Dola Re Dola from Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas is one of my favorite cinematic moments from Hindi films. Set in the early 1900s, Devdas is the story of Devdas Mukherjee (Shah Rukh Khan). His wealthy family prohibits him from marrying his childhood love Paro (Aishwarya Rai). An embittered Devdas embraces alcoholism and meets a courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) who falls for him. The film is the story of these three characters, and is based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel Devdas. The song Dola Re Dola is picturized on Paro and Chandramukhi. In the novel, there is no mention of any meeting taking place between Paro and Chandramukhi. However, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas not only has a meeting between the two, but it extends this meeting to a full-fledged celebratory dance on the occasion of Durga Puja. Purists have questioned this aspect but, to me, the song is, fantastically, subversive as it tries to question the social hierarchies of that time.
Before the song, Paro visits Chandramukhi and asks for mitti (soil) from her place for creating Durga's idol. It is believed that those who visit prostitutes leave their purity and virtues outside the house of the prostitutes, thereby, making the soil outside the prostitute's house pure and virtuous. This soil is used for creating Durga's idol. Paro also invites Chandramukhi to her place for Durga Puja. When Chandramukhi arrives, she introduces Chandramukhi as her friend in front of her mother-in-law. Paro convinces Chandramukhi to dance with her so that they can forget their heartache for some time. Thereafter, the song begins. In the song, Paro and Chandramukhi are dressed identically together in a red-and-white saree, and adorn a lot of jewelry. This uniformity in their dressing reflected the shared love they have for the same man i.e. Devdas. And, in this uniformity lies the song's subversiveness. It treats Paro and Chandramukhi as equals with the same stature. The two women dance together not in private, but in front of the society, underscoring their equal standing. Paro is married to a zamindar, and is the thakurain, a feudal term derived from Thakur which means a master, and represented the upper class of people. Chandramukhi is the tawaif, a courtesan who was shunned by all, and has no respect in the eyes of the society. In this context, the film treats the two of them as equals, and they are bound by the love for the same man. They sing, "Lag jaane do najariya, gir jaane do bijuriya." Let everyone stare at them, let the lightning fall. Paro and Chandramukhi are well aware of what they are doing. They know that they are disrupting societal norms. Even if the heavens strike, they do not care, because they want to dance for the man they love, and love sees no class barriers.
A few moments later, Chandramukhi says, "Baandh ke main ghungroo," and Paro continues, "Pehen ke main payal." It is here again the film brings out the difference and the similarity in Paro and Chandramukhi by the kind of jewelry they wear. Chandramukhi sits on the floor, and shows her ghungroo, while Paro remains standing and bends to show her payal. A payal is usually associated with a woman's beauty and grace. Ghunghroo have been traditionally worn by classical dancers for centuries; however, it gained the reputation of adorning the feet of courtesans through Indian cinema, in movies, such as Umrao Jaan, Pakeezah and Mughal-E-Azam. Here, Paro, the upper class woman, wears a payal, and Chandramukhi, the courtesan, wears a ghunghroo. Thus, in Dola Re Dola, the two women sing about the jewelry they wear, based on their societal status, and despite these differences, the jewelry they wear is for the same purpose of dancing for the man they madly love.
There could also be a religious subtext to payal and ghunghroo. In many Hindu texts, it is mentioned that Krishna's lover Radha used to wear flower anklets, and during Raas-Leela, the sound of anklets was heard. On the other hand, Krishna's devotee Meera used to sing bhajans in his name with ghungroo on her feet; also popularized by the song Ke Pag Ghungroo Band Meera Nachi Thi from Namak Halaal. Earlier in Devdas, we see the song Morey Piya, in which the dance of Paro and Devdas represents the raas-leela between Radha and Krishna. Jamuna ke teer baaje mridang, kare Krishna raas Radha ke sang. On the banks of the river Yamuna, the drums are beating, and Krishna does raas with Radha. Paro and Devdas are Radha and Krishna. In the song, too, we see Paro, as Radha, wearing a payal. At a later stage, Paro visits Chandramukhi, and she sees Krishna's idol in her house. Chandramukhi says to her that she worships Dev. Main toh sirf unki pooja karti hun. She tells Paro that for her, Dev is omnipresent, and if she sees through her eyes, she will find his essence in everything related to her. If Paro is Radha, who wore payal, Chandramukhi is the Meera who dances with ghungroo. Chandramukhi refuses to take ghunghroo from Kaali Babu, and refuses to dance for him. She waits for Dev to come because, like Meera, her ghungroo are for Dev.
Payal and ghungroo have been a repeating motif in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films. His heroines usually wear payal. In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, there is a point during Dhol Baaje, where Sameer picks up Nandini's payal. In Saawariya, in the last scene, Raj keeps Sakina's payal with him. In Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, the sounds of Leela's payal are present throughout the film. In Bajirao Mastani, Kashi wears payal, and Mastani wears ghunghroo when she dances in front of Bajirao. Like Chandramukhi, Mastani refuses to wear ghunghroo when asked to dance in front of others. Like peacocks, mirrors, fountains, top shots, and the weaving motif (link), this is another pattern that is a signature trope in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. He has often said that his favorite director is V. Shantaram, whose films also had a lot of dance and payal, and these include films, such as Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, and Geet Gaya Pattharonne.
Further in Dola Re Dola, Paro and Chandramukhi continue their conversation. Paro sings, "Maathe ki bindiya mein voh hai," and Chandramukhi adds, "Palkon ki nindiya mein voh hai." Dev is in the bindi of Paro, and in the eyelashes (sleep and dreams) of Chandramukhi. It is here we notice that though Paro and Chandramukhi are dressed identically, the only difference between them is the red bindi that Paro has put, while Chandramukhi wears no bindi. I am not entirely sure why is that the case. Perhaps, it has to with a red bindi being one of the signs of a married woman. Since Paro is married, she wears a bindi, and as Chandramukhi is not, she does not wear it. In a beautiful moment later, Paro sings, "Haan maang me bhar lena sindoor." Paro gestures her hands from Chandramukhi's midline to her own midline as if putting sindoor (vermilion) on both of them. Here again, the film gives an equal footing to Chandramukhi by making her feel like a married woman for a few moments, which otherwise, her society did not allow her. Kya tawaif ko mohabbat karne ka adhikaar nahi hota. Paro does not distinguish between their love, even if the others do not recognize Chandramukhi's love. The sindoor she puts on Chadramukhi and on herself, again, represents the same man they both love.
Like the comparison between payal and ghungroo, there is another similar comparison in the song. Paro sings, "Choodi ki chhan chhan me hain," and Chandramukhi sings, "Kangan ki khan khan me hai." In some cultures, choodi and kangan represent different context. Sometimes, kangans are associated with married woman. In moments before Dola Re Dola begins, Paro gives Chandramukhi the kangans that Dev had given her. These kangans were given by Dev's grandmother to Dev so that he can give it to her bahu. In doing so, Paro gives Chandramukhi the rights of Dev's bahu. This comparison of choori and kangan again emphasizes the difference between Paro and Chandramukhi but ultimately their similarity in loving the same man.
In Bajirao Mastani, there is a similar treatment like Dola Re Dola. In the song Pinga, it is the two wives of Bajirao, Kashibai and Mastani, who dance together. Kashibai and Mastani are dressed in a traditional Marathi silk saree, with a traditional necklace, a khopa hairdo and green bangles. Both of them share the love for Bajirao. At one point, they sing, "Jo peer meri hai so peer teri hai." What I worship, you worship it, too. Like the sindoor in Dola Re Dola, they sing, "Are dono ki maang laage, sooni aadhi, aadhi laal."
Dola Re Dola is, thus, subversive in many ways. A married woman dances for the man she is in love with, but that man is not her husband. A tawaif dances also dances for the man she is in love with, even though the society does not give her the right to love any man. Dola Re Dola also becomes a song in which both Radha and Meera dance together for their Krishna. The song might not be what the author of the novel would have thought about. But that's the beauty of cinema. It provides everyone an opportunity to reimagine and reinterpret stories in their own way, and in the process, it pushes boundaries, and creates pure art that touches us all.
Other Reading:-1. On Bajirao Mastani (link)
2. On the weaving motif in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films (link)
3. On Goliyon Ki Raas Leela Ram-Leela (link)
4. On Black (link)
5. On Saawariya (link)
6. On Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (link)
Dialogue of the Day
"Jo shama mehfil sajati hai, kareeb jaane par woh jala bhi sakti hai."