Of all the adaptations of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel Devdas — and there have been many — Sanjay Leela Bhansali's is the biggest, starriest of them all. With Shah Rukh Khan playing Devdas, and Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit as Paro and Chandramukhi respectively, the film was a casting coup. It also marked a turning point in Bhansali's career. Devdas onwards, every Bhansali project would scale up to be grander (and more expensive) than ever before. Realism never interested Bhansali, but films like Khamoshi and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were still set in a reality that felt possible to imagine in our world. Devdas onwards, Bhansali's films would invariably belong to their own universe — one filled with elaborate, blemishless, opulent worlds that Bhansali imagined in exquisite detail. The first fully-realised example of Bhansali's now-distinctive aesthetic was Devdas, with its unrealistic but beautiful costumes, sets and storytelling.
Twenty years later, one thing is certain: Bhansali's Devdas seems more audacious than ever. It's stylised, controlled, garish and loud all at once, creating an alternate reality that might give palpitations to purists and fans of the novel but exudes an intense and compelling romantic charm. To celebrate the film's landmark anniversary, we look at five key scenes from Devdas.
"Mera toofan aa raha hai, mera Devdas aa raha hai" (My storm is coming, my Devdas is coming), Kaushalya (Smita Jaykar), his mother, says to her friend and neighbour Sumitra (Kirron Kher). The 'storm' part may well have been cinematographer Binod Pradhan's brief when he filmed the opening scene of Bhansali's film.There is not a static frame, save for the establishing shot, tilted on a dutch angle that suggests the off-kilter reality of this world. Curtains fly, sheets are taken off, as the information of Devdas's travels within the mansion. The family sings together, with the spiteful Kumud striking its only discordant note.
Devdas and Paro (Aishwarya Rai) have found furtive ways of 'seeing' each other with opera glasses. Devdas hands over a set of those to his grandmother, who is eager to see him married quickly. It makes her look at the little neighbourhood girl in new eyes. Each party is caught looking at each other. It's a scene of surprises and rhymes — visual and aural — leading up to 'Bairi Piya'. One moment Devdas is next to his grandmother, the next he's in her viewfinder. One moment the grandmother is watching the two, the next she's being watched by Kumud. Isssh.
Devdas picks up the bottle for the first time and makes it all about himself, but this is Chandramukhi's song. It's a Madhuri Dixit show and she's the one doing the killing. See her admonish Milind Gunaji's character, where the dance is not in her body but face. Apparently it was a suggestion from Saroj Khan (hyperlink), who choreographed the gorgeous Ismail Darbar composition. They weren't making such sumptuous musical numbers when Devdas came out in 2002; they aren't making them now. Only Bhansali does.
Paro's no longer the neighbourhood beauty, but a thakurain deftly navigating the corridors of a zamindar household, practising politics when needed and still capable of kindness. In a battle of wits with a distant relative of the family, she demonstrates the kind of artfulness that recalls her mother's way with words, as well as the humiliation she had faced at the hands of Devdas's family in the past. (The scene plays out like an intimate chamber drama and showcases some sharp dialogue writing). In a story about a drunk loser who drank himself to death, it's a little win for her.
A deathly Devdas's ride in the horse carriage brings to the fore the gothic undertones of Bhansali's filmmaking. The scenes at night through a dark pathway could be out of Bram Stoker's Dracula only the man inside is unmistakably mortal — Devdas has blood coming out of his mouth after he gives into the temptation of drinking with his friend Chunilal (Jackie Shroff). It's as if the film is on a backward journey: from train to horse drawn carriage, from city to village. Devdas began with his mother running around the house to share the news of his son's arrival. It ends with Paro running to see him when she hears the news of his death.