Why Shah Rukh Khan’s Devdas is still the best retelling of the story after 20 years
Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s genre-defining novel Devdas has been adapted for the screen 20 times in seven languages across three countries. From KL Saigal and Dilip Kumar to Soumitra Chatterjee and even Paoli Dam, everyone has played the title role (although she was Devi in the film). I won’t be surprised if one or more new adaptations are announced before I finish this piece. Which version of Devdas you consider the seminal adaptation may depend on when and where you were raised. Of course, I’m biased when I say that the Sanjay Leela Bhansali version starring Shah Rukh Khan captures the essence of the novel like no other. I know it’s a controversial viewpoint, but please hear me out before you raise your pitchforks.
Devdas, the red-hued and opulent one, was released in theaters exactly 20 years ago on July 12. When it was announced, it was the first attempt in nearly five decades by a Hindi filmmaker to adapt the classic. In addition, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, and Madhuri Dixit were cast in the movie. When the film was released, it was a huge success, but it also divided fans. Many considered it an instant classic, a grand, larger-than-life look at love and loss. Others thought the opulence detracted from the main plot. Others felt it was not an ‘honest’ adaptation because it went too far.
Many people claimed that previous versions of the story did not require elaborate sets and Technicolor song-and-dance sequences to tell the same story. But bear in mind. Devdas was directed by the same man who directed Do Bigha Zamin, whereas Shah Rukh’s film was directed by the same man who directed Padmaavat. Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali are probably at opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum in terms of grandness and realism. It says a lot about cinema’s beauty that both can tell the same story in such different ways. To me, grandeur adds to the story by amplifying the emotions felt by each character, making a simple story much more intense. This elevates it above its predecessors.
And the passage of time has been kind to Bhansali’s magnum opus. It is a story about love, pride, and man’s descent into insanity as a result of ego. How could it not be magnificent? How could it not be extravagant? Especially in an era when even the most mundane stories of teen romance (Mohabbatein) and forbidden love (Gadar) were told in the grandest possible manner. It was made in its time, but it still has meaning today. It also showed us the beginnings of Bhansali’s cinematic signature. Following a relatively sober debut with Khamoshi, he tried something grander with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but it was Devdas that carried many of Bhansali’s trademarks, which he still employs today.
One of the most serious criticisms leveled at Bhansali’s Devdas is that it deviates from the original novel in numerous places. When Paro met Chandramukhi, purists clutched their pearls and nearly fainted in horror when the two danced together at Durga Puja. Others questioned why Chandramukhi, a courtesan, needed 20 backup dancers in Humpe Ye Kisne.
Many people are more willing to accept a version in which ‘Chandramukhi’ is the victim of an MMS scandal than one in which she meets Paro. Both versions are valid in my opinion, and both are very well made. The reason for this is that Devdas is a story about emotions rather than facts. It does not tell a historical story in which distortion detracts from the story. It is up to the filmmaker to adapt and project those emotions onto the screen. Some depict it with Dola Re Dola, while others with O Pardesi. Which is more ‘valid’ is as personal as which ice cream flavor tastes the best. One thing, though, is beyond doubt in my mind. None of the film’s additions are superfluous, whether it’s Devdas performing his shraadh or Dola Re Dola. None of them protrude. This means that the finished product works. That, to me, demonstrates the project’s superiority in that it was able to add elements to the plot while maintaining focus on the core emotions.
Another point of contention with the film has been Shah Rukh’s portrayal of the titular character in comparison to other versions. Before Shah Rukh, some of the biggest names and greatest actors in Indian cinema history had played Devdas, including KL Saigal, A Nageswara Rao, Dilip Kumar, and Soumitra Chatterjee, to name a few. Comparisons had to be made. The standard set by Dilip Kumar for a good Devdas performance may be difficult to meet, but Shah Rukh came close. His strengths differ from those of a traditional actor in the mold of Dilip Kumar. No other actor comes close to Dilip Kumar’s portrayal of Devdas’ grief, which is both simple and beautiful. However, Shah Rukh outperformed the great master in one area: portraying Dev’s arrogant madness. Devdas, played by Shah Rukh, was an unlikeable, arrogant, and slightly misogynist man who did not require romanticization. And Shah Rukh did an excellent job bringing that to the screen. His version does not have to be the best, or even better than anyone else’s. It was unique and intense enough to be effective. That is all that matters.
In another 20 years, Shah Rukh and Dilip Kumar may appear to a younger generation as thespians from “a distant past.” And perhaps, like the previous volumes, the 2002 volume of Devdas will be regarded as a cinema classic. And it may appear to them that it was always that well-liked.
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