A relook at “Devdas”, 80 years after it first kissed the silver screen.
Recently, I saw Saigal’s “Devdas” on television which virtually transported me to 1935 – three quarters of a century ago when I had first seen it in Lahore as a schoolboy. An all-time classic “Devdas” turned out to be the first superhit post talkies. Its unprecedented box office success immortalized the producer – New Theatres, Calcutta, of B.N. Sircar – director P.C. Barua and the singer-superstar Kundan Lal Saigal. I have vivid memories of the packed cinema hall and the thunderous clapping that followed Saigal’s haunting number “Balam aye baso more man mein”. In tune with the customary practice some onlookers even exhibited their applause by throwing coins on screen.
The film marked the blossoming of Indian cinema and almost revolutionised the entire concept of filmmaking by bringing the film closer to life with all its feelings and emotions. Based on Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s popular novel — which he wrote at the age of 17 — “Devdas” was first filmed in the silent period by Naresh Mitra in 1928. P.C. Barua, a creative genius of his days, raised the level of his film to a solemn tragedy. He introduced a totally new style of acting — natural and unaffected — a departure from then prevalent theatrical mode and also adopted a simple easy-to-follow dialogue without any literary nuances. Barua played the title role in the Bengali version and K.L. Saigal in the Hindi one and both of them became cult figures.
The film is the story of a young man, son of a feudal landlord, who has an abiding love for his childhood playmate Parbati, daughter of his poor neighbour of lower status and caste. To prevent their growing attachment, Devdas is sent to Calcutta for higher education and Parbati is married off to an aged widower. Devdas returns to the village but the social norms and practices make him helpless in stopping Parbati’s marriage. Back to the city, Devdas finds refuge in alcohol to drown his sorrows and in the company of a singing girl Chandramukhi who gets attached to him. To serve and look after him, she even quits her profession but Devdas’ condition goes from bad to worse. On hearing about his miserable plight, Parbati comes to plead with him to stop drinking and revert to a sober and healthy way of life but in vain.
Barua’s adaptation of the novel reflected his own tragic view of a life starved of joy and laughter. His creative passion and technical innovations are revealed in his expert editing for dramatic effect, close-up shots for image construction and using the sound to suggest telepathic communication between the characters. Barua, the intellectual prince from Gauripur had learnt the art of filmmaking in France. He was not only the creator of “Devdas”, he was Devdas.
In a way, “Devdas” could be viewed as a film of social protest against the class and caste-ridden society. There was some criticism for its highlighting the fatalistic path of dejection, drink, disease and death which could have an adverse influence on the lovelorn young minds. But the people just adored the hero, Devdas. It was a film that touched many sensitive hearts and virtually a whole generation is said to have wept over it. The Devdas syndrome became synonymous with unrequited love.
Barua’s Hamlet-like personality and his premature death like his Hindi version hero K.L. Saigal through alcoholism made him an icon of cinematic genius. Just before his death, he is reported to have said, “Devdas was in me even before I was born, I created it every moment of my life much before I put it on the screen, it was no more than a mirage, a play of light and shade and sadder still it ceased to exist after two hours. Now it’s just a myth”.
The powerful appeal of the romantic tragic here made Devdas a cult figure. This set the pace for the popularity of the doomed hero on the Indian screen and the doom itself has appeared to become attractive. The term ‘Devdas’ replaced the old one ‘Majnu’ to characterise a deeply dejected lover. Both Bengali and Hindi versions of “Devdas” were released in 1935. Though K.L. Saigal was no match for Barua’s attractive appearance and charm, he more than made it up with his enchanting melodies. The role of Parbati, the heroine was played by Jamuna in both Bengali and Hindi versions, while Chandramukhi was enacted by Chandrabati and Rajkumari respectively. Originally, Barua wanted Kananbala to play the part of Chandramukhi as she had already established her name and fame in Bengali cinema. But as she was bound by her contract with Madan Theatres, she could not accept Barua’s offer. The phenomenal success of the film was also attributed to its marvellous music composed by Timir Baran (Hindi) and R.C. Boral and Pankaj Mullick (Bengali).
Apart from his sterling performance as “Devdas” which made him the Indian cinema’s first superstar, Saigal also had a sensational walk-on part in the Bengali version as one of the visitors to Chandramukhi’s kotha and sang two Bengali songs “Kahare je jodathey chai” and “Golab huey uthuk phutey”. When told that the scene was the kotha of a singing girl, Saigal felt quite confident since he had sufficient knowledge and experience of this environment acquired during his wandering days. Sung in a classical style in leisurely fashion with pauses, the songs in Saigal’s voice presented unique beauty and serenity. Originally, Pankaj Mullick was scheduled to sing these songs but when he heard the recordings he felt he could not match the magical spell created by Saigal’s voice. It was noted in some quarters that the tragic ending in “Devdas” did not fall in line with the Indian classical tradition which required only happy endings.