The serpentine streets of Paharganj, teem and throb with people, bullock carts, honking horns, rattling motorcycles spewing black fumes and the collective hum of a million voices. This Delhi neighbourhood is a hub of European and Israeli budget travellers. But in director Anurag Kashyap’s next film Dev D, it is a microcosm of the world, a locus that propels the story and its characters.
From the panoramic view, his camera zooms into one corner of the frame, a run-down balcony where Chandramukhi, in between puffs of a cigarette, curiously looks out on to the streets. The interiors of the brothel where the college girl lives and works, her clothes and make-up are a riot of colours, mostly hues of pink. Kashyap’s Chandramukhi (the character decides to adopt that name while watching Madhuri Dixit in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas) seems strikingly different from the Chandramukhi that Hindi film lovers have come to know from the many film versions of Devdas. Here, she comes across as sassy, even mean, yet deep and knowing. So, will she be the same self-sacrificing Chandramukhi we know?
Audiences will have to wait until the film—the 12th or 13th interpretation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s 1901 novel in celluloid—is released. Produced by UTV Spotboy Films, it’s now in post-production, scheduled to be released in early 2009. “My film isn’t true to the book at all, nor to any of the film versions. Here three parallel stories converge and they move through music. This Devdas is about brats; the kind of rich city guys who make headlines by being reckless. Paro is a village girl and Chandramukhi is a very young girl who’s hardened by her experiences,” says Kashyap, director of Black Friday (2007) and No Smoking (2008), sitting in his suburban Mumbai office where, in a small editing set-up, the first rushes of the film are being processed and worked on.
Chitrangada Singh plays Chandramukhi in Mishra’s film, set against a political backdrop.
Kashyap’s isn’t the only take on Devdas we’ll see next year. Sudhir Mishra, director of Dharavi (1992), Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003) and Khoya Khoya Chand (2008), is recreating Devdas against a political backdrop, where the protagonist (played by Shiney Ahuja, Mishra’s preferred actor in his recent films) is a puppet in a political drama. Chandramukhi, to be played by Chitrangada Singh, is a socialite, a keeper of dark secrets; and Paro (Lara Dutta) works for a rival political party. Shooting for the as yet untitled film will start in a couple of months. Says Mishra: “Devdas is just a take-off point, like Westside Story, which is directly linked to Romeo and Juliet. I also go into Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I think when Sarat Chandra wrote Devdas in 1901, he must have had Hamlet in mind.”
Tragic hero, underdog, outcast—somewhere among all these iterations lies Devdas’ universal appeal and our continuing fascination with him. Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, who wrote it when he was just 21, once confessed that Devdas was his worst novel. But ever since director P.C. Barua made the second film version in 1935 with K.L Saigal in the lead role, there’s been no looking back—more than 10 versions have been made, in Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Tamil and Telugu. Bhansali’s version in 2002 put Devdas back in the public imagination, with Shah Rukh Khan essaying a shrill, histrionics-filled avatar, closest in interpretation to Dilip Kumar’s take in Bimal Roy’s 1953 remake, Devdas.
Every director remains convinced that there’s something that he (no woman director has taken it up yet) can add to this story: Devdas, a zamindar’s son, meets his childhood sweetheart Paro after returning home from studying in England. The lower-caste Paro is married into another family because Devdas’ father considers her unworthy to be his son’s wife. Heartbroken, but unable to protest, Devdas takes to the bottle and leaves for Kolkata, where he meets Chandramukhi, a courtesan who falls hopelessly in love with him. From there, his journey descends into bouts of alcoholism, disease, self-destruction, depression and, inevitably, death.
Theatre actor Kalki as Chandramukhi in Kashyap’s Dev D.
“Kaun kambakht peeta hai bardasht karne ke liye? Main to peeta hoon taki saans le sakoon... Tumhe bardasht kar sakoon.” (“Who on earth drinks so that he can bear it all, anyway? I drink just so that I can breathe... So that I can tolerate you.”)
Variations of this dialogue appear in all the remakes—Devdas, in a drunken stupor, mocking Chandramukhi because she’s a courtesan and, at the same time, wallowing in his own sorrow and self-pity. Will this soppy, weak man strike a chord with today’s audiences? “It will, because no matter what age, we are melodramatic people. Devdas works especially because it’s a male who is so weak. We are used to brave, virtuous heroes,” says Kashyap. Rinki Bhattacharya, daughter of director Bimal Roy—who was a young girl besotted by Dilip Kumar when her father was filming Devdas, says: “It was a film that everybody had been looking forward to. And it opened to packed houses. Dilip Kumar was confused about how to portray the character, but eventually, when the film came out, it was as if he was cut out for this role. It was very romantic.”
Every generation has embraced Devdas according to its spirit and values. Film historian B.D. Garga, who has authored many books on Indian cinema, believes that when P.C. Barua’s film was made, this story of a young aristocrat’s unhappy love was seen primarily as a violent protest against arranged marriages.
Today’s makers have an equally valid claim. Pritish Nandy, CEO of Pritish Nandy Communications that is producing Mishra’s film, says: “We were convinced that the last remake of Devdas was clichéd, boring and did no justice to the power of the Sarat Chandra story. The power of the original story lay in its austerity of form, narrative and visual potential, which Bimal Roy caught so well in his version, and so did many other much older versions.” In their version, Nandy and Mishra hope to bring back a gritty edge, if one exists, to the character.
And, true to the zeitgeist, Devdas may not even die.