In a world where everything is a remake of a remake and every idea is inspired by every other idea, what exactly warrants a film being called ‘original’?
Devdas is a tale as old as time. It was first penned down in writing by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee in 1917 but it has existed long before that.
Let’s examine the two main characters in Devdas, Parvati and Chandramukhi. Parvati or Paro as she is often called by the protagonist is literally named after a goddesses. She is also often described to be with no flaw, at least not until Dev leaves a mark upon her face in a fit of rage. Paro fits the personality of Madonna perfectly.
Chandramukhi too, on the other hand, perfectly fits the personality of ‘the debassed prostitute.’ She is, after all, a prostitute.
These are the exact same characters in Martin Scorcese’s hit film Taxi Driver too. Betsy has been described as a goddess in the movie several times and Iris is an escaped prostitute. The question is, how do these characters keep recurring?
The Madonna Whore Complex was first identified by popular psychologist Sigmund Freud in men that could not maintain loving stable relationships. It states that men either see women as saintly godessesses or debassed prostitutes. The screenwriter for Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader has also confirmed that his characters were based on this complex to give the film a deeper subconscious appeal, something that has worked very well in his viewers that obsess over this film and it’s little aspects. But what of Devdas?
There is no clear date given on when Devdas was first written and when Freud first theorised this complex but we know that there was a significant overlap in the timeline. What we know for certain is that Chatterjee had more than likely never read Freud. Chatterjee has also confirmed that most of Devdas was written under the influence of alcohol and that many elements in the book are autobiographical in nature, including the character of Paro, based on that of his second wife. It is possible that this story was a reflection of the author’s own personality and this is the reason Devdas has held it’s popularity in the history of India. This is the reason that the same story has been adapted in film more than 20 times with prequels, alternate endings and variations across the ages.
The first adaptation of Devdas was in 1928 but I couldn’t find that version anywhere on the internet so I am inclined to believe it does not exist. I would have loved to examine how the story translated over in the form of a silent film but since there is a fair chance the film was destroyed completely like so many other classics of the time, I am going to move on to the film’s 1935 P.C. Barua version.
This film is historic for a lot of reasons. You can find a copy of the film on YouTube and enjoy this masterpiece for yourself. I am not an expert of films this old but I think it would be safe to say this film was definitely ahead of the time. It takes the skeletal structure of Devdas and uses it to talk of the wrong influence of British, something that every other adaptation of Devdas also does. The parallels between the stories of Dev and Paro draw out the emotional impact and it is one of the first time Indian cinema used this technique. The impactful scene where Devdas returns to his home village is beautifully depicted and the black and white film makes the experience all the more haunting. One scene I thought was really impactful in this adaptation was how masterfully the blame of Devdas’s alcoholism is shifted to the British. At the time, the British board would censor anything that they found to be overtly against their rule but the actor-director P.C. Barua found a loophole by referring to them as ‘the people from Calcutta’. In this film, it is shown as if Devdas was a good person before he went to Calcutta, the British capital city, where he was influenced by Chunnilal, a clearly British caricature, to indulge himself in alcoholism and prostitution. This is definitely the work of the director since the original source of the novel shows no such resemblance. Infact, in the original film Devdas was already indulged in wrongful activities like smoking Hookah, something the director purposely didn’t mention. The acting of this film is terrible and I have no regrets in saying this. The dialogues are delivered poorly and the impact of them feel drawn out. The actress for Paro had the same expression throughout the film and the film recorded sound live so there was a lot of background noise. That being said, the music is amazing and fits perfectly. The scene where Paro runs towards the closing doors and falls to the ground and the needle drops feels like the work of a modern director like Martin Scorcese more than that of a 1935 film.
The next adaptation of the film is the 1955 Bimal Roy version, most well known by the older generation, starring none other than the King of Tragedies, Dilip Kumar. This film adaptation is closest to the novel. It deals with caste inequalities in India and employs some great filming techniques to do so, some that once again, may be considered ahead of it’s time. In the beginning of the film, the younger version of dev can be seen smoking, employing use of clever foreshadowing. There is a scene where the child Paro is at the ghat to wash the clothes and the camera pans over from her to show an unbloomed lotus. The lotus blooms in front of the camera and it pans back over to where now an adult Paro is sitting, washing clothes. Not only is this great editing and dramatic in itself but it signifies how Paro has matured since she was younger. Classic show don’t tell. Every character in the film is fleshed out perfectly and the story progresses a lot more smoothly than it did in the 1935 version, which seemed to fall flat around the midpoint. This film puts more emphasis on the caste inequality of India at the time. It emphasizes how Dev and Paro could not marry because they were of different castes and also gives emphasis on how this was wrong, making this the central theme of the film. The actors also give iconic acting performances, with Dilip Kumar’s “Kaun kambakht hai joh bardaasht karne ke liye peeta hai ... main toh peeta hoon ki bas saans le saku,” still being a well remembered dialogues, more than sixty five years later.
Fast forward to Anurag Kashyap’s cult classic, DevD. It is known as the modern adaptation of Devdas but I don’t think that’s the right title for it as every adaptation I know of of Devdas has been adapted to the time it was filmed in. What I do love about this film is the starkly original and, forgive me for saying this for the third time in this article, ahead of it’s time cinematography. Like many of Anurag’s older films from his rebellious stage, this film challenges societal norms in the best way they can. The filming is simplistic and the writing is majestic, making references to MMS scandals, hit-and-run cases and so on while holding relevance to the original plot. It gives a stark commentary on toxic masculinity and raises strong questions on what it means to be a man. Unlike what you’d expect from a Kashyap film, this film does end with a happy ending of Dev’s character realising that he does not really love Paro, he loves Chandramukhi. There are so many unique elements of this film that deserve recognition like Abhay Deol’s fantastic acting in the film and Amit Trivedi’s catchy soundtrack that I’d recommend you watch this film for yourself and try to decipher what it all means.
And now, before we jump into the most iconic adaptation of the film, it’s time to take note of a few honourable mentions. First is Daasdev, a political look at the story with references to the film itself and DevDD, a genderbent take on the film where Dev is played by a woman and Chanda and Paro’s characters are men to show how excessive drinking is excusable in men but not in woman. I was actually really interested in this version before I noticed that it was produced by Ekta Kapoor and decided it was not worth my time. Other than these two, there are numerous other adaptations to the film in different languages, different premises and one sequel, Devadasu Malli Puttadu, where Devdas is reincarnated and the film shows whether he keeps up to the promise he made to Chandramukhi about marrying her in his next life, and I’d recommend checking them all out to understand for yourself how deep the well of Devdas really is.
I think everyone can agree when I say that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s adaptation of Devdas starring Shah Rukh Khan, Maduri Dixit and Aishwariya Rai has to be the most iconic interpretation of the film to this date. There is not much to say about this film except for the fact that it is the ultimate Devdas film to have ever been made. The lights burn into your eyes as you consume the film bit by bit and it paints such a stark picture of the world that when you’re done watching, you need to lie down on your back in a dark room just to digest it all. Bhansali’s Devdas is like watching a dream, a slightly distorted version of reality that surrounds you. Everything is multiplied and raised to extremes beyond comprehension. Devdas is an alcoholic? He is now going to lay in piles of empty glass bottles. Devdas is rich? He is now going to live in a palace. Paro eternally loves Devdas? She is now going to light a candle for him that will somehow not extinguish until Dev truly dies. There are also some great parallels being used between Dev and Paro. Her younger self runs behind the car when he is leaving for America and then Dev runs behind her when she is being taken for marriage. There is so much to say about this adaptation, from the colour theory used, the interaction between characters, the iconic and quotable lines, the great acting performances, the set design and costumes, the choreography for the dances, the music, everything. Everything! feels! like! it! has! an! exclamation! mark! at! the! end!
I like to examine this adaptation of Devdas by looking at it as fanfiction. Bhansali has read the book and watched films based on the book and he has absorbed the story, like I have. He has understood the world of Devdas and recreated it from his imagination. It is not an accurate representation of a small town in West Bengal by any means and there is no suggestion as to which year this is, and that is what makes this version of Devdas timeless, the fact that it literally is. It feels like it is set in the past but it could be Ancient India or last year and there is no suggestion to indicate which interpretation is true. It could even be set in an alternate future or a timeline that never existed, the possibilities are endless.
Another reason for me calling this fanfiction is the fact that Chandramukhi and Paro have so many moments of interaction, strange for characters that have never met in the main adaptation. Sanjay Leela Bhansali literally tests the chemistry of the two lead characters of the film. They both have significant moments of dialogue to highlight their own characters as one in contrast to the other. The women highlight the failure of the Bechadel test, the test that determines whether women are depicted in films properly by highlighting conversations they have not involving men. Chandramukhi and Paro’s first conversation clearly fails the Bechadel test but it shows that failure of the test does not equate to poor representation of women as the scene itself highlights the strengths of the characters and establishes them as the leading characters of the film.
Another distinction of Devdas from other interpretations is that Devdas is the victim here. He is simply the character that is suffering the consequences of problems that other characters in the story have created for him. It explains why Devdas is wasting his life away in alcoholism, it is because he has nothing to live for because he is literally trapped in the prison cell of his own life. As a self-absorbed, selfish character who is by no means too good for this world, Devdas cannot adjust his damaged ego to what Freud would call the reality principle; indeed, part of the figure’s modernity is in his being defined by an individual ego rather than a class or caste-based morality, a difference that makes traditional heroes appear as unrealistic ideals rather than the type of young man one could actually imagine encountering on the streets of Calcutta in the early decades of the 20th century. While every adaptation has made it clear, if not explicitly clear, that Devdas brought his sorrows upon himself, here he is not a victim of himself but a victim of society, an unwilling puppet in the hands of a puppeteer. He is symbolised as the inaction that binds him. I think the best way to put it is to compare him to Raj from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge if he never went back to India or Romeo if he stopped pursuing Juliet after he realised she was a Capulet. I think Bhansali sympathises with Dev’s character when everyone else understands that he was wrong. He does not, however, portray Dev as a good person. He just simply lets Dev be a complex character, like so many others. Dev is the eternal stalemate and the beauty of the entire film is how he fills his life when he has nothing to live for and how he is controlled by his family, by the women in his life and by society as a whole and their double standards.
Dev also has issues with his father, something I am sure further pushes my Freudian interpretation of this film. I think his father here is the representation of society. His objections have consequences to Devdas. There is a scene in the 1935 version where Dev and Paro meet at night and Dev saying something along the lines of “What will people think?” and Paro says this very strong line that is still relevant today, “You are a man Devdas, people will forget your actions sooner or later.” I think that when Dev meets Paro at night in Bhansali’s 2002 version, his father appearing is indication that it is quite literally society viewing him and his actions as inappropriate while to him they are perfectly justified.
I think all in all, this version has to be the best understanding of the story of Devdas, not just for what it stands for in it’s face value but what the words truly mean beneath the surface. There is melodrama and there are certain scenes that make you cringe but at the end of it all, this movie deserves to be titled a masterpiece and a future classic. The chemistry between the actors is amazing. Shah Rukh Khan is as good at accurately portraying Dev’s love for Paro as he is at showing the transition of hatred to love towards Chandramukhi and Chandramukhi and Paro contrast each other perfectly and I am sure that in this film, there is no actor that could replace these two.
Now, back to the question we opened with. What is an original film? Recently, there has been controversy on Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii, not just for it’s name and problematic representation of transgenderism but because it is a remake of the film Kanchana. He has been remaking South Indian films for years with Rowdy Rathode, Gabbar is Back, Bhool Bhulaiya and so many more. If you look at it that way, there are so many good films that are remakes of older films and nearly every film is inspired by one film or another, however vaguely it may be.
I think, at the end of it all, what matters is the theme. For every adaptation of Devdas there has been, while the story may have been the same, the theme of the story and the way the story is told is completely different. This is why Sherlock Holmes and Dracula are remade so many times, because they have a simple premise and huge scope for interpretation of this premise into a variety of plots. The story is the same for Devdas. You can’t watch one interpretation of Devdas and assume you have understood them all because each adaptation brings something new to the table.
Let’s talk about the Hong Kong action thriller Infernal Affairs trilogy with Martin Scorcese’s The Departed. Both films are based on the same plot but while Infernal Affairs deals with the story emotionally and dramatically, The Departed is more realistic in it’s portrayal and tells the story like it is. I am not saying one is better than the other, I am highlighting that a simple remake of a story can be so varied that when you watch them both, the stories feel different.
At the end of it all, remakes do not decide whether a film is good or bad. It is the interpretation of the film that does. Are you remaking the film because it worked before and wish to copy the story scene by scene in a different language with a new cast or do you have what it takes to tell the same story in a different way?