Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas has turned seventeen now. For a generation, it is this eponymous retelling of the famous doomed lover from literature that we identify with when it comes to big screen adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s 1917 novel. Starring actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit and Jackie Shroff, Bhansali’s Devdas is all about grandeur. Its sheer scale set precedence for period films in India. Films like Bhansali’s own Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat and the recent mega budget debacle called Kalank all find the roots for their lavish sets, painfully heavy period costumes and certain style of dialogue delivery in this prototype. But the journey of Devdas from the rich labyrinths of Bengali literature to the numerous adaptations it has seen and innumerable characters of doomed male lovers it has spawned is also telling of our obsession with self-destructive lovers.

SOME TAKEAWAYS:

  • Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas has turned 17.
  • For a generation, this is the adaptation that we identify with when it comes to Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s 1917 novel.
  • While Bhansali’s Devdas is memorable for its grandeur, it is also the cinema’s ode to the self-destructive tragic hero, we have loved for decades.
  • But aren’t romanticising self-centred individual who cannot see beyond their own pain.

Even today I cannot help but be mesmerised by the dialogues, scale and dramatics of the 2002 film. The sweeping manors, Dixit’s rich costumes and sheer attention to detail in every frame (case in point the diya that Aishwarya holds in her hands in a dance sequence)

Bhansali’s Devdas used to be, and still remains one of my guilty cinematic pleasures. Many have criticised it for being over-dramatic, loud, and how its dialogue baazi doesn’t do justice to its source material. According to my uncle the film, despite its scale, can never match the standards in performance and craft set by the 1935 Bengali film Devdas starring KL Saigal and the 1955 film by the same name starring Dilip Kumar, which was directed by Bimal Roy. Though I cannot help but be mesmerised by the dialogues, scale and dramatics of the 2002 film. The sweeping manors, Dixit’s rich costumes and sheer attention to detail in every frame (case in point the diya that Aishwarya holds in her hands in a dance sequence). It takes love, labour and patience to craft something so exquisite. And while many films have surpassed it on those parameters, the template still captures me.

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But the toxic and self destructive lover that Devdas, both films and book, brings to us is something which doesn’t strike a chord today. In the modern and sensitised times that we live in, with films still glorifying self harm in the name of suffering in love, one wonders if it is time to put this doomed hero to rest, or do more positive spins on it, like Kashyap did in Dev D. The Abahy Deol starrer modern take on Devdas has a happy ending, something which we have never associated before the film came out, with this perpetually doomed character.

The toxic and self destructive lover that Devdas, both films and book, brings to us is something which doesn’t strike a chord today.

Devdas basically drinks himself to death when circumstances lead to his childhood love being married off to another man. It is a glorification of the belief that life loses its meaning and isn’t worth living if you can’t be with your one true love. The lead character wallows in gloom, puts his loved ones through misery and wrecks his own life, because he is too self-centred, frankly. The only thing that he cares about is his pain. Perhaps the story made sense in an era when love was considered sacred. When people believed that you can only fall in love once, a myth that Khan’s character is seen spouting in the 1998 film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Thus it seems fitting to lose all hope when you lot that one true love.

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We have seen this romanticisation of self-destruction in love so many Hindi films over decades. Doomed lovers committing suicide in Ek Duje Ke Lie, Nandini slashing her wrists in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Radhe going back to the institution for mentally challenged patients after learning that his lover has committed suicide in Tere Naam and the many songs in which lovers claim that life isn’t worth living after their loved one’s exit from it. These were all the staples that we grew up on before the turn of the millennium. And while we have more rational portrayals of love in films today, you only have to go a few weeks back to know that the legend of doomed lover still lurches in our films, albeit in a different guise. He does drugs, threatens women with a knife for casual sex, but what remains constant is that bitterness.

The absence of a loved one isn’t essentially the absence of love.

Today, love is more practical. Love isn’t life, it is a part of our lives. It can make you miserable and even self destructive, as we still see among many men and women, but then it has got to do with your individual understanding of love. Must a failed relationship turn you into a drunkard? Should an unfinished relationship only fill you with pain? Does suffering make love pure? Or is it possible that Bollywood has romanticised self-destruction and suffering so much that we want to believe in it desperately.

The absence of a loved one isn’t essentially the absence of love. If you have to take inspiration from movies on how to take a rejection or break up, then better look at the 2007 film Jab We Met. So fulfilling is Aditya’s love for Geet that he feels her presence in his life despite her absence. He is happy in just basking in his love for her. Another fine example of unfulfilled love is Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, a highly underrated gem in my opinion, in which Rahul and Riana remain friends despite the latter rejecting former’s proposal. We need more Rahuls and Adityas today, and not another Devdas who is in love with the idea of suffering.

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Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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