As I wondered who my favourite Sanjay Leela Bhansali character was, many of his brilliant characters whizzed through my mind’s eye and I knew choosing one was akin to Sophie’s Choice. However, I made a few inferences – they were all larger than life, yet so relatable; they all had iconoclastic ideologies, but were rooted in tradition; they are all altruistic, but are equally human; and most importantly, they are all women. Don’t get me wrong – the men in SLB movies are layered, humane, and moving, but it’s the women that are the clear show stealers. They have depth and gravitas, but also vibrancy – like Nandini in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam; they exude empathy and pathos, but also have a quiet strength – like Paro in Devdas; they are vulnerable and soft, but are also resilient – like Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani. As SLB confessed in a Film Companion interview to Anupama Chopra, the woman in an SLB movie is the love child of Guru Dutt and Meena Kumari. So as difficult as it was to choose one, I knew one character that represented all these attributes more than the others – Chandramukhi.
Devdas is a magnum opus inundated with a myriad of characters, each character played with aplomb by magnificent actors. It would have been easy for Chandramukhi to be eclipsed by the central characters or be grouped together with the prominent supporting cast. But such was the power of the character and the actor, that it often made me wonder if she deserved her own origin story. I have seen the movie a staggering 53 times! I grew up in a small town in India and we had no cable TV for a year. What we had instead was a DVD player on which I played Devdas every day after I got back from school. I waited with bated breath until Madhuri Dixit appeared on the screen as Chandramukhi. It is very difficult for me to distil the character from the actor, as it is the perfect swan song of Madhuri’s career (unless she outdoes this in the future). In many starry casts, you could easily replace the star with another actor and the end product would only be marginally different. But with Chandramukhi, no other actor other than Madhuri, could have essayed the character with the required dignity, grace, and earnestness. Even if it is the scene where Devdas encounters Chandramukhi for the first time, and it’s literally a glass-shattering moment, we all bought into it. Madhuri as Chandramukhi turned around with her heavy tresses that broke the mirror – it was simple science and physics, of course! However, it was anti-climactic at the end of the scene, when Devdas, guilty of narcissism throughout the movie, attributes the breaking of the mirror to himself. (Dev, get over yourself.)
It would be churlish to write about Chandramukhi without the mention of her glorious naach and ada. When she sashays down the stairs, bedecked in what will now be considered loud make-up and garish jewellery, donning a heavily adorned lehenga (60 pounds, they say), to a classical thumri in Kahe Chhed Mohe, she is pure rhapsodic perfection. Though every SLB frame is a work of art and every item in the frame has a purpose, the only “thing” that catches your attention is Madhuri dancing daintily to Late Pandit Birju Maharaj’s choreography. By the end of the song, if you are wondering why Devdas is still into Paro, you are not alone.
Even though everything looks glamorous and picture perfect in Chandramukhi’s courtesan world, I am sure it was anything but perfect. But this is a period piece and we love the grandiose world of SLB movies. If you are expecting realism, you are better off watching Dev D. Despite being a huge Chandramukhi fan, there are a few things she does that fail me – Dev is quite rude and arrogant (I originally used more colourful adjectives here) to her, yet she falls for him; he humiliates her at every given opportunity, yet she tries to win over him. For someone with the grit and courage that Chandramukhi had, I expected her to be more self-confident. There are glimpses of this confidence when she challenges Dev’s beliefs in a scene and implores him to understand the true meaning of pyaar, ishq, and mohabbat, and one can’t help but crave more of that feistiness. But I think that’s part of Chandramukhi’s charm – the frailty behind that façade. And also, the fact that she fell in love, and logic seldom has place in self-destructive love. That also explains why Chandramukhi the courtesan turns into a celibate, ascetic later in the movie.
Whatever be the shade, we loved Chandramukhi for all her choices – including the famous encounter with Paro. It seems like SLB took creative liberties and wrote the Paro – Chandramukhi tête-à-tête scene. I don’t blame him – if you have two of the most ethereal looking personas essaying two strong women characters, you have to put them in a frame and let sparks fly. And boy, did the sparks fly! And not just fly, they danced! Dola Re Dola was sheer poetry in motion – the sets, the colours, the synchronised choreography, the dynamic camera movement, and raw, unbridled emotion.
This movie will be immortalised as a classic – like Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah or K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam, and Chandramukhi will have a lion’s share in helping it achieve that glory.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.