The seventeenth film adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali novel Devdas is tellingly titled, Aur Devdas. And therein lies a clue about the story’s adaptability time and again. There are two ways of reading it: as either one more Devdas, or, in the more loosely informed manner of asking, what else is happening, Devdas?
What more does Devdas have to offer that filmmakers keep returning to it? Do audiences never tire of it?
Sudhir Mishra, director of this version, likens it to the works of Shakespeare. Quite like Romeo and Juliet, one could say, which has possibly been made over a hundred times in as many languages. Mishra goes one step further, dedicating his version of Aur Devdas to the bard.
“It’s a dramatic film. I’ve dedicated the film to Sarat Chandra babu and Shakespeare. The Shakespeare that was stuck in me for several years is not any specific Shakespearean play. But his overall understanding of life forms the major part of the film. It’s set in India’s political atmosphere and it’s a very political film,” he said at a screenwriting meet recently. The film stars Rahul Bhat, Richa Chadda and Aditi Rao Hydari.
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel was first published in 1917, and the first adaptation was a silent film in 1927. Then the prince-turned-actor-director PC Barua made it into a Bengali talkie in 1935, with himself in the lead.
The next year, he cast singer Kundan Lal Saigal (who was seen in the Bengali version as a harmonium player) as the doomed hero, and re-made it in Hindi. That’s when the story of Devdas found a national audience (watch a superb print here). But not quite content with his output on the subject, Barua went on to film it in Assamese the following year, achieving a hat-trick of sorts in his obsession with Devdas. One more adaptation cropped up in 1936, this time in Tamil, with Saigal singing in Tamil!
In 1953, the story was filmed as Devadasu and released in Tamil and Telugu. It became the first recipient of the Filmfare Award for Best Film South.
Bimal Roy, who had assisted PC Barua, took up the challenge of telling Devdas’s story once more. This is when the story of Devdas (1955) started turning to putty in the hands of its director. Taking artistic liberties of interpretation, Roy inserted a crucial scene not in the book.
The book’s two female characters, Paro and Chandramukhi, never meet. But in Roy’s version, they cross each other’s paths, although not a word is exchanged between them, played by Suchitra Sen and Vyjanthimala, respectively. This was the beginning of the end of faithful adaptations. Still, the film, starring Dilip Kumar and its enigmatic heroines, was a critical triumph, winning both National and Filmfare awards.
Later, Anurag Kashyap would fleetingly dwell on this very scene in his version, Dev.D (2009) where the two women cross each other’s paths at a railway station. Sanjay Leela Bhansali would, of course, make it a sub-plot involving a dance-off between the lovely ladies in Devdas (2002).
What about the woman’s point of view, though? When Telugu actress Vijaya Nirmala decided to cast her husband Krishna Ghattamaneni – known popularly as Superstar Krishna – in the tragic avatar (Devadasu, 1974), with her playing his childhood sweetheart, Paro. It flopped. Yet, the story of Devdas continued, going in for the bizarre, in Devadasu Malli Puttadu (1978), where Devdas dies and is re-incarnated to meet an old, lovelorn Paro!
Further adaptations were seen in Bengal, Kerala and Chennai. But the story wasn’t confined geographically to the regional belts of India. It was turned into films at least twice in Bangladesh and twice in Pakistan as well.
Mishra sums it up when he describes his version. “This Paro carries a difference, she is not the one who after the interval accepts that her situation would just be like this. She’s grappling with her hardships. This Devdas not just dies under the influence of alcohol, but is struggling with his life. This Chandramukhi is something else. The story is different though the characters are the same.”
The intermission, something of an Indian cinematic invention, is the make or break point deciding the fate of movies in this country. It’s when the filmmaker decides how to twist the plot. It is when the audience decides if they want to go back to it. Aur what is left of Devdas to discover?