Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali novel Devdas has inspired filmmakers across languages in the 100 years since its publication. The list of directors who have adapted and interpreted the melancholic story of romantic loss leading to alcohol and death include Bimal Roy, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Anurag Kashyap in Hindi, Vedantam Raghavaiah and Vijaya Nirmala in Telugu, and Dilip Roy, Chashi Nazrul Islam and Shakti Samanta in Bengali. PC Barua made three versions, in Bengali (1935), Hindi (1935) and Assamese (1937).
The latest director to turn to Devdas is Sudhir Mishra. His March 23 release Daas Dev sets the drama amidst Uttar Pradesh politics. Mishra will present the story in reverse – from a nearly-doomed heartbroken and addiction-prone lover to a leader.
The soundtrack, comprising songs by five composers, includes a tune that speaks directly to Mishra’s interpretation of the novel. The track is a departure from the long-standing tradition of torch songs that express the novel’s themes of themes of unrequited love and fatal affliction. Sehmi Hai Dhadkan, composed by Vipin Patwa, sung by Atif Aslam and written by Dr Sagar, argues that it is futile to get strung up about the cruelties of fate. If the heart is afraid, so be it.
The songs in all Devdas adaptations mirror the interpretation of the directors, especially with regard to the titular tragic hero and the empathy they feel for him.
PC Barua’s second Devdas movie, made in 1935 in Hindi and starring KL Saigal as the alcoholic and Jamuna as his childhood sweetheart Paro, includes Chhute Aseer Toh. The song, composed by Timir Baran, tenderly examines the chasm between Devdas’s expectations and reality. Paro’s marriage sends Devdas into an existential spiral. Kedarnath Sharma’s lyrics for Chhute Aseer reflect this gloom: the garden that once filled me with pride no longer exists; the branch upon which my nest found its place is no longer there. Sung by Pahadi Sanyal in the quarters of the courtesan Chandramukhi who shelters Devdas, the song empathises with his ruined dreams.
What was indeed going on in Devdas’s mind? Telugu filmmaker Vedantam Raghavaiah crawls inside his tormented head in his 1953 adaptation Devadasu with the song Kudi Yedamaithe, sung by Ghantasala with lyrics by CR Subbaraman.
After realising the consequences of his actions, Devdas plunges into a sea of self-pity and consoles himself by saying that he isn’t to blame. He dramatically distracts himself from the happy memories of his childhood, makes the case for being anchor-less in the middle of a sea, and embarks on his road to ruin. Dishevelled and drunk, Devadas (Akkineni Nageshwara Rao) walks across a bare forest with a bottle in his hand, trying to convince himself of fate’s irreversible ways.
Devdas’s inability to come to grips with his reality and take charge of his destiny are beautifully expressed in Bimal Roy’s 1955 adaptation, starring Dilip Kumar as Devdas, Suchitra Sen as Paro and Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi. Roy uses the song Jise Tu Qubool Karle, sung by Lata Mangeshkar, composed by SD Burman and written by Sahir Ludhianvi, to voice the lament of Chandramukhi, who yearns to find a solution to Devdas’s predicament. Vyjayanthimala performs the song beautifully, beginning with a dance in which she embodies the pain she knows Devdas is reeling from. Jise Tu Qubool Karle is another song of empathy for Devdas.
The separation from Paro, brought on by the differences in social status and his family’s inability to accept her, is one of the reasons for Devdas’s ruin. The song that nicely captures the relationship between the star-crossed lovers is Bairi Piya from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002). Bairi Piya is yet another song that radiates compassion as well as resignation. Sung from Paro’s point of view, the song talks about Devdas’s emotional and physical cruelty with anger and sorrow.
The two ex-lovers regress to their childhood selves as they run across the richly textured poolside in Devdas’s bungalow. Paro even lovingly laughs at Devdas’s ability to accept defeat easily in the face of adversity, which is cleverly alluded to in the moment when he attempts and subsequently gives up trying to unlock her bangle.
The only other director to call out Devdas’s narcissism and self-pity is Anurag Kashyap. His 2009 adaptation Dev D and composed by Amit Trivedi, includes the song Duniya, which points out that no matter how far Devdas runs, he has to come back home some day and confront his problems.
Shellee’s lyrics – Agdam tigdam, dekh tamasha, jee jee jee jee jee, hai duniya, yeh duniya badi gol hai – underscore the sentiment. The song begins when Dev goes on a road trip after his father’s death. His need for an escape from his inner turmoil is cut short by illness brought on by his alcoholism. By the end of the song, he is on his way back home.
At the end of his film, Kashyap gives Dev a fresh lease of life, and suggests a new beginning with Chandramukhi. Unlike other adaptations, death isn’t Devdas’s fate. Kashyap asks him to get a move on.