Thursday, August 13, 2009

Devdas (2002)

After enjoying Jodhaa Akbar so much I couldn't help selecting another movie for the Indian Cinema Week at Lights Camera History and my choice was the 2002 adaptation of Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay's 1917 book Devdas. Set in the early 1900s, in Bengal, the story focuses on Devdas and Paro (Parvati), childhood friends who haven't seen each other for 10 years (because Devdas was sent to London to study) but that now meet again and acknowledge that their feelings are those of love and want to marry each other. Unfortunately there's fortune and class dividing them.

I already knew indian society's castes are a powerful barrier between people but here the obstacles seem to come more from money and social standing. Devdas' father is about to be knighted while Paro's father is a poorer man whose wife was a former dancer. Not only Devdas' mother mocks and humiliates Paro's mother when she comes to talk about a future marriage between the two but also Devdas' father is set against it due to their higher position in society and bigger fortune. Devdas always had a difficult relationship with his father and, now, an adult, keeps obeying him even when his orders are against what he wishes. Unable to face his father over Paro, Devdas chooses the easy way out and runs to the city where he meets the courtesan Chandramukhi and drowns his sorrows in alcohol. Paro, heartbroken over his actions, accepts an arranged marriage with an older man, even richer than Devdas' family.

Devdas is a movie about love. The forbidden love between Devdas and Paro but also the unrequited love of Chandramukhi for Devdas. You can imagine how much drama and heartache they all go through due to social conventions and following the acceptable behaviour. When the movie begins and Devdas arrives wearing western clothes I was reminded of those "film noirs" with dark themes that seldom had happy endings. But that's where the similarity ends as Devdas truly is an Indian movie, dealing with Indian traditions and customs and how they influence the life of the characters.

Devdas only seems to realise how much he loves Paro on the day of her marriage. Family honour is taken very seriously (especially after Devdas' mother belittled Paro's family) and there's no question for Paro of not going through with the marriage. After this Devdas continues his path towards self destruction. While Chandramukhi reveals her love in caring for him, Devdas seems unable to return her feelings, possibly because he is unable to forget Paro but also because of who she is, a courtesan can have no claim on his heart even if she is a very nice and sympathetic character who, apparently, hasn't chosen what she is and would probably be happier being something else. Her dialogue with Paro's son in law right after the Dola Re Dola song (which I've been singing in my head for days now) is proof enough of how low a status such women had and how much the double standard exists between the women forced into it and the men who visit them. It was also one of highlights of the movie in my opinion.

Paro and Chandramuckhi's friendship ends in embarrassment and in Paro's being ordered to obey the Purdah. Once again because social status and appearances have to be kept. While Devdas continues on his downward spiral of alcohol and self-destruction, he chooses a painful and slow death. Without giving away the ending (although it should be mentioned that this is a tragedy want to mention that Paro's final scenes running through the house are powerful and moving. In fact not only that final scene but the whole movie is beautifully filmed and the dance scenes are a perfect example of that. The movie was filmed with a big budget and it shows, a lot of work went into the costume's design and each characters was dressed according to their position in the story and in life, check for instance the difference between Paro's clothes before and after her marriage. Regarding the setting the action takes place predominantly in four places which are so differently decorated that we immediately identify them - besides the houses of Devdas and Paro's parents there's Chandramukhi's brothel and Paro's husband house. It's like the emotions are closed in in these spaces and, because of that, sharper and more painful but the decor is certainly lovely to look at. The whole movie is like a colourful extravaganza.

This was the third film I watched with Aishwarya Rai and I must say I really liked seeing her in this and have realised she is also a wonderful dancer. However, who really blew me away was Madhuri Dixit, lovely woman, gifted dancer (she is a trained Kathak dancer) and the one whose performance surprised me the most, especially after I discovered she used a dress weighing 30 kg and another weighing 16 kg in some scenes and still managed to look natural. This was also my first introduction to Shahrukh Kahn, also known as Bollywood's King Khan, which gives an idea of his influence in the industry. I found his performance to be a nice piece of overacting (I have yet to discover if it was just for this role or if he is always like this), not to mention that he looks a bit too old and cheesy for the part. However if you can get past the exaggeration you can see that it's probably part of his charm and image. And maybe it is in fact the type of acting that best suits Devdas as the ultimate tragic hero. He is the one who gives up on his happiness with Paro and ultimately can't even accept Chandramukhi's love and get away from the misery and despair that fill his life.

A beautiful and very sad movie. Recommended!

This is my third entry for the Period Drama Challenge in the All Over The World (India) Category.

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