With so many new films releasing each year, we cinephiles are bound to have our "blind spots". Well, this week a Bollywood film gave that term a literal meaning for me, as the experience of watching Sanjay Leela Bhansali's "Devdas" made me feel like I was seeing for the first time. This epic romance saga is one of the grandest things I've ever seen on film, a true visual treat.
Based on the beloved novella of the same name by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, this 2002 film marks the 13th film adaptation of the story (3 more have been made since). The tale centers around 3 lovers - childhood sweethearts Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) and Paro (Aishwarya Rai), and a courtesan named Chandramuki (Madhuri Dixit) who completes the love triangle. "Devdas" begins with its title character returning home for the first time since age 10, eager to rekindle his love for the beautiful Paro. Despite their deep affection for each other however, Devdas' aristocratic family conspires to prevent their union, scornful of the lower caste of Paro's more middle-class family. Through a public humiliation denouncing the couple, Devdas' family makes good on their promise, separating the lovers.
Devastated, Paro and Devdas head down different paths in life. In the aftermath, Paro's mother vows to marry off her daughter into an even richer family. Devdas on the other hand, spends the rest of his days in misery. He takes up a life of heavy drinking, which eventually leads him to a brothel. It's there that he meets Chandramuki, who enchants him and ends up falling in love with him herself. But Chandramuki only exacerbates his pain, as Devdas and Paro still pine for each other, even though fate seems to have doomed them to a life apart.
Although this was the 13th iteration of "Devdas" on screen, it was the first Hindi version shot in colour, and Bhansali certainly embraced that fact. Every shade of every colour of the rainbow is depicted in this film, with art direction so lavish it could overwhelm Baz Luhrmann. In this world, even the brothels are luxuriously decorated with dazzling chandeliers and jewels. At the time, this was the most expensive Bollywood film ever made and it really showed in the gorgeous costumes and set design. What makes it even more impressive is that despite the contemporary price tag, the film employed old-school methods by building physical sets.
Rumour has it that this bright spectacle was too much for Western audiences, as it prompted numerous walkouts at its Cannes premiere. However, I do hope that most of those attendees stayed behind to bear witness to Madhuri Dixit's sensational performance as Chandramuki. Khan and Rai are at their heartbreaking best here, but it's Dixit who steals the show. Her iconic "Maar Dala" scene proves why she's often referred to as the "Dancing Queen of Bollywood", declaring her passion and love with every fibre of her body. There's a genuine warmth to her smile that reveals her inner fragility - her "heart of gold" if you wish - which betrays her defiant, seductive physicality. Indeed, it's the kind of show-stopping performance that would have swept every Supporting Actress award if it were a Hollywood production.
"Devdas" is truly a maximalist's delight and admittedly, it does lead to one too many instances of sensory overload. The performances given by Devdas' family are too coarse as well. These setbacks keep the film from attaining the "masterpiece" level, but when you consider each aspect on an individual level - acting, choreography, costume design, direction, production design, music - there's no denying that this was a collaboration of masterful artists. The craftsmanship transports you to another world and the powerful story takes you on an epic, emotional journey that leaves you devastated by film's end. This may all read like hyperbole to you, but once you watch "Devdas", you'll know it's a film that demands it.
This film is part of my Bollywood marathon.