On Celebrated Bengali author Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s 145th birth anniversary week, investigating how his most noted work, Devdas, was translated for the silver screen
Last Updated: 04.57 PM, Sep 16, 2021
Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel Devdas, arguably one of his most noted works, was one of the main reasons he was referred to as the doyen of romantic sagas.
A compelling story of unfulfilled love, Devdas spoke of the heart-wrenching epic between three love-lost souls; Devdas, his beloved Paro (Parvati) and Chandramukhi. In cinema, the story has often found repeated retellings through ages. Modern renditions, avant-garde treatment, loyal depictions or even complete reinventions, Devdas has gradually entered the cultural milieu of a nation with respect to its romantic ideologies.
The eponymous protagonist has now become a subcontinental hero, who has successfully broken away from the regional rhetoric attributed to the Bengali ‘babus’ of the period in which the story is set. And as a result, the story has made a shift from under Bengal’s contours into a more independent space, attracting both national and international discourse.
Mainly brought to life in films such as Raghavaiah’s Devdas (Telugu, 1953), Bimal Roy’s Devdas (Hindi, 1955) and Bhansali’s Devdas (Hindi, 2002), the character has often been the subject of multiple erroneous interpretations. Among the noted few are PC Barua’s triple adaptations between 1935-37 (in Bengali, Hindi, and Assamese); Bimal Roy’s 1955 Hindi adaptation featuring Dilip Kumar in the lead; and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 magnum opus featuring Shah Rukh Khan as the protagonist. While Barua’s film was considered a “landmark” in many ways, it also sought to explore the self-defeating nature of deep romanticism, a fact that trickled into society very fast. What Barua established as the ‘Indian modernity’ through his film, Bhansali took forward to depict the aesthetic regalia of that modernity.
But Bhansali’s area of concern was not to change the way the author placed his characters in lieu with their socio-economic points of reference but to inject in the retelling, expensive set designs, costumes and mammoth production costs (a fact that Bhansali’s films often tend to portray). The filmmaker used the narrative he created to indulge in the alluring sensibilities of the mis-en-scene. His characters ran through long, intricate corridors, with meters of sari flowing behind them, their emotions were heightened, whether happiness or sorrow, everything was exaggerated- the backdrops, the acting, even the teardrops that frequently laced Khan, Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan (Parvati) and Madhuri Dixit-Nene’s (Chandramukhi) faces.
However, the South Indian versions by Raghavaiah (who made them in Telugu and Tamil in 1953), were markedly different from the other ones. The kind of sets, including the furniture, lighting, and art differ considerably from their Hindi or Bengali counterparts. In accordance with the rural pathos of Chattopadhyay’s original novel, Raghavaiah’s films were embedded within a black-and-white lens, giving it the archetypal village setting.
The Telugu/Tamil versions were also more semiotic than the versions that followed it. Raghavaiah’s generous use of the ‘dissolve’ frames was also in keeping with the author’s novel. Generally used to depict reminiscing moments, they were distinct cinematic features used to segregate past from the present. These simple yet effective tropes made the regional versions easier to relate to, as compared to the more astute ones like Barua or even Roy. Bhansali used the erotic lens to bring about romanticism in the text.
A complete shift from all these versions was Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D (2009). The film took a modern look at the tale and unabashedly brought forth the problematic undertones that may have skipped audience perceptions over the years. Kashyap’s Devdas (Abhay Deol) was a contemporary brat, hailed from a fairly rich family, and was entitled enough to not care about it. But the filmmaker armed his Paro (Mahi Gill) with spunk as well. She was not only in complete control of her sexual agency, but was not hesitant when breaking ties with her beloved. The only character in the film, who was in fact a revelation was Kalki Koechlin (in the role of Chandramukhi). Observant and smart, she was the only person who identified with Devdas’ plight and offered a lending hand. But her help was not one-sided. Kashyap built a twisted but endearing story around his two underdogs, a fact noticed by most critics and hailed too.
The much more recent renditions of Dev DD (2017) and Daas Dev (2018) were mere excuses of retellings and garnered little to no attention. While the former was helmed by Ken Ghosh, the latter was directed by Sudhir Mishra.
Chattopadhyay’s work has remained a seminal example of what intense love could be. Though the work in itself has undergone profuse criticism (in today’s context), the novel still finds a place in filmmakers’ hearts owing to the complex layering in each central character. Devdas is far from being a timeless example of romance, but it sure is one that cannot be overlooked when browsing through the annals of history.