“Yeh kya Chandramukhi, main tumhe sahanshilta ki murti keh raha hoon. Tum toh mom ki gudiya nikli, kaise pighal gayi.”
In Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus, Devdas, this is one of the last few lines that Devdas’ character says to Chandramukhi before bidding her farewell. These lines roughly translate to ‘I’m calling you the epitome of tolerance, and look how you’re melting like wax at my words!’ which perfectly captures the spirit of Chandramukhi. In every adaptation, she is portrayed as the courtesan with a heart of gold, who devotedly takes care of Devdas despite his initial disgust and anger towards her. Madhuri Dixit Nene plays the part of Chandramukhi with awe inspiring conviction, bringing a strong yet fragile woman to life through her unparalleled acting prowess.
In the scene where Kali Babu outs her as a courtesan, humiliating her despite being a frequent visitor to her brothel, is where Madhuri Dixit shines as Chandramukhi. The sheer hypocrisy of the situation leads to what is arguably one of the most powerful and significant scenes in the movie, where Chandramukhi refuses to be ashamed of her profession and stands her ground amidst an audience of upper class women, who are all against her. Her act of stopping Kali Babu from hitting her and slapping him across the face for even daring to do so is what stands out, in stark contrast to Parvati’s lowered gaze and silence, refusing to defend her friend out of shame and embarrassment. Both of them are victims of their circumstances, in a way, yet Chandramukhi fights back and reclaims her power.
While she does yearn for Devdas’ love and affection, she knows that he only has eyes for his Paro. Yet that does not serve as motivation for her to hate or resent a woman she has only heard of, whereas Bhansali could’ve very easily pitted the two women against each other. Chandramukhi is dignified, far more than any of the upper class ‘thakurs’, not taking Devdas’ rejection and rebukes to heart and unconditionally devoting her time to him. Taking care of a man who clearly despises you for something beyond your control, is in love with another woman and on top of that, is an abusive alcoholic, could never be an easy task. Chandramukhi does what perhaps no one would, she knows her love may as well be unrequited forever but that does not stop her from taking in a man who has nowhere else to go.
When we first meet Chandramukhi in the song, ‘Kaahe Chhed Mohe’ sung beautifully by the Late Pandit Birju Maharaj and Kavita Krishnamurthy, she is flirtatious, girly and seductive yet nowhere near vulgar. She’s enamoured by Devdas right then, who goes on to lecture her about the dignity of a woman. Towards the end of the movie, however, what we see is a camaraderie between Chandramukhi and Devdas that is quite unlike the love shared by Devdas and Paro. The relationship between Chandramukhi and Devdas has the calm, the maturity and the quiet sort of love that the tumultuous romance of Devdas and Paro lacked. She is strong enough to do what Paro was not, Chandramukhi loved Devdas so much that she let him go. Perhaps the only scene in the movie where Chandramukhi allows herself to truly break down in the knowledge that the man who’s love she had been craving for, the man who acted as though wouldn’t spare a thought for her, was now finally confessing that he, too, had fallen in love with her. Overcome with emotions, she knows that she cannot tie him down and sets him free.
Chandramukhi is the perfect blend of fragility and strength, proof that the two can coexist in a woman. She goes above and beyond in her service to Devdas and even embraces Paro, the woman who she self admittedly could never replace. Chandramukhi, in my opinion, is an exemplary embodiment of feminism in traditional Hindi films.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.