent, while changing the social and political backdrop in line with the changing times.
Here I explore elements of adaptation in the two most recent Hindi versions of Devdas – Bhansali’s 2002 version, and Kashyap’s 2009 digression of sorts, Dev.D. Bhansali’s version is the most opulent, starring superstar Shah Rukh Khan, and intertextually touches upon Bimal Roy’s influential version. It also draws parallels with Chattopadhyay’s original novella. Kashyap’s interpretation is particularly important for the director’s disregard for the popular norms dictating the adaptation of the fictional character Devdas.
The narrative of ‘Devdas’
Devdas is a young, sensitive boy from a feudal Bengali family. As was common amongst upper-class Bengalis in the early 20th century, he is sent to Calcutta to acquire education, etiquette and culture. He is separated from his loving mother as well as his playmate Parvati who, even at a tender age, holds a special affection for him. When Devdas finally returns to his rural ancestral home after his stint in Calcutta, he is distraught by the quaint rural lifestyle, so different from turbulent, happening Calcutta. He finds it difficult to relate to Parvati, who has kept the embers of her heart warm for him. Young Parvati is convinced of her love for Devdas and so her family proposes marriage to him. The pair had mingled quite freely in their childhood, but the alliance is not approved of by Devdas’s family, on the grounds that Parvati’s family is of a lower social status. This wounds the pride of Parvati’s family, who hurriedly arrange her marriage to another man. Parvati, though hurt by the rejection, visits Devdas in the dead of night. He, coward that he is, is shocked by Parvati’s adventure and her total surrender to him. Devdas remains incapable of following his desires, and makes a weak case: family honour and values, duty to his parents.
Parvati leaves dejected and Devdas escapes back to Calcutta. From that safe distance he writes Parvati a letter, denouncing his own feelings towards her. Devastated by this rejection Parvati marries an older widower, whose eldest son is older than her. Devdas, on hearing about the marriage, tries to reconcile with Parvati and regrets his earlier actions, causing Parvati to mock him. They argue, and in a fit Devdas wounds Parvati by hitting her in the face. He announces that this is his mark on her, the sign of their shattered dream of union. As Parvati marries, Devdas returns to Calcutta and soon starts visiting the prostitute Chandramukhi. Parvati, meanwhile, wins the love of her step-children and the respect and sympathy of her husband, with whom her relationship remains celibate and amicable. She takes up management of the estate and becomes the ‘master’ of the home.
Devdas visits Chandramukhi in order to find comfort in another’s company, to escape the sadness inflicted by his memories. But he despises Chandramukhi for her sexual promiscuity and refuses to sleep with her. Chandramukhi, probably for the first time, encounters a client indifferent to her sexuality. Realising Devdas’ worth she commits herself to him, giving up prostitution and embarking on a chaste life in order to attract him. Devdas’s links with his family diminish, and his health starts failing due to alcoholism. Chandramukhi returns to prostitution, shocking Devdas, who realises he is in love with her. Thus, he is torn between his love for Chandramukhi and Parvati, yet is unable to defy social norms to accept either woman as his lover or companion.
Devdas’s father dies, his mother retires from domestic life, and his brother deprives him of his rightful inheritance of the ancestral property. This causes Devdas to hit the bottle. Parvati visits and again offers herself to him, an act of benevolence to save his life. He is still incapable of accepting Parvati, but promises to visit her again before his death, as if to defer their union. Devdas finally submits to Parvati while breathing his last, outside the gates of Parvati’s palatial mansion.
Bhansali’s opulent Devdas
Bhansali’s Devdas was made on a whopping budget, with three Bollywood megastars in the lead roles: Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas, Aishwariya Rai as Parvati, and Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi. Shah Rukh Khan observed: “I played Devdas as a metaphor, not as a character”. And for Bhansali,
…there is a Devdas on every street. I honestly feel that this character exists in every male, especially every Indian male. In fact all the characters in Devdas have something very special in them. They have strong minds but tender hearts… And in spite of losing in life, they never lose faith in God. Therefore ‘Devdas’, which was a simple story, had a soul which was so big. I felt that to do justice to this, it had to be made with grandeur and opulence. We have lavishly mounted the film, without offending the spirit of ‘Devdas’… The film is a tribute to a great story that transcends sexual love and makes emotion its hero. It is an interpretation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s brilliant novel. But it is definitely my interpretation.
By Bhansali’s own admission, there is no use trying to pinpoint the time and space of the narrative in his film. Bhansali posed Devdas as a modern-day metaphor of the mythical love between Lord Sri Krishna and his muse, Radha. The juxtapositioning of mythical references with mortal characters ensured that the director could unhinge the markers of reality, locating the film in any time in history, while imbuing it with an opulent aesthetic that catered to a pan-Indian audience. Yet there are subtle changes made from Chattopadhyay’s text, making the characters relatable to a contemporary audience – both Parvati and Devdas in the original novella were teenagers, whereas in Bhansali’s film they are young adults. Similarly, Devdas’s flight from rural Bengal to Calcutta is replaced by his journey from rural India to England. As a result, the frequent vacation visits of Devdas, in the novella, are transformed to Devdas returning only after ten long years in the film. Also, Bhansali spends little reel time on Parvati and Devdas as children. The novella spends considerably more time on this phase, the innocent friendship between the two slowly turning into love and longing. Barua and Roy’s earlier adaptations remain faithful to the novella in this regard. By making the love between Devdas and Parvati more mature and by keeping them separated for so long, Bhansali exploited the emotions of longing and desperation.
An interesting aspect of Devdas, according to Piyush Roy, are the song and dance sequences:
By hiring Pandit Birju Maharaj (a celebrated Indian cultural icon and exponent of Kathak dance) to choreograph Chandramukhi’s dances in the classical tradition, Bhansali uplifts her social status in the narrative by uplifting the quality of her art. The calumny in the nature of her art and its performed space is mitigated in the selection of the music and dance used for its depiction – an Indian classical dance – that enjoys the distinction of a refined, devotional and religious art form.
A point to note here is the song “Moray Piya” which has a line ‘Krisnna rase Radha ke sang’ depicting Parvati and Devdas in symbolic consummation. This is particularly noteworthy since the sringara rasa (erotic love) is almost absent in the dance sequences, replaced by the karuna rasa (pathos). Hence, most of the dance sequences involving Chandramukhi, instead of being laden with sexual overtures, render devotional suggestions. The attempt is to portray the love as ‘pure’, positioning Chandramukhi as Parvati’s alter-ego.
The issue of Devdas and Parvati’s different positions within the Brahmin caste – one of the main reasons for Devdas’s family refusing the marriage proposal – has been down-played in the different versions of the story. This was probably in order to keep the pan-Indian audience interested in a purely mythical love-story instead of diverting their attention to issues of casteism. In the novella, before his death Devdas set off on a tour of India, travelling as far west as Lahore which, at the time, was in India. All post-Independence cinematic versions either dropped or curtailed Devdas’s movement in line with the new borders.
The diya (lamp) held by Parvati is one feature of Bhansali’s film which is not found in Chattopadhyay’s novella, or any other notable adaptations, including that of Barua or Roy. The diya is extinguished with Devdas’s death. Parvati’s wait for Devdas attains mythical heights analogous to Radha’s love for Krishna, or Meera Bai’s selfless sacrifice and devotion to Sri Krishna. In Parvati’s submission to Devdas she inherits the traits of both Radha and Meera Bai – a rare incarnation which obviates her treatment as a mere human character.
The other heightened melodramatic reference is that of the Parvati-Chandramukhi sequence. In the novella the two characters never meet, but Bhansali has them do so. Parvati is initially suspicious of Chandramukhi and tries to insult her, demanding Devdas back. A dignified Chandramukhi takes Parvati to her room and shows her a shrine – a spiritual reference of the omnipresence of Devdas. This sequence is notable because it equates Devdas with Lord Krishna and identifies Chandramukhi as his devotee. Chandramukhi becomes a mirror-image of Parvati as the two characters mingle and act as sisters. Bhansali introduces the dichotomy of the ‘good woman’ and the ‘whore’, and combines the two into one.
Sexuality as a tool in Kashyap’s Dev.D
Bhansali champions the purity of asexual love, thereby merging Parvati and Chandramukhi into one through their submittingto and worshipping of Devdas. Like all his predecessors, Bhansali figured Devdas as a condemned lover, whose taking to drink can be considered a metaphor of protest. Devdas represents the angst of youth against patriarchal society as an institution. In this he prefers to annihilate himself as a form of protest instead of venting his anger on anyone else. That is the primary reason for Devdas’s rejection of Chandramukhi – he assumed her chastity towards him to be a veil. In Chandramukhi’s return to her profession, the inability of the individual to fight the institution is emphasised.
Anurag Kashyap, in contrast, placed his Dev.D on a completely different plane, breaking some norms established by earlier adaptations. Firstly, Kashyap played with the names: Parvati becomes Parminder (fondly nicknamed Paro), Devdas becomes Devendra (Dev), and Chandramukhi becomes Lenny/Chanda. Whereas Bhansali detached the narrative from its temporal constraints, Kashyap foregrounds the urban milieu of 21st century North India by shifting the story from a decaying Bengali culture to an emerging Punjabi scene. Real-life news events form the backdrop. In an early scene we see Paro arriving at a city by train, to develop her self-shot nude images (another bold departure for the character). A girl, who we later come to know as Lenny, sits opposite Paro (and thus stripping away the drama of Bhansali’s film adaptation on the meeting between Paro and Chandramukhi). This is followed by physical intimacy between Paro and Dev in their very first encounter. It places the troika on a socio-psychological plane different from any predecessor and mocks the classical representation of the love story.
There is one basic difference in the logic of Kashyap’s narrative, as opposed to its predecessors. Dev is depicted almost as a sex maniac, hungry for sexual favours – first with Paro over the phone from London, and then with another girl he meets briefly at the wedding ceremony. In contrast to earlier narratives, in Dev.D it is Dev’s personal choice to reject Paro’s marriage proposal. Paro’s readiness to return Dev’s advances prompts scorn from Dev, who considers her vile and promiscuous. When an insulted Paro fixes her own marriage, Dev’s father laments not being able to bring Paro home as a bride. This comes closer to the original novella’s portrayal of Devdas as a despicable character, rather than one deserving of sympathy.
Kashyap’s other characters are also strong-willed, making their own decisions rather than being dictated to by society or family. This is the major and most celebrated difference between Kashyap’s narrative and its predecessors. Dev rejects Paro on his own; Paro decides instantly to agree to another marriage proposal; Paro meets Dev on her own later on (in one scene telling Dev that she leads a happy sexual life with her husband); and Lenny moves into the prostitute quarters, continues her studies, and when ready joins the trade, taking the name Chanda. However, behind these choices lie society’s lack of empathy, leading Lenny to abandon her family, and Dev to loiter in the streets of Delhi. In an interview Kashyap has commented:
The film is still about a story on self-destruction. Devdas has become an adjective today. Anybody who mopes around and is sad is called Devdas… All of us have grey shades. Only in Hindi cinema, people are either black or white. Our society thinks that if a boy is doing drugs, he is bad. But the problem is really not the boy. Somebody who is being self-destructive and doing drugs, is not a bad person. He is vulnerable and weak, and needs support, direction, love, care… He doesn’t need a judgement passed on him by the society. That’s what the film is about. The problem is the society, not the people.
Another intriguing character in Kashyap’s narrative is Chunni. Chunni-babu had been Devdas’s friend in other versions, but in portraying Chunni as the pimp, Kashyap is likening interpersonal relations in contemporary India to prostitution, where even friendship is traded, and every individual linked to others in a supplier-provider model. In this flow from one relation to the other and in one trade arrangement to the next, whatever seems personal is actually for public display, and ‘commitment’ became a dated concept. That is why in Dev.D Paro’s attraction towards Dev and his reciprocation of sorts tend toward instant negotiations rather than long-term commitment. Hence the vital scene in any other version of Devdas – the infliction of the permanent scar on Parvati’s forehead as a mark of Devdas’s infliction of his love on Parvati’s soul (metaphorically) – is absent in Kashyap’s film.
Most cinematic adaptations of Devdas, including Bhansali’s, immortalise the broken love between Devdas and Parvati, and the incomplete blossoming of love between Devdas and Chandramukhi. Chastity and misfortune, longing and self-sacrifice are the rubrics employed by these cinematic adaptations to scale popular heights. Hence the defiance of social structures and the rejection of the norms they enforce on the individual are depicted, yet play second-fiddle to the major theme of unfulfilled love.
Kashyap, by empowering the characters sexually, ensured that lust and deprivation exist more at the level of individual desire rather than as a psychological state. Owing to this the characters appear rebellious, with minds of their own, individual almost to a fault. Bhansali’s film focuses on the male protagonist, whereas Kashyap’s Lenny/Chanda can be considered the protagonist who thrives and falters, yet lives. In the other narratives Devdas’s spirit is freed through death, but both Parvati and Chandramukhi are less fortunate – society will punish them for their moral promiscuity. By not letting Dev die, Kashyap keeps his Dev human, frail and largely subversive.
The popularity of Devdas over eight decades continues to baffle cine-historians. Out of many other immortal love stories – Laila-Majnu, Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal, Romeo-Juliet – ‘Devdas’ is the youngest, with the distinction of being a triangular love-story. In most adaptations Devdas is shown as a victim of society, and this allows male audiences to sympathise with him. Bhansali’s Devdas follows this trope and succeeds in combining tragedy with lilting melodies and sweeping scenes. Kashyap’s version, on the other hand, is probably closer to the original text, less sympathetic to its drunken hero. In subverting a number of popular tropes of mainstream Hindi cinema, Kashyap opens up the story of Devdas for newer interpretations and evaluation. Viewed together, the two films offer audiences a chance to approach Devdas traditionally, as well as through an innovative prism.
* In this article the character is represented without italics (Devdas); the name within single quotes refers to the novella by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (‘Devdas’) while the italicised name refers to cinematic versions of the text (Devdas).
~Amitava Nag writes poems and fiction in English and Bengali, mostly centred around subaltern peoples. A radical himself, his stories mostly deal with individuals’ denial of the system. He also edits a cinema magazine, “Silhouette”, and writes extensively on cinema.