It was early 2000… Shah Rukh Khan had signed Devdas but hadn’t started shooting for it yet. He admitted he didn’t know much about Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s iconic character who’d played muse to many filmmakers, apart from the fact that he was an alcoholic who’d killed himself for love.
“I love with a lot of heart too,” he said. “For me love is like the words of the poem: ‘To see her is to love her... To love her but forever...’ I don't think I’d die for love but I can get very sad in love. That’s something Devdas and I share.”
Shah Rukh admitted later that for almost a year, through the making of the film, he’d been really sad. Many laughed it off as promotional hype, but I believed him. One late afternoon, I’d dropped by at Film City to meet him. He was lying under a tree. The last rays of the sun filtering through the branches lingered on his vacant, open eyes and sighed over a love lost. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s camera zoomed in for a close-up before he shouted a much satisfied, “Cut! Print!”
Slowly, Shah Rukh rose from the ‘dead’ to return to the world of the living and dissect the man whose life he was re-living. “His name, Devdas, reflects his tragedy… Dev (God) to one woman and das (slave) of another,” he explained with a wry smile that mirrored the haunted depths of his soul. I remembered Sanjay saying he’d zeroed in on him because he had sad eyes and a mad man’s energy.
The energy is there for all to see. The man barely sleeps; his mind on an over-drive even when he’s still. But the sadness is masked by neon-bright smiles, witty wisecracks and the famous SRK charm. But sometimes, a stray word or a wayward look reflects the pain of a superstar who all these years has had to share his success with the stars he believes to be his parents sparkling down at him from the velvety sky.
At the age of 15, Shah Rukh lost his father, Taj Mohammed, to cancer, then, his mother, Lateef Fatima, to multi-organ failure, just before Bollywood made him its own. I recall him raising the first trophy he ever received to the heavens above with a heart-felt, “This one is for you mom.”
The pain of loss has haunted Sanjay too. His father was a filmmaker who made films like Lootere and introduced his sister, Bela Saigal, and him to his fantasy world through classics like Mughal-E-Azam. In an interview to my Screen editor Bhawana Somaiya in 2002, he had confided that his father had died from over-consumption of alcohol and his mother had kept the last unconsumed bottle in her cupboard as a memory of the man she’d loved and lost. His own memories were linked to his father’s last moments when, lying comatose on the hospital bed, he’d unconsciously reached for his Leela’s hand. Their fingers had touched and held… And for Sanjay, that was the beginning of Devdas.
Ten years have gone by and suddenly, Devdas is in the news again. After being voted one of the 100 Best Films of World Cinema by Empire magazine, it’s now made it, at No 8, to Times Magazines 10 Greatest Movies of the Millennium list. And it has even enthused Sanjay into considering a 3D version to commemorate a decade with Devdas.
I can already see Paro saris and Chandramukhi cholis back in vogue. I can hear Devdas saying, “Kaun kambakht bardasht karne ko peeta hai, hum to peete hain ki yahan par bhaith sakein, tumhein dekh sakein, tumhain bardasht kar sakein…’ And I can hope that this time, Sanjay and Shah Rukh won’t be quite so sad!