An Unfortunate Hero

Yet another version of Devdas hits the screens, this one called Daas Dev, directed by Sudhir Mishra, and set in the present, just like Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009), which was also an update on Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s most famous novella. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 Devdas, had, however, fully Bollywood-ised the story with kitschy design, lavish song and dance, which are his forte and stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai and Jackie Shroff.

The novel was published in 1917, and over a century later, it has not loosened its grip on the Indian psyche, a man drinking to deal with heartbreak, is still derided as a Devdas type. A silent film on the book was first made in 1928 by Naresh Mitra; then the legendary Pramathesh Barua made it in Bengali in 1935, with himself in the eponymous role and co-starring Jamuna and Chandrabati Devi. He then made it in Hindi a year later, with KL Saigal as Devdas, with Jamuna and Rajkumari as the female leads. The writer and lyricist (unforgettable songs like Baalam aaye baso more man mein, and Dukh ke din beetat naahi) of that film was Kidar Sharma, who went on to become a director of repute, and the editor was Bimal Roy, who made, arguably, the best version of the story in 1955, starring Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Vyjayanthimala and Motilal; this one had dialogue by Rajinder Singh Bedi, lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi and music by SD Burman (songs like Jise tu qabool karle, Aage teri marzi and Woh na aayege palatkar).

There have been films made on the story in Assamese, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Urdu, and multiple Bengali versions, the last as recent as 2013, in Bangladesh. Gulzar’s film with Dharmendra as Devdas was, sadly, shelved.

It is difficult to imagine any literature or film lover who is unaware of the story. Devdas and Parvati or Paro grow up together and love each other very much, but are not permitted to marry, because of their difference in status —he belongs to a wealthy family, while she is just a poor neighbour.

Devdas is sent to Calcutta to study, and Paro is forced to marry an older widower. Devdas does not have the courage to go against his father, but he finds escape and a way of rebellion by turning to drink, nudged that way by his friend, Chunnibabu. He is taken by the jovial hedonist to a kotha, where he meets a courtesan, Chandramukhi, who falls in love with him, and gives up her profession to look after him when he falls ill.

Paro, a dutiful wife and stepmother to her husband’s grown up children, risks her reputation to come to Devdas’s home to try to talk him out of his alcoholism, all he promises is that he will come to her when his final hour approaches. When he is close to death, he travels all night to reach her home and dies outside the gates.

Far from glamorizing a lover’s death at the doorstep of his beloved, in the book, his body is unclaimed and indifferently cremated by the doms (men who worked in crematoriums), his charred remains attacked by scavenger birds and animals.

The novel was such a hit, and the chronically melancholic character of Devdas, who would be considered a loser today, become so popular in the conservative society of the time, that Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, who wrote it in his youth, is reported to have regretted its publication and having given permission to film it (he died in 1938). He could never have imagined that his book would be the most filmed work of Indian literature of all time.

(Deepa Gahlot is a critic, columnist, editor, author and curator)