Chandramushy at the triangle
Sanjay Leela Bhansali has turned Devdas, a
stellar moment in reformist Bengali literature, into
a glittering Summer Brides catalogue, writes AMEEN
Packaged and prettied like an Indian Summer Brides Catalogue, Devdas really is a designer wedding disaster, blindingly bright for all to see. As a literary adaptation it sets an entirely new record for cinematic kitsch and emptiness. Like cheap alcohol in a crystal decanter, Devdas numbs the brain and kills the senses quicker than you can say 'Is this for Real?'
So, when you get home,
you don't go to bed angry. A dull ache, and then a dissolve.
Instead, you wake up angry. And that's a shift. Not sleeping, but
waking with anger. Beats guilt or a hangover, any day. You seethe at
the crack of dawn. Ah, anger! Hold on to it. Rage is all this
travesty will leave you with.
London-returned aristocrat Devdas loves childhood sweetheart Paro. She does fun things with lamps, but she also comes from a background that's been around the block a couple of times (never mind that they are now so-so respectable and that their house is the size of Tasmania -- neon-pink stained-glass windows and all). Still, Debu's mother (a grudge holding matriarch) says, "Biha? No way, babu, not her" one evening after Paro's mother dances up a stormy proposal -- a veritable jewelry mart on mescalin. Deb's mommy doesn't budge. (You've got to see her to believe why anything else but stasis is an impossibility.) All this, while Deb and Paro practice some seriously precarious pot-carrying/thorn-removing gymnastics around a studio waterfall.
Something's got to give, to push this headache inducing infantalism into that painless zone - you ask, pray, silently plead. You are tired of pressing the glow button on your wristwatch.
And there's a god! Paro is married off.
Debu's a Dabbu. Paro or Mommy? Tough one, that one. Mommy wins.
And that's just to the intermission.
Like a true he-man, he hits the bottle. Enter Chandramukhi, harlot with a heart of gold (oh yes, in this one, the colour is in sync) who yearns for Dev like a tissue for a wet eye. No thanks, he says, somewhat ambivalently. I mean, she's hot, but he's strictly a one-woman-only kinda guy, and he's kicking himself for blowing off Paro. But that doesn't stop our new-lush-on-the-nukkad from sanctimonious posturing. He tells Chandramukhi to get out of the song-and-dance biz; she should have morals and, get some respect, he lectures.
That, besotted as the lady (er, tramp) is, only confirms her desire to be a lifetime supply of Kleenex for Debu the Droopy-eyed Drunk. Chandramushy is born. And that love thing -- it's no pal of commerce. But Chandra is happy to burn the black book; delirious at the prospect of cutting down her assignments. She's going to be a one-guy-only kinda gal too. Dev's Dasi. (aka Private Dancer).
Just when you think they might be considerate, raid all the minibars in the bordello and drink themselves to a stupor from which they will never awake, and that would be sad, but sill, that would be that -- Paro shows up. She doesn't want DebLush back. Oh no. She's made it big. Now married to a megabucks feudal lord, her new digs is bigger than Madagascar -- so she's not back looking for her tasmanian roots. She's actually from AA - or she could be. Her wish: Debu should quit hanging out and drinking with dancing girls and dead-beat louts. She wants to detox the dud. Ah! A narc in (old) love's clothing. But Deb's in some place neon. And no, he ain't leaving Las Vegas. Not yet, at least. He's still has to cough up blood, and that's another 20 minutes away.
And so he does -- on time (he's from vilayat, such a punctual, charming loser). He dumps Chandra, asking her to cool it for a bit, and takes a train to oblivion, or home or wherever -- just like the screenplay -- careless. Drinking more when he shouldn't, and coughing-up red stuff (oh yes, in this one, the colour is in sync) as he should, Debu finally shows up, boozeless and dehydrated, and dies at Paro's doorstep. His body cooks amid a plot strewn with -- yes! -- red, hybrid flowers. Paro runs for miles from one door to the other in the same house, then down many different stairways, gathering momentum, past all the fountains and pillars ever made by man, and flings her body against the closing gates. We don't find out the numerical count of fractures.
She's a tortured one, that one. But, by then, so are we, and we gave up caring a long time ago.
It's one heavy but liberating walk to the cinema's doors. And out. Dulled out of your skull by light and little else. Then it all comes back in the morning.
A seemingly superficial romance on the surface, Devdas, as a novel, was also a stellar moment in the modern, reformist movement in Bengali literature. Within the paradigm of a time-worn love triangle, it managed to explore societal subscriptions to retrograde belief systems. Among those it critiqued within its populist framework were the high priests of Casteism, the legacy of feudalism, the contracts between the landowners and the colonising British, and the prescribed (and proscribed) roles for Bengali/Indian women. Even within the Courtesan-Devi binary of Chandramukhi and Paro, the novel argued for an ascension in Casteism (with deluded sincerity) through the character of the latter, Paro, who though from a lower, stigmatised social order, is shown to rise to the upper-caste respectability with inter-caste matrimony.
Devdas, as protagonist, typified confused idealism and criminal indecisiveness. A Bengali Hamlet in some ways, without the dementia and oedipal overtones. As metaphor, he symbolised a tug between modernity (Britain) and tradition (Bengal) and the ambivalence that such a split produces. Some of it cowardly, and some of it noble. And all of it human. Devdas is also an indigenous literary specimen of a "popular" Bengali rennaissance, all within the covers of a paradoxical reformist-romance. Perhaps a good reason why Sarat Chandra, the author of the novel, enjoyed such a following and was so eagerly lapped up by the bourgeosie. Commercial and serialised as he was, he still brought in a communal "authenticity", lacing his works with a literary critique that was accessible to all -- and especially favoured by the burgeoning urban middle-class. His works combined Nostalgia and Newness, and were done with reasonable, if sentimental, refinement.
Devdas, the film, alarmingly, is an aesthete's nightmare. It is also everybody's suffering. The art direction is so drenched in gold and red you begin to squint halfway through the film (if you're still watching, that is.) Women (even the extras), saddled with trinkets and bracelets and all forms of fakery, are walking Tribhuvandas Zaveri galleries. The whole screen is filled with colour -- every frame, every shot -- saturated, like a smothering tie-dye and sequin airbag pressing on your face. Make that hot airbag. How many millions did they say?
Everything, including the camera angles, is loud. Monty, who bags special credit for background score, never lets up. If it is not "Dhe Re Na, Dhe Re Na Thathom Thathom Ad Nauseum" then it is some other sort of noise. After sometime you forget which is which. An unintentional blessing, admittedly -- you are able to zone out. Ismail Darbar's songs (Maar dala is well-picturised) also get lost in the brocades, silks, and oppressive razzle-dazzle mirror-work.
Given it's a wedding and all, you forgive Dixit and Rai (such pretty babes) for taking a shopping spree when they really should be acting. Oh, but girls will be girls, and show me a girl who doesn't like to shop. So Aish and Mads buy lipstick. Tons and tons of it. So much so, it makes you look at women of pre-independent India in a glam "so-cover-girl" light. Mark this one up as the beginning of desi "make-over" history. Khan does what he does best, which is: give yet another stuttery reprisal of an earlier (already) reprised performance. It's called "acting-as-syndication." But he doesn't care if you don't get it. He's set.
Poor, poor Sarat Chandra. He knew he had written a pop-sap-serial which somehow became a quasi-cult classic. But even he couldn't have envisioned it being reduced to such gilt-soaked drivel.
Considering director Sanjay Leela Bansali's visual addiction to anything even faintly ochre, one can only be thankful he held back, with uncharacteristic restraint no doubt, from calling it Midas. Still, don't touch this clunker.
Published on 2 August 2002
to the editor