Bollywood Baatein: Twenty years of Bhansali’s ‘Devdas’

Sanjay Leela Bhansali has built an edifice of resplendence in Devdas. But the opulence never smothers the immensity of the emotional tragedy

Bollywood Baatein: Twenty years of Bhansali’s ‘Devdas’
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Subhash K Jha

Great art isn’t about creating poetic moments. These moments have to be made tenable so that the man in the remotest corner of the theatre responds to it instinctively. That’s the magic Bhansali creates in Devdas.

The film brings a “commercial” grandiosity to the tale without sacrificing the original’s tragic timbres. The sheer grandeur of Bhansali’s storytelling is perhaps unmatched by any previous Indian film including Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

Bhansali’s Devdas was the only Indian film to be selected by Time magazine as one of the top 10 films of 2002 from around the world. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s exquisite adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s classic romantic tragedy goes beyond places where legendary Bimal Roy had taken the original text in his make of the classic in the 1950s.

Bhansali created an enchanting romantic tragedy wherein the characters don’t just move in their breathtakingly ornate clothes that seem to have been spun from the most exquisite threads obtainable. The opulence never smothers the immensity of Chatterjee’s emotional tragedy.

The famous finale from Chatterjee’s novel where the dying Devdas breathes his last in front of his beloved’s home has been retained but reinvented. Embellishing Paro’s long run from the inside of her in-laws’ mansion to the outer courtyard with top shots that capture the imposing pillars and sprawling courtyard, the moment of Devdas’ death is fluently and flamboyantly rendered high art of the kind never seen before.

Taking the feudal splendour and leisurely mood of early 20th century Kolkata into a timeless setting, Bhansali has built an edifice of resplendence. The early romantic sequences between the Londonreturned Devdas and his childhood sweetheart Paro are designed with operatic grace.


Credit must go to the casting that is peerless. Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit impart certain timelessness to their roles of the beloved and the courtesan. In what’s possibly the best written and choreographed courtesan’s role since Meena Kumari’s in Pakeezah, Madhuri gleams with a graceful aura. But it’s Aishwarya Rai who attains legendary proportions in this film.

However, a lot of eyebrows were raised when the filmmaker chose Shah Rukh Khan to play Devdas. But Bhansali was adamant. “The challenge of having Shah Rukh express implosive rage was what got me. If I let Devdas behave like Shah Rukh he’d be a lot more mobile on screen. Unlike the Shah Rukh Khan in Darr, Baazigar, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge there’s an amazing childlike vulnerability and honesty in Shah Rukh of Devdas,” he said.

Speaking of his role in Devdas to me Shah Rukh Khan had said,“Devdas is that traveller who wants everything and nothing. When Iread the book, Paro calls Devdas ‘da’, which means brother. So he’s a lover and brother at the same time...A lot of people are comparing our film to the novel. You can’t read Devdas with pre-conceptions and expectations. Each time I read Devdas I find a different mood in it.”

When Devdas opened on July 12, 2002 it got some scathing reviews in India. That really hurt Bhansali. “I was criticised for making Devdas so ostentatious. But stark and realistic cinema isn’t the only real cinema in this country. Devdas isn’t a real film. It isn’t in the same genre as Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding….My Devdas was a tribute to all the mainstream masters, from Mehboob Khan, K. Asif and V Shantaram to Raj Kapoor.

“I am not saying critics shouldn’t have criticised my film. But they should have judged the film within the genre and format that I had chosen. Bimal Roy’s Devdas wasn’t the only way of filming the Sarat Chandra story. My way is also a way. Another director can make the same story in another way,” he underlined.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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