“Devdas” (2002) starring Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, & Jackie Shroff

[1] The dance sequences are stunning

[2] I will start off by stating my bias….that I generally hate Bollywood movies because of their excesses, and their general lack of realism. In that light, Devdas is classic Bollywood.

[3] Devdas and Paro, or Chandramukhi and Devdas had a lot of emotions and feeling unexpressed in the original story. The love the three possessed was spiritual, not physical. That is why Paro loved Devdas for so many years without having seen him.

[4] One has to admire the technical execution of parts of the film, the sometimes stunning cinematography, the lavish sets and costumes. But the director forgets that form and content can not be separated, that more is not always more, that often less is more.

-Excerpts from comments on IMDB

This Bollywood movie is based on a Bengali romance novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. Despite being finished in 1900, the novel was not published until 1917 (due to Chatterjee’s hesitance over some autobiographical elements). He wrote it under the influence of alcohol and was embarrassed by it. According to Wikipedia: “he is arguably the most popular novelist in the Bengali language. His notable works incl. Devdas, Srikanto, ChoritrohinGrihadaha, etc. Most of his works deal with the lifestyle, tragedy and struggle of the village people and the contemporary social practices that prevailed in Bengal.” Due to lack of funds, he couldn’t attend college. Chatterjee wrote since his teen years and lived in Burma (Myanmar), working in the public works office. His first wife and son died due to illness. Eventually, he moved to Calcutta (Kolkata); he married his second wife, who he taught to read and write.

Devdas has been adapted for the screen 19 times in various South Indian languages. This version is directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali; he later went on to make Ram-Leela, Bajirao Mastani, and Padmaavat. At the time of its release, Devdas was the most expensive Bollywood film ever, w/ a budget of $10.3 million. It was a commercial success in India and abroad, becoming the highest grossing Indian film of the year. Devdas was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was also submitted for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was screened at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival- not something you hear often (or maybe ever) re: a Bollywood film!

In the early 1900s, Devdas Mukherji (Shah Rukh Khan- then 36 y.o.) is the only son of wealthy zamindar (landowner) of a Bengali Brahmin family. After 10 yrs of boarding school and studying law in England, he returns to his village, where his extended family prepares to welcome him. In the original story, Devdas comes back from studying in Calcutta. However, their happiness changes to shock when Devdas prefers to visit his childhood sweetheart, Parvati AKA Paro (Aishwarya Rai- in her most notable role at 28 y.o.) before paying respect to his mother, Kaushalya (Smita Jaykar). In the first song (Silsila Ye Chaahat Ka), we see Paro dancing w/ the diya (small lamp) which represents the life of Devdas. Then only 16 y.o. Shreya Ghoshal sang five songs for this movie as the singing voice of Paro.

When Devdas’ grandma, Badima (Dina Pathak), lays out her jewelry, his greedy/cranky sister-in-law Kumud (Ananya Khare) giggles and picks up an elaborate bangle. Badima says she can have it all, but not that bracelet, b/c she saved it for Devdas’ future bride. Devdas jokes w/ Kumud, but she gets mad and storms off. She is followed by Kaushalya, who wants to calm her down (b/c she’s pregnant). Later that night, Devdas gives Paro the bangle (Bairi Piya). Kumud watches them (w/ binoculars) and then shows this to Kaushalya.

Devdas’ mother isn’t keen on the match, as she tells her husband when they are alone. The father (a lawyer knighted by the British government) flatly says no way. Paro’s mother, Sumitra (Kiron Kher), tells her husband that Devdas will ask for Paro’s hand, but her father looks worried. Sumitra dresses up and goes next door to Devdas’ house, full of hope. We learn that Paro comes from family that had a tradition of being entertainers and accepting “bride price” (dowry) from the groom’s family. Sumitra explains that was a long ago; they plan to give Paro away (send dowry with her). Kaushalya says it’s settled; both sides will handle the costs of Paro’s wedding. Sumita performs a song and dance re: the love between two Hindu deities- Radha and Krishna (Morey Piya)- while Paro and Devdas frolic by a lake. I esp. liked the lighting in the lake scene.

After her (emotional/dramatic) performance, Sumitra learns the bitter truth- her friend/neighbor thinks Paro- and therefore her family- beneath them. Sumitra explains that their children are deeply in love and pleads w/ Kaushalya to allow them to marry. Kumud (a one-note villain) makes a nasty remark, insulting Paro’s character. That’s the last straw for Sumitra; she declares (in tears) that this decision will lead to the “ruination” of Devdas.

Paro still holds out hope for marrying Devdas (after her mother has been insulted). In a bold move, Paro sneaks into Devdas’ room and declares her love for him. He is nervous and tells her that his father is opposed. Paro (not thinking of her reputation) says they can change his mind. Devdas says he will escort her home, but they run into his father, Narayan (Vijay Crishna), who insults Paro (and her mother). She runs away in tears. Devdas gets mad at his father; he gets slapped. After their big argument (which I thought could’ve been acted better), Devdas leaves home w/ the shawl that Paro dropped. Paro runs after his buggy, but is left in the dust. As I noted before, this director is not a fan of subtlety. After the first 45 mins-1 hr, the film becomes slower.

As journalist Rajib Kanti Roy noted (in an article published on September 14, 2018 in Daily Sun): According to Sarat Chandra, pure love of a woman is a treasure for the world. That is why he has made no mistake in highlighting true love of Bengali women in his fictions. The character of Parboti in Devdas is a classic example of that. A girl of strong willpower and passionate feelings, Paru (Parboti) is not dependent on Devdas. When confronted with the practical choice of marrying a rich man to save her family name, or pining for a fickle lover who changes his mind on the whim, Paru chooses the former.

Devdas writes a letter to Paro, saying that he doesn’t love her, but sees her only as the “girl next door/friend.” We realize that he doesn’t want to go against his father. Devdas stays w/ a friend from college who drinks and lives a life of debauchery, Chunnilal (Jackie Shroff). When Devdas looks “stressed,” Chunnilal (who some viewers consider annoying) tells him to relax and offers him a drink. Devdas says no, as he never drinks alcohol. The men go off to “escape” in the next scene; Devdas meets a courtesan named Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit- then 34 y.o.) She and her fellow dancing girls perform (Kaahe Chhed Mohe). This song (by Kavita Krishnamurthy, Dixit, and Birju Maharaj) carries on the Radha-Krishna romance theme. Before the number ends, Devdas gets up to leave; he regrets that letter and wants to go to Paro. Chandramukhi stops him; he advises her to do something else w/ her life (giving her his wallet). Suddenly, she goes from flirty to very serious; she has fallen in love w/ Devdas. I thought Dixit did as well w/ this clunky dialogue; her eyes expressed much.

As Roy noted: Chondromukhi is a prostitute who stands out for her assertiveness and independence. Though repeatedly scorned by the man she loves, her body and mind remain free from the societal control that women are subjected to. She stoops only to love and that too out of her own choice.

Sumitra (w/ in a week) arranges a marriage for Paro; she helps dress and adorn her daughter as Devdas returns. We take notice of their big argument; Paro stands up for herself and the pride of her family. Devdas (who is spoiled and temperamental) thinks it’s not too late, but she is headed for a new life (where she will be “an aristocrat”). About 12 yrs ago, I met a young Indian-American woman at a literary event in NYC; she was writing a PhD dissertation on domestic violence in Hindi cinema and discussed the next scene. Devdas calls Paro “vain,” grabs a heavy pearl choker, and hits the top of her forehead. Though he claims this is “the mark of his love,” we see that it is physical abuse. The saddest song of the movie follows (Hamesha Tumko Chaha) as Paro leaves home; the two voices are Krishnamurthy and Udit Narayan. One of the main things here is that before touching her parents’ feet (sign of respect), Paro crosses the courtyard to touch Devdas’ feet.

Bhuvan Choudhry is a widower w/ a large estate; his white-haired mother introduces Paro to his adolescent son and daughter (who will call her Choti Ma- “little mother”). We also hear of an older daughter who is not happy about having a stepmother. After the wedding night, some giggling maids reveal that the bride and groom slept apart. Bhuvan explains that he married only b/c he needed a “lady of the manor and a mother for his children.” He shows Paro a picture of his late wife, saying that he will remain loyal to her memory. The look on her face is hard to determine- maybe she is a bit surprised and relieved.

We learn from Chunnilal that Devdas (very distraught) was taken care of for two nights by Chandramukhi. When Devdas cuts her down and offers her money, she retorts that he already paid her. We see that she wants to dance for him. She waits for his arrival, which annoys Kali Babu (an impatient patron w/ a thick mustache). As Devdas watches this song/dance (Maar Dala), he pours out some drink. (SRK actually drank alcohol while shooting some drunk scenes, so had to do many retakes.) He admits to Chandramukhi that he’s drinking to forget memories of Paro that haunt him- yeah, no kidding! I never got the feeling that SRK was losing control here, or in the following scene (where he cries, yells, and displays self-pity).

Back at her mansion, Paro is handling things quite diplomatically. She isn’t intimidated by a formidable guest (mother-in-law of Yashomati, Bhuvan’s oldest child). Since they are close in age, Paro explains to Yashomati that they can relate to each other as mom and daughter or friends. Yashomati (also a new bride) is very touched and gives her a hug. Then the groom enters to touch Paro’s feet- it’s Kali Babu- the creepy guy we saw earlier.

Paro goes to visit her family and sees that many people of the village are flocking next door. Sumitra explains that Narayan is at death’s door. Paro (being forgiving/kind-hearted) insists that they go to pay their respects, too. The old man weakly calls out for his son, but finds Paro instead. Kaushalya weeps, recalling how Paro used go find Devdas when he’d run off. Now, the family doesn’t know where to look for him.

Devdas is staying w/ Chandramukhi, but they are not together; he won’t let her touch him. She continues to listen to him go on… and on… Suddenly, Dharamdas (a loyal servant from his house) comes w/ a message- his father is dead! At the funeral, Devdas is falling-down drunk in front of his relatives and other mourners. I liked this next scene- both actors played it well (and it wasn’t too over-the-top). He opens a small treasure chest filled w/ items which belonged to her- anklets, a water pitcher, and the shawl (from when they were last alone). Paro (again in tears) insists that he stop drinking, but he refuses. She can’t bare to see him in this condition. Paro says she wants to take care of him; Devdas asks her to “elope” w/ him that night. What a clueless man- that’s what some viewers were thinking- no doubt! We see that Paro has matured, but Devdas is still a little boy.

Devdas finds Kumud (who holds a big ring of keys) and his older brother plotting to steal all the inheritance. He comments that Kumud doesn’t know re: the “crazy” side of his family, then sets a fire in his father’s office. For six mos. after he’s kicked out of the house (by his mother), there is no sign of Devdas. Paro finds an excuse (Durga Puja) and goes to check out the brothel (having learned of it from Dharamdas). Chandramukhi is no longer a courtesan and keeps praying for Devdas’ return. We see an altar, some of his possessions, and a diya which she lit for him (a recurring motif). Paro realizes that this woman also loves Devdas; Chandramukhi says she “worships” him. Before Paro leaves, she presents the bangle (which Devdas gave her) to Chandramukhi. They meet again at the Durga Puja, talk, and dance together (Dola Re Dola). This has a mix of Indian classical dance forms w/ steps that come from Kathak and Bharatnatyam.

As an Indian viewer noted (on IMDB), it is unlikely that a conservative Hindu woman (like Paro) would’ve visited a brothel or danced at a gathering (even in her own home). When Kali Babu reveals who she is, Chandramukhi is not bowed- she gives some strong retorts (calling out the hypocrisy of the aristocrats). I enjoyed that scene- she’s a badass! As he leaves, Kali Babu apologizes for what he did, but also tells Paro that her husband and mother-in-law now know of her er “friendship” w/ Devdas. When Bhuvan asks re: Devdas, Paro replies that he’s her “first love” (just as his dead wife). Bhuvan decides that she will not be allowed to step outside the manor, and she accepts his punishment. When the old lady tries to put out the diya (“fire in own house”)- Paro quickly stops her. I think this was a kind of gutsy scene- I hadn’t remembered from previous viewings.

At a bar, then on the streets, Devdas and Chunnilal drink (Chalak Chalak). Some women join in, incl. Chandramukhi (who is very happy to see Devdas again). Some viewers commented that they liked this number (sung by Ghosal, Narayan, and a few others). It starts out humorous, then becomes more frenzied/unsettled. We see that Devdas’ health has deteriorated; a doctor says he’s in a “treacherous” state. This is basically a drawn-out form of suicide. Devdas (finally) tells Chandramukhi that he loves her! He also tells her “if they meet again in Heaven, he will not be able to renounce her.”

Devdas travels by train w/ Dharamdas watching over him; Chunnilal finds him and they drink to friendship (not a good idea). His friend learns that Devdas is “incurable.” Devdas gets off at a station and travels to Paro’s manor, as he promised. Paro hears his voice (in her mind) and wakes up in the middle of the night. In the early morning, there is a crowd of men gathered around Devdas sleeping on the lawn just outside the manor’s gate. Paro runs through the house, evading servants and family, but her husband orders the gate to be shut. Devdas dies and the diya’s fire is blown away w/ the wind. This last sequence is well done and very intense, even to those of us who know how it ends.

3 thoughts on ““Devdas” (2002) starring Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, & Jackie Shroff

  1. I think I have a category in my mind, “Indian” and it’s not a real category, it includes Rabindranath Tagore, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth … I just don’t think about the possibility that they are all from different places and writing in different languages. Need to inform myself better.

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