Monday, December 14, 2009

Devdas (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2002)

An extravagant, gigantic-budgeted Bollywood epic, with every possible richness of d├ęcor and costume. Indeed, the palatial homes of the two neigbouring families, the rich Mukherjis—their son is Devdas (Sharukh Khan)—and the now-wealthy but once theatrical next-door neigbours—their daughter is Parvati (Aishwarya Rai). Their homes are vast, opulent in a vulgar manner, westernized with neoclassical columns and painted ironwork and stained-glass and fountains and chandeliers and patterned marble floors. Everything is just a little too much. But the vulgar excess of material fantasy doesn’t ruin the film. It’s a three-hour romantic tragedy, the two childhood sweethearts separated by the Mukherji’s snobbery—and by Dev’s weakness, for he doesn’t simply take Paro and leave.

The story unwinds in a slow, inexorable decline. Cast out by his family and failing in his attempt to forget Paro as he’s told her he’s already done, Dev wanders aimlessly until a jovial friend brings him to the famous courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit). There he watches her dance, learns to drink, and treats her with contempt. Still, she loves him, and watches his slide into alcoholism helplessly. Meanwhile Paro is married to a very wealthy widower, a man devoted to the memory of his late wife, and he will not consummate the marriage. And a scheming sister-in-law alienates Dev’s family from him, and he is doubly cast out. He comes home to die at her gate—and Paro’s husband locks the gate so they are separated even as he dies.

It would be less surprising if all this did not work. But it does, so
mehow. The story is buoyed up by spectacle, especially the wonderful songs and the dancing scenes, and by the ability to show joy and long-lasting grief shared by Rai and Khan, and by Dixit as well. Enriching the plot, which is more than a little analogous to the premise of Romeo and Juliet, is a strong thematic undercurrent referring to the love of Krishna and Radha. This theme is reinforced by several of the songs, which tell of the ecstasy of their union and of the loneliness and longing of Radha in Krishna’s absence. There is an implicit gulf between the absolute demand of love (as figured in the Radha-Krishna story) and the cruel vanity of the parents in daily practice. The same gulf appears in the enactment of a Durga Puja, when the arrogance of the wealthy family Paro has married into runs against the implicit meaning of the ritual. And so it is deeply and grievously ironic that Paro, Dev, and Chandramukhi suffer such agonies because they love, when all around them friends, family, and strangers all celebrate the love of Radha and Krishna. Devdas—his name means “servant of the gods,” dies for love. It wasn’t the gods who killed him—it was human intolerance. The music, again, is wonderful, and the three main actors always worth watching. But it's sad, very sad.