The Dialogue of Devdas: Bimal Roy's Immortal Classic Introduction & translation: Nasreen Munni Kabir
Om books international- films
Rs. 695 pp 288
Writing about Devdas in 1991, film critic Chidananda Dasgupta wrote: Saratchandra Chattopadhyay wrote this novel at the age of 17. It is surprising that this immature piece of fiction should have created such an archetypal hero, a romantic self-indulgent weakling who finds solace in drink and the bosom of a golden-hearted prostitute.
This view of Devdas is fairly common so what explains the popularity of this character who, over the last nine decades, has been repeatedly invoked through cinematic re-makes? The Dialogue of Devdas based on Bimal Roys 1955 classic allows the cinephile to return to the film and ponder these questions one more time.
The concept of the Dialogue book series has been pioneered by writer and filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir and includes Mughal-E-Azam (K Asif), Awaara (Raj Kapoor), Mother India (Mehboob Khan) and Pyaasa (Guru Dutt). In an age overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the image, the Dialogue books invite us to encounter the written word and be attentive to the style, structure and language of the screenplay that constitutes the spine of the film. This is instructive at a time when few scripts can sustain either the film or the viewer for the entire length. The screenplay of Devdas is authored by Nabendu Ghosh, an acclaimed and prolific Bengali writer who wrote many screenplays for Hindi films. The dialogue is written by famous Urdu Progressive writer Rajinder Singh Bedi (author of Ek Chadar Maili Si) and lyrics by the talented Sahir Ludhianvi. At the launch of the book in February, Shahrukh Khan, who plays Devdas in the Sanjay Leela Bhansali re-make, read out a letter by Dilip Kumar who played Devdas in Bimal Roys version. Dilip Kumar writes that Bedis syntax was so perfect that even the simplest lines inspired actors to build deep emotions in their rendering.
The dialogue of Hindi films have a life of their own that spill over onto ours. Growing up in an age before DVD and the internet, I remember vividly the pleasures of listening to the gramophone record that played the dialogue of Sholay. For many of us who grew up in states (in my case, West Bengal) hostile to the forcible imposition of Hindi as a national language, it was Bombay cinema that triumphed where government diktats failed. The elegant Hindustani of Hindi films was more alluring than the klutzy sanskritised words that masqueraded as the national language. The Dialogue books bear witness to how the language spoken in these iconic films remains indebted to the rich legacy of Urdu.
Devdas stands as a splendid inter-text constituted as much by its literary source as its many cinematic versions. Bhansalis re-make is as much a tribute to the novel as the 1955 film which in turn, carries resonances of the 1936 PC Barua Hindi version for which Bimal Roy did the cinematography.
The Dialogue book returns us to this textual interplay and the question: what accounts for the enduring popularity of Devdas? The answer for every viewer (and reader) will be different. For me Devdas is about privileging romantic love over the stifling demands of social convention. By loving only Devdas, Paro flouts the rules of marriage while Devdas embraces disrepute to shame the very family honour that separates him from Paro. Devdass victory lies in his refusal to be heroic.
Shohini Ghosh is a professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia