Sanjay Leela Bhansali's opulent rendition of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's Devdas, has often been hailed as the tragic fall of a man inflicted with the malady of unrequited love. The cinematic adaptation however also provides the viewer a subtle glimpse into the changing socio-economic landscape of Bengal. The original novel was published in 1917, while Bengal was undergoing what has been termed as the 'Bengali Renaissance'. The country at the time was seething under British colonial rule and the Bengali culture was transformed by the influx of novel ideas and avant-garde forms of literature and art. In response to historical forces, the shape of society was itself shifting with new economic classes emerging and the Bengali bhadralok gaining prominence.
In the film, Devdas belongs to the upper echelons of society, his zamindari heritage assuring him an advantageous educational background as well as exposure to foreign lands and cultures. The main bone of contention in Devdas and Paro's alliance is the position that the latter's family occupies in the social ladder – she belongs to a clan of performers, musicians and dancers, not deemed of respect in a conservative social setup. Paro is doubly marginalised in the film, her gender accords her an inferior position in a male-dominated society while her lineage hinders her from being with the man she loves and adores.
Chandramukhi inhabits the lowest rung, looked down upon not only by the likes of Kali Babu who frequents her brothel but also by Devdas himself. Devdas is exposed to a new wave of ideologies through his London based education, and yet he continues to internalise the logic of traditional social hierarchies. While he is willing to yield to the higher calling of love and desires a union with Paro, accepting Chandramukhi is beneath his dignity. He continues to hurl labels such as 'tawaif' and 'bazaaru aurat', dismissing not only her presence but also her existence.
The most remarkable trait of Devdas and Chandramukhi's interactions is the grace, elegance and dignity with which Chandramukhi carries herself, unfazed by his insults and defiant of his cruelty. Veena Oldenburg in her essay, Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow, India, reflects on the liberation that a career in prostitution endows the throttled and suppressed women in a patriarchal structure with. She remarks, "…these women, even today, are independent and consciously involved in the subversion of a male-dominated world; they celebrate womanhood in the privacy of their apartments by resisting and inverting the rules of gender of the larger society of which they are part." It is essential to remember that while Chandramukhi might belong to a segregated and chastised space in society, she was a working woman with some degree of control over finances. When Devdas offers her a lump of money to pay the debt of two nights she dedicated to him, Chandramukhi berates him by saying that wads of cash lie at a courtesan's feet in brothels, signifying her independence and power.
Devdas might have a firm grasp over the academic field of law, but Chandramukhi too is an artist in her own right. Oldenburg points out in her essay how courtesans were given the opportunity to pursue multifarious of forms art, which was inaccessible to women otherwise. Chandramukhi, much like Umrao Jaan, is a poet, musician and dancer par excellence. Madhuri Dixit's excellence and extraordinary panache in sequences such as 'Kaahe Chhed Mohe' and 'Maar Daala' have carved a niche in the hearts of viewers for years to come.
Both Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay as well as Sanjay Leela Bhansali allow Chandramukhi to be a complex character with distinctive talents and desires, coupled with innate strength, dignity and humanity. Chandramukhi respects the love that Paro harbours for Devdas and stands up in defence of her and women at large by lashing out at Kali Babu and highlighting the role of upper-class men in keeping brothels running. Her love for Devdas enables her to transcend the narrow definitions that society wishes to confine her in. She is not only a tawaif, a courtesan, a seductress but also a nurturer, a caregiver and a woman afflicted by her devotion to one man.