Under a tree Shah Rukh Khan lies stretched out, dead to the world. The camera zooms in on his unseeing eyes. “Cut! Print!” shouts Sanjay Leela Bhansali from behind the camera. Devdas returns to life and joins me under another tree, a few feet away. The lips smile, but the eyes are sad. He says, “I think the name Devdas really epitomises this character. He’s ‘Dev’ (God) to one woman, the ‘das’ (servant) of another, and doesn’t get either. It’s a sad story, and I’ve been sad for almost a year.”
A decade later, Nasreen Munni Kabeer, who has just come out with The Dialogue Of Devdas: Bimal Roy’s Immortal classic, agrees with the interpretation of Shah Rukh who released the book. “When I saw Devdas (1955) in London in the ’60s, it was swimming in melancholy,” Nasreen reminisces. “But when I revisited it in the ’70s, I had an impression of journeys. Devdas’s story unfolds through a series of meetings and partings. He’s a man wanting to belong and yet never settling anywhere.”
‘Kaun hai mera is duniya mein? (Who do I have to call in this world to call my own?)… Haan, mera sab koi hai. Main hi kisi ka nahin (Yes I have many, but I belong to no one)’. This Rajinder Singh Bedi dialogue made Nasreen choose this film for her series of dialogue books. What made it interesting for her was that it was not only a great work of literature, but since Bedi was a published novelist, he lent a different flavour to the screen vocabulary.
She goes on to talk about Chandramukhi, the prostitute with the heart of gold. She loves selflessly, unconditionally, and was an appealing part of Hindi cinema till the 1980s. “The first time they meet, she looks at him and Devdas looks away. Chandramukhi is intrigued by his undisguised disinterest and her inner transformation begins,” explains Nasreen. “She gives up her rich clothes and jewels, her profession, and seeks redemption, finding it through her love for this man that ultimately becomes the love of God. Vyjayanthimala breathed life into Chandramukhi. She was so mature that it surprised me to learn later that Devdas was only her second Hindi film after Naagin (1954).”
It had surprised me to learn from another writer, Nabendu Ghosh, who had penned the Devdas screenplay, that Vyjayanthimala had not been the first choice for the role. Bimal Roy had wanted Nargis but she wanted to play Paro. So did Suraiya, Madhubala and several others he approached. Only Vyjanthimala was ready to play the ‘other woman’.
“She was not Sarat babu’s (novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee) Chandramukhi, but because the distributors wanted a star, we cast her.
In the original story, Chandramukhi is older than Devdas and not a dancer. We turned her into one and made her younger as a concession to Vyjayathimala’s talent as a danseuse and her age. But that apart, we did not make any changes from the original,” Ghosh told me.
What continued to change was the cast. Every actor wanted to play Paro. Roy wanted only Meena Kumari. But apparently, her filmmaker husband, Kamal Amrohi, objected to Dilip Kumar’s casting. He signed Bengali matinee idol Suchitra Sen instead. “When I ran into Meena Kumari soon after, she had tears in her eyes, having learnt that Suchitra was playing the role she had her heart set on,” admitted Ghosh.
Even though she was the second choice, Suchitra Sen made an ethereally beautiful Paro on whose chand-like face Devdas would want to leave a mark on. When he scars her in anger she asks, “Yeh tumne kya kiya, Devdas? (What have you done, Devdas).” The words are a repeat from an earlier scene when Devdas’s inner conscience admonishes him for falsely writing that he never loved her. “It’s a story of unfulfilled passion, but with many fascinating layers, which is perhaps why filmmakers down the decades have been driven to retell it, offering a window to the society and times they live in,” says Nasreen. She imagines the next reel-life Devdas to be living in New York, Paro in Bronx, and the two meeting online on shaadi.com.
Maybe that will happen too. But the next Devdas, I’ve learnt from Wikipedia, releases this year and will be a Bengali film in colour. It will be made in Bangladesh with Shakib Khan, Apu Miswas and Moushumi playing the three protagonists.
Love, it is often said, knows no barriers of religion or region. Devdas would agree!