Every Play Has Two Acts: Devdas on its 15th Anniversary
Melodrama is often seen as an inferior genre for film fans. That’s probably because most modern directors don’t know how to do melodrama properly. Of course there’s an element of the “for women” stigma that beleaguers most woman-oriented media. But melodrama is its own genre, with very particular trappings, ideologies, visual design, and cinematic style. It’s not enough just to have a heightened plot and extreme performances—the tension of the film has to be complemented by a visual flair unique to the genre. Few modern directors understand high melodrama like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the auteur who brings theatricality and soundstage beauty to his films. He has a knack for elegant camerawork, lavish production design, soulful music, and directing actors in these gorgeous melodramas.
While Bhansali has made a number of successful films, for me his crowning achievement is Devdas, based on the Bengali novella by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Devdas stars the Bollywood power trio of Aishwarya Rai, Shah Rukh Khan, and Madhuri Dixit, The film was a financial success in 2002, and won 10 Filmfare Awards and 5 National Film Awards (two of India’s most prestigious voting bodies). The soundtrack by composer Ismail Darbar and lyricist Nusrat Badr was really popular, with its complex classical orchestrations that had mainstream appeal. The soundtrack also introduced Shreya Ghoshal, who is now of one India’s most versatile and prolific songbirds. Devdas was a huge deal and continues to be a 21st century classic.
Devdas is a tragic love story about two people from different classes who are torn apart. The film deals with themes of hypocrisy, pride, classism, obsession, and unrequited love. Devdas (Khan) and Paro (Rai) are kept apart by his upper-class mother Kaushalya (Smita Jaykar) and his own pride. Paro’s mother Sumitra (Kirron Kher, in perhaps the film’s most dynamic performance) comes from a lower class, which is why Kaushalya can’t allow the marriage. Humiliated, Sumitra marries Paro to an even richer family, and Devdas runs off to Calcutta. There he becomes an alcoholic while taking up with a kind courtesan Chandramukhi (Dixit).
For many, the highlight of the film is the dance duet between Paro and Chandramukhi, “Dola re dola.” The song brings together Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit, two of Bollywood’s top stars who are both very famous for their dancing. It’s an incredible dance number, with heart-stopping choreography and fluid camerawork. Narratively, the song is quite powerful bringing the women in Devdas’s life together (in the novella and previous film versions, the characters never meet). The dance numbers are all exquisitely filmed. Bhansali takes great care to make his musical number matter thematically and cinematically. Devdas was notable at the time for its inventive camera angles, and sweeping camerawork by Binod Pradhan, not just in the musical numbers but throughout the film’s many dramatic confrontations.
The class conflict depicted in the film is a classic melodrama plot. People in love are pulled apart. Pride and vanity get in the way of honest emotion. Bhansali lets these heightened emotions play out against a beautiful backdrop and with poetic, wrenching dialogue. Devdas also explores classism through performance. Paro is lower-class because her mother descended from dancing girls. Chandramukhi performs as a courtesan. Even Paro is looked down upon by her in-laws after the “Dola re dola” number. Devdas judges Chandramukhi, even though he does not think he does. The class conflict in the film provides the film with its most gun-punching scenes. One of the most powerful moments in Devdas is Sumitra’s warning: “Every play has two acts! In act one, my daughter and I danced. Now you and your son will dance!”
Devdas is my favorite Hindi film of all time, and one of my top 10 films from any country. Aishwarya Rai is my favorite Bollywood actor, and her performance here is compelling. Rai is often criticized for over-acting (even I can admit she is usually capital-A Acting) but her instincts as an actor are finely tuned to the world Bhansali is creating. Madhuri Dixit is warm and charming, but her striking, commanding screen presence comes out in certain scenes. Shah Rukh Khan plays up Devdas’s pathetic self-delusions and makes such a despicable character engaging and empathetic.
It’s somewhat easy to dismiss melodrama as a genre because when done poorly it is manipulative and superficial. A properly executed melodrama, like Devdas or the work of Douglas Sirk and Pedro Almodovar can feel like pure cinema. Melodrama can highlight emotional truths through expressive filmmaking, through the union of sound and scene, and through the amplified performances. Devdas offers a gorgeous expression of what melodrama can achieve as a cinematic genre.