Devdas (Kundan Lal Saigal) falls in love with Parvati (Jamuna) with whom he has played since childhood and who is the daughter of a poor neighboring family. Devdas goes away to Calcutta for University studies. Meanwhile, Parvati’s father arranges her marriage to a much older man. Though she loves Devdas, she obeys her father to suffer in silence like a dutiful Hindi wife. Devdas, as a result, takes to drink. Chandramukhi (Rajkumari), a dancing girl he has befriended in Calcutta, falls for him and gives up her profession to try and save him. Parvati, hearing of his decline, comes to see him to steer him away from a life of drinking. Devdas sends her back saying in his hour of final need he will come to her. She returns to her life of duty. Realizing his end is near, Devdas decides to keep his promise and meet Parvati. He journeys all night, reaches her house, and is found dead outside the high walls of her house. Inside, Parvati hears about his death…
Devdas, based on a popular Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee revolutionized the entire look of Indian social pictures. Rather than just translate one medium to another, director PC Barua uses the novel as just raw material, creating his own structure and transforming what was purely verbal into an essentially visual form. Avoiding stereotypes and melodrama, Barua raises the film to a level of noble tragedy. The film’s characters are not heroes and villains but ordinary people conditioned by a rigid and crumbling social system. Even the lead character Devdas has no heroic dimensions to his character. What we see are his weaknesses, his narcissism, his humanity as he is torn by driving passion and inner-conflict.
The film is a complete departure from the then prevalent theatricality in acting, treatment and dialogue that one saw in Indian cinema of the 1930s. Barua initiates a style of acting that is natural and unaffected. His method is to underplay, to convey emotion through the slightest tremor of the voice and use significant pauses in between the dialogue to maximum effect. This naturalness of tone spills over to the dialogue as well. Rather than dialogue in a florid style as was prevalent then, Barua, who had been exposed to European naturalistic trends, ensures the dialogue in the film, written by Kidar Sharma, is what one speaks in real life.
In fact, there is a refreshing economy of style is visible throughout the film, whether establishing the love between Devdas and Parvati or conveying his anguish through the piercing sounds of the speeding train that takes him on his final tragic tryst with Parvati. The great physical distance that separates them is skillfully conveyed through some stunning use of parallel cutting. The sequence of Devdas crying out in delirium, Parvati stumbling and then Devdas falling from his berth in the train was commended for its essential ‘Indianness’ in conveying fate’s domination over individual destiny.
Kundan Lal Saigal played Devdas in the Hindi version (Barua himself played the role in the Bengali version that also came out the same year) and the film took him to cult star status. His songs in the film Balam Aaye Baso Mere Man Mein and Dukh Ke Ab Din became smash hits and set the tone for a glorious filmic career till his death in 1947. Saigal remains the prototype of Devdas for old timers till today, no mean feat considering screen giants such as Dilip Kumar, A Nageshwara Rao and Soumitra Chatterjee reprised the role later. Jamuna, Barua’s wife, makes a fine impression as Parvati, coming into the film when Barua could not get the services of Kanan Devi. Talking about the songs, Saigal had a sore throat at the time of recording, which forced him to sing the songs in a quieter, softer tone. Fortunately, it went perfectly with Barua’s cinematic style and helps the film greatly.
Devdas established Barua as a front rank filmmaker and New Theatres as a major studio. The Bombay Chronicle hailed it as, “…a brilliant contribution to the Indian Film Industry. One wonders as one sees it when shall we have another.” Barua went on to produce numerous popular films but was always referred to as the man who made Devdas right till his dying day! When he passed away in 1951, the journal of the Bengal Motion Picture Association wrote, “Pramathesh Chandra Barua, creator of Devdas, died at 4 pm on Thursday, November 29, last at his Calcutta residence after protracted illness. He was 48.”
Devdas has been adapted a number of times. Amongst others, New Theatres remade it in Tamil in 1936. Another Tamil version came out in 1953, while it was made twice in Telugu in 1953 and 1974 but the most famous subsequent version was perhaps the one by Bimal Roy, who had photographed Barua’s versions earlier. The film, made in 1955, starred Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala as Devdas, Parvati and Chandramukhi respectively. The undercurrent of Devdas also runs strong in the central character in both of Guru Dutt’s major works – Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). In fact, Dutt’s filmmaker character is making Devdas as his dream film in Kaagaz Ke Phool.
With the moving times, even though the character of Devdas, who drank himself to death for love, became outdated and archaic, and modern heroes now did everything in their power to get their love, filmmakers kept returning to Devdas. Writer-Director Gulzar started his own version of the film in the 1970s with Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Sharmila Tagore in the three lead roles but was unable to complete it. Shakti Samanta directed an extremely weak Bengali adaptation with Prosenjit playing Devdas in 2002 while Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s version of the film, also made in 2002, with Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit in the three lead roles was a huge disappointment – a wasteful extravaganza, which is contrived, garish, loud and melodramatic with serious illusions of grandeur.
Hindi, Drama, Black & White