In this weekly column, we revisit the nuggets of the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week, we revisit the 1955 film by Bimal Roy Devdas.
For generations we have often heard the phrase “love trumps everything”, but when it comes to tragic love stories, it is often pride that spoils everything. And it is this pride that is the central conflict in Bimal Roy Devdas’ 1955 film with Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala.
Much of the current generation associates Devdas with the mega-epic Sanjay Leela Bhansali that starred Shah Rukh Khan in the lead role, but for all of those who came before him, it was the role that catapulted the actor. legendary Dilip Kumar to superstar status. This is the movie that earned him the title of ‘Tragedy King’ and watching his take on the character is so heartbreaking you can’t help but tear yourself apart.
Set in the pre-independence era in Bengal, Roy’s film opens with the childhood of Devdas and Parvati. He is the spoiled kid of the wealthy Zamindar family and she is the innocent girl who follows him as his protector. His hold on her is so powerful that he doesn’t hesitate to hit her, just because she wouldn’t follow his instructions. Parvati, too, doesn’t let him step on her and knows how to level the playing field, even for trivial things. They are inseparable and have the kind of love for each other that doesn’t really need words to express themselves. So when Devdas uses harsh words to discredit Paro’s feelings, it cuts him deep and this hurt destroys their relationship forever.
Watching the movie today, their love is toxic. He does not allow them to grow in life and even the presence of his simple memory is enough to rot their souls. Devdas’ alcoholism, which has since been romanticized, kicks in as he plunges into the whirlwind of despair. His loneliness, after leaving his family and throwing Paro out, makes him numb and he clings to that feeling of numbness by indulging in perpetual alcohol consumption. The late actor Dilip Kumar was troubled by the idea that Devdas could possibly get young people to drink alcohol if they ever failed in love. In his autobiography, Dilip Kumar: The Substance and the Shadow, he writes: “I won’t go into details but it initially troubled me to experience the rendering of a character who carried a strong dose of pain. and discouragement under the could mislead the most vulnerable young people into believing that alcoholism offered the best way to escape the pain of losing love.
Dilip Kumar takes this pain of lost love and pours it out as he talks about his tragic life to Chandramukhi from Vyjayanthimala, who falls in love with him as soon as she meets him but expects nothing in return. In an important scene in the film, Devdas tells courtesan Chandramukhi that a woman’s heart is extremely restless, that she can never make up her mind, which in turn deeply reflects the inconstancy of her own character. When Chandramukhi says that men love to advertise their love on the rooftops, but don’t really know how to love a woman, Devdas doesn’t get it. Chandramukhi says that even if a man has destroyed his own love affair, he will end up cursing the woman for breaking his heart. While generalizations of gender stereotypes are extremely outdated, these conversations operate within the confines of this story. They also work thanks to the impeccable hold that Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala have over their characters when they recite these dialogues that echo in your head for days on end. The dialogues in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s film have become cult over the years.
Parvati, played by Suchitra Sen, is very fond of Devdas and unlike the women of this era, she is not afraid of society claiming her love. She goes ahead and expects the same courage from Devdas, who turns out to be a cowardly lover. When he pushes her away, Parvati’s pride takes over and she decides to move on, but her love for Devdas runs deep. Sen is exemplary in the scene when she recounts Devdas near the river bank after he has played enough with his feelings.
Devdas is based on the novel by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay but the film was adapted for the screen by Nabendhu Ghosh. In many old interviews, Ghosh had shared that the film crew wanted Meena Kumari as Paro and Nargis as Chandramukhi but after many cast changes they landed on Sen and Vyjayanthimala for both roles. Sen was a renowned Bengali actress at the time and it marked her Hindi film debut.
Devdas by Bimal Roy focuses on the three main characters of the story. Their conflicts, love, and tragedy are all the result of their own actions, which gives them ownership of their story, unlike the Bhansali version where many conflicts were introduced via secondary characters. Roy allows his characters to take center stage and lead the narrative, which grows heavier every minute. Their lengthy conversations about grief, love, and life push audiences into a world where they can foresee the tragic end of Devdas, but still aren’t prepared for it when it does.
Over the years, Devdas has been reimagined many times by many filmmakers and while each director has their own side of the story, Roy’s version shines with its dialogue and Dilip Kumar performances. It’s the timeless quality of Chattopadhyay’s story that has kept Devdas relevant even in 2021 and while the protagonist here is by no means a hero, he’s still an uplifting tale for shaken lovers.
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Devdas is streaming on Prime Video and ShemarooMe.