Sunday, February 11, 2018

Devdas—Of Radha, Krishna, and Meera

It is strange to me that I find it harder to write on the films that I love. Perhaps, it has something to do with the attachment that one forms with the film, and it is difficult to put down in words the feelings of that bond. Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas remains my favorite film of his, and in the last few weeks, I have watched it again so many times, and continue to remain dazzled by its opulence, not just visual, but also emotional. 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) because of her lower caste and class. 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.
In the oeuvre of Mr. Bhansali, there is a devotional aspect associated with love and the same is portrayed in Devdas as well. As per him, love is the purest form of emotion, and it is equivalent to worshipping God. Chandramukhi defines love as, "Pyaar aatma ki parchhai hai, ishq ishwar ki ibadat, aur mohabbat zindagi ka maksad." Love is the shadow of the soul. Love is the devotion to God. Love is the purpose of life. The Arabic word ibadat—the plural form of ibadah—is translated as worship and refers to obedience, submission, and devotion to God. Ibadat is the one word that perfectly describes Mr. Bhansali's definition of love, and this is why ibadat keeps reappearing in his repertoire.
The film compares the love between Dev and Paro to be similar to the one between Krishna and Radha. Krishna and Radha were childhood lovers. They married different people but all their life, they loved each other. Just before Paro's wedding, Dev wounds her and metaphorically marries her. All their life they loved each other. Dev and Paro were, thus, like Krishna and Radha. This is also evident in the song Morey Piya where Dev and Paro are shown to be doing Raas Leela, like Krishna and Radha. The lyrics say, "Dhumak dhumak kar naach rahi thi meri Radha pyaari, jaane kahan se Raas rachaane aaya chhaila girdhaari.Thumping, my lovely Radha was dancing. Who knows from where this Krishna has come to play Raas. 
Chandramukhi is Meera, the mystic poet who gave up her royal life to become a devotee of Krishna. At some point, Paro comes to Chandramukhi's place to inquire about Dev's whereabouts. Chandramukhi touches Paro's feet, and introduces herself as Devdasi—a devotee of Devdas. She tells Paro that she has not seen Dev for nearly six months. Paro believes it to be a lie, and storms inside Chandramukhi's room. Instead of Dev, she only finds an idol of Krishna. Chandramukhi tells her, "Hamari nazar se dekhogi, toh chaaro taraf paogi unko. Aaj bhi mahakta hai yeh kamra unki khushboo se. Main toh sirf unki pooja karti hun." If she sees from her perspective, she will find Dev everywhere. His fragrance still lingers in the room. She only worships him. In this aspect, Dev is Krishna to Chandramukhi's Meera. Like God, he is omnipresent to her. She has not even removed the spilled chalice from which Dev used to drink. On seeing Chandramukhi's devotion, Paro remarks, "Ek tawaif jogan ban gayi." A courtesan has become a devotee. In this scene, Chandramukhi is dressed entirely in saffron, the same color often associated with jogans, such as Meera. Later, in the song, Chalak Chalak, Chandramukhi is again compared to Meera and the lyrics say, "Hey naache Meera, jogan banke, O mere Ghanshaam. Naache Meera leherake balkhaake, O mere Ghanshaam." Meera dances like she is dancing for her Krishna. 
Paro is more like Radha, and Chandramukhi is more like Meera, but they have been shown to also have the traits of the other. Paro's devotion for Dev by lighting a diya (a lamp) for him is like Meera's devotion for Krishna. Amitava Nag in his essay From Devdas to Dev writes, "Parvati’s wait for Devdas attains mythical heights analogous to Radha’s love for Krishna, or Meera Bai’s selfless sacrifice and devotion to Sri Krishna. In Parvati’s submission to Devdas she inherits the traits of both Radha and Meera Baia rare incarnation which obviates her treatment as a mere human character." In Kaahe Chhed Mode, Chandramukhi dances on the song where Radha is complaining that Krishna kissed her. Dhaai shaam rok lai, rok lai, rok lai. Dhaai shaam rok lai, aur chakmaka mukh choom lai. Krishna stopped me, stopped me. Krishna stopped me, and he suddenly kissed me on my face. Thus, she has also been given something related to Radha. Paro and Chandramukhi are both Radha and Meera and this becomes more clear when the film treats the two of them as equal lovers of Dev.
Chandramukhi might be a courtesan, with a bad reputation in the society, but the film treats her love for Dev almost as important as Paro's love for Dev, and here in the lies the film's subversiveness. There is a point in the film where Dev tells Chandramukhi that for him, Paro and Chandramukhi are like his two eyes. Paro is sentimental and vivacious. Chandramukhi is delicate and demure. Paro is fickle, like a doe, gushing like a river. She is the liar, the butterfly, and the moon. Chandramukhi is a poem, and a ballad. Everyone loves Paro, but Chandramukhi is unloved by all except Dev. But at the end of it, they are Dev's eyes through which he sees the world. They might be different from each other in person, but, they share the love for the same man. Paro's face is compared with the moon; Chandramukhi's name itself means who has a face like the moon. They both worship Dev. In Hamesha Tumko Chaha, Paro sings, "Tumhe dil ne hai pooja, pooja, pooja. Aur pooja kuch bhi nahin." My heart worshipped only you, and worshipped no one else. Later, Chandramukhi also tells Paro that she worships Dev. Main toh sirf unki pooja karti hun. When they are taking leave from Dev, they both go and touch his feet. At some point, Dev gives Paro the kangan (the bangle) that his grandmother kept for Dev's future wife. When Paro meets Chandramukhi, she gives the same bangle to her, because as Dev's other worshipper, she should have also the right to wear it. In this way, she gives Chandramukhi something that was meant for Dev's wife. The film treats Chandramukhi with immense grace, and gives her a stature equal to Dev's wife, just like Paro's.
There are quite other scenes that depict the underlying similarity of Paro and Chandramukhi. The two of them, Paro and Chandramukhi, waited for Dev in their life. Paro waited ten years for him to come and lit a diya for him. Chandramukhi does not dance and waits for Dev to come to her courthouse because jab tak aap nahi ayenge, mehfil nahi sajegi. Dev catches an insect in his hand when he sees it hovering around Paro because he cannot bear the thought of anyone touching her. Later, when Dev is at Chandramukhi's place, he again catches an insect hovering around her, but says, that it is trying to touch a paper flower instead of a lotus. Both Paro and Chandramukhi preserve Dev's memories. Paro puts the three rupees that she stole from Dev in her saree's pallu all the time. Tumhari yaadein mere daaman se hai. Every memory of Dev is precious to her. Likewise, Chandramukhi preserved the room the way Dev left it. She has not even removed the spilled chalice from which Dev used to drink alcohol. Like Paro, Chandramukhi finds Dev in the flame of the lamp. 
The film further reiterates their similar stature of the two in the song Dola Re Dola. There is no mention of any meeting taking place between Paro and Chandramukhi in Sarat Chandra's work. However, 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. 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. There was a similar scene in Shakti Samanta's Amar Prem, where a sculptor takes some mud from Pushpa's place for making an idol of Durga. In Devdas, Paro 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.
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. 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. 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 has 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.
Moments before Paro's wedding to an aristocrat, Dev comes to meet her and tries to convince her to marry him. Paro is angry at his indecisiveness, and tells him to go away. Dev's father had insulted her because of her family's lower stature in society. After her marriage, she would have a stature equivalent to Dev's family. She would have everythingthe virtues, the beauty, and the richesDev cannot bear Paro's guroor (vanity), and tells her even the beauteous moon is not as vain as her. Paro replies it's because the moon has dark spots and is scarred, while she is pure. Hurt by Paro's stinging words, Dev takes a pearl necklace and hits Paro on her head, giving her a scar. She starts bleeding, and Dev uses her blood as vermilion and spreads it over the mid-part of her head, symbolically marrying her in the process. They might be officially married to different people, but in their heart, they are married to each other. She is given a life-long scar as well on her forehead, and become just like the moon. As the lyrics of Hamesha Tumko Chaaha say, "Jo daag tumne mujhko diya us daag se mera chehra khila, rakhungi isko nishaani banakar maathe pey isko hamesha sajakar." The scar that Dev has given adds to Paro's beauty and it will always serve as a reminder of him. The scar is Dev and the film adds life to this scar as well. There is a stage when Dev starts vomiting blood as he is dying, and at the same time, Paro falls down from the stairs, and the scar from head oozes out blood, again, a symbolic reminder of Dev being the scar. It is remarkable that Mr. Bhansali uses these inexplicable connections between Dev and Paro. The scar is another of Mr. Bhansali's trademarks which continues to reappear as a motif in his other films, too. 
In the opening credits of the film, when the title Devdas appears on screen, there is a thunderstorm that is heard and the screen turns grey for a few seconds, mimicking the lightning. Kaushalya, Devdas' mother, calls him toofan—a storm. When she gets the news of his homecoming, she says, "Mera toofan aa raha hai." Her tempest is coming home. In anticipation, Devdas' family members sing, "Dhaak bajao, dhol bajao re," where again a tempest is mentioned. A joyous tempest stirs my heartstrings. Drum up the cheer. When he finally comes back, his mother says, "Gaya tha chhota toofan banke, aur laut raha hai bada vakil banke." He went as a small tempest, but returns as a top lawyer. Tempest is one of the many symbolisms with which Dev is compared to in the film. When Dev storms out in anger from his house, he says the tempest must pass, else it will cause a lot of damage. Later, Dev compares himself to a toofan (storm) and his father to a chhadi (whip) when he is lying drunk on a boat. Hum unke liye toofan, aur woh hamare liye chhadi. A tempest brings with it destruction and damage. Dev loses all his relationships and goes on to the path of self-destruction. His inability to make up his own mind brought about his annihilation. It is, then, only fitting to compare Dev to a tempest. This also finds resonance in Satyajit Ray's Charulata where Amal's arrival coincided with the coming of a storm, as if giving a premonition of the storm that will change the life of Charulata.
After Devdas goes to London for his studies, Paro lights a diya (a lamp) in Dev's memory. For ten years, she lights a lamp, and not even for a moment, she let it extinguish, protecting it from everything. The lamp symbolized Dev. Paro takes the diya with her even after her wedding, because her love for Dev does not end with her marriage. She made sure to keep it burning till the end, and it only gets extinguished when Dev dies. There is no mention of the lamp in the Sarat Chandra's story, and, this is a touch by Mr. Bhansali. When Dev gets to know about the lamp, he tells Paro, "Diya tum jalati thi, par jalta toh main hi tha.In the flame of the lamp that you lit, it was I who burned. At some other point, Paro's mother Sumitra tells her, "Maine tujhe diye ke saath saath Devdas ke liye jalte hue dekha hai.With the lamp, I saw you burn for Devdas. The lamp, again, symbolizes the burning desire for the lover. The representation of desire using fire is another leitmotif in the work of Mr. Bhansali. In another comparison, Chandramukhi calls Devdas as her paras mani, the one whose touch turns iron into gold.
If Dev is compared to the storm and the lamp, Paro is also compared to some symbols. She is the moon. When she first meets Dev, she does not show her face and tells him that she is like the moon, and she fears that when he will see her, he will become breathless. Dev tells her that even the moon does not have as much guroor (vanity) about its beauty as she is. She replies to him that it is because the moon has scars, and she is flawless. He goes away from her room informing her that he will see her face at moonrise. In the night, when the moon is out, Dev goes to Paro's place, where she is sleeping in the courtyard. In a spectacular scene, Dev is stunned to see Paro's face juxtaposed with the full moon, leaving no doubt that Paro is indeed as celestial as the moon. He smiles to himself after he finally gets to see that luminous face. He takes some soot from the burning diya next to her, and puts it on her lips, giving her a nazar ka teeka to prevent her from any evil eye. At some later stage, Dev compares Paro with alcohol. He calls himself a chalice that is filled with Paro's name. He is intoxicated by the love of Paro. 
If there are Radha Krishna references from the Mahabharata, the film also brings in some from the Ramayana as well. Devdas' mother is named Kaushalya, while Parvati's mother is named Sumitra. Kaushalya and Sumitra were the names of the two (out of the three) wives of Lord Ram's father Dashratha. While Kaushalya was the birth mother of Ram, Dashratha's other wives treated him as their own son. Kaikai, the much-reviled mother, is not present here, but Kumud, Devdas' sister-in-law, makes up not only for Kaikai, but Manthra as well. It is important to mention this because the names of the mothers of Devdas and Parvati mentioned in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novels are different.
It can also be inferred that Chandramukhi has some shades of Sahibjaan from Pakeezah. There is a particular sequence in the film where Chandramukhi puts her hair into the water, which is reminiscent of the way Sahibjaan used to do it when she lay down near the little water fountain and put her tresses in it. The mujra in green dress also gives another shade of similarity between the two.
The other aspect of love in Mr. Bhansali's work is its doomed nature. His characters keep pining for each other and often end up not getting together. When Paro goes to meet Dev at his house in the middle of the night, she tells him, "Khona toh har haal me hai, Dev. Ya tumhare saath, ya tumhare bagair.I'm doomed, in any case. Be it with you, or without you. They are either way doomed, even if they stay together, or if they do not stay together. In the song Bairi Piya, the film actually told us the Paro will marry an old man and Dev will remain unmarried. It is this foreshadowing, which is also present in his other films, that gave us an indication of the doomed story of Dev and Paro. There is also a line in the same song Bairi Piya, "Tu door jo tha to paas hi tha. Ab paas hai to door hai kyun. Na jaane na jaane na jaane na jaane jaane." When you were away, you were nearer. When you are now near, you feel far. The lovers feel closer in distance. In every second of time, they are reminded of love. When Dev comes back from London, Paro tells him that she read his letter his five letters, five times every day for ten years. She remembered him every second of the day. Dev tells her that he remembered her only in one instance, and that was whenever he took a breath. Later, when he asks Chandramukhi if she loves him, she says he could have just asked if she breathes
In King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the Seductive World of Indian Cinema, film critic Anupama Chopra writes, "Paro's house which shimmered with 157,000 pieces of stained glass, a metaphor for her fragile beauty, cost 30 million rupees ($65,000)." When Paro is married, there is a distinct change in her appearance as well as demeanor. She has become a thakurain from a fragile beauty. She wears large-sized jewelry and even larger bindi. All this reflects her changed stature, but at the same time, it gives out a feeling of claustrophobia. She appears to be suffocated in the palatial house. She might be married to an aristocrat, but in her heart, she is still the Paro who loves Devdas. But this new stature also instills in her confidence. She is not afraid to tell her husband that if he cannot forget his first wife, then, Dev is also her first love and she cannot forget him. In fact, the women in the film are much stronger than the men. Chandramukhi confronts and slaps Kalibabu in front of everybody, and tells him that it is because of men like him that courtesans exist. On the other hand, the men in the film are too weak. Devdas does not even have the courage to make up his own mind.
Devdas is the third film of Mr. Bhansali, after Khamoshi and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. I am not entirely sure if it is acceptable to compare the film of a director with his other films that were released after the said film. But for the sake of completeness, I am still mentioning some of the themes (in addition to the above) and motifs in Devdas that would go on to become signature tropes in Mr. Bhansali's later films. There are lush fountains in Devdas' house and Chandramukhi's courthouse. There are huge chandeliers. There is a scene related to payal (anklet). There is the burning of hand scene. There is the repeated mention of the word guroor (vanity). Dev tells Paro that even the moon does have that guroor about its beauty as much as she has. Paro describes Dev to her husband by saying, "Jaise woh shareer, aur hum parchhai. Woh hamara pyaar bhi hai aur guroor bhi." He was the body, I was the soul. He is my love and he is my vanity. There is the mirror scene. In the first meeting between Dev and Chandramukhi, the mirror in the background shatters into pieces. All these would go on to have a presence in his other films as well.
For me, the most stunning aspect of the film is its gorgeous climax that is exhilarating and moving at the same time. Devdas manages to reach Manikpur where Paro stays. He had promised Paro that he will visit her at least once before he dies. He is at her doorstep, lying beneath a tree, and is dying. Paro sees the commotion outside her house and gets to know that a man is lying outside. One of her family members tells her, "Pichle janam me yahan se koi mitti le gaya hoga." He must have come to return something that he owed in his last lifetime. Paro could sense something is wrong. There is always a sense of intuition in the characters of Mr. Bhansali. Paro eventually finds out that the man is none other than her Deva, and, then, she runs to meet him. However, her husband orders his servants to stop her, and close the gates. The cries of a young Paro calling her friend can be heard again. Arey, O Deva. All through the film, Paro was running after Dev. When a young Dev left for his studies, Paro ran after him. When Dev comes back from London, Paro runs to meet him. When Dev leaves his house, Paro runs after him to make him stop. When he comes to meet her in his last days, she again runs after him. 
The final moments of the film are full of red color. Paro is wearing a red-and-white saree. The huge curtains in her house are red. The floor and the walls of her house are red. While running, Paro spills the aalta, the red color pigment. She walks over it and her footsteps leave the red mark when she runs. The gate of her house is red. Devdas is lying on a bed of red flowers. A tragic moment looks utterly gorgeous. There is no other color that depicts the passion of love as red does. Red represented love, red represented Dev. In Silsila Yeh Chahat Ka, Paro plays with the red color when she gets to know that her Dev was coming back. When Dev came to meet her at her place, she was putting her feet in aalta. Like a new bride that leaves her footsteps in aalta, Paro had done the same earlier, when Dev came back from London. In Dola Re Dola, Paro and Chandramukhi dance in a palatial room that is again red, symbolic of their love for Dev. In the film's title, there is sindoor present in Dev's name and the background is red. It is only fitting that death comes to Dev on a bed of red flowers. The lamp, representing Dev, is finally extinguished. And, as Paro sang earlier, "Tu door jo tha to paas hi tha, ab paas hai to door hai kyun," they are so close yet they seem so distant. Perhaps, only in heaven, they will have the opportunity to meet again.
Books In Movies:
Direct Taxes
Cases and Materials on Code of Civil Procedure, Pleadings and Practise With Model Forms,
and Co-operative Tribunal Journal
A book by Charles Dickens
Other Reading:
1. On the Moon in the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali—Link
2. On Bajirao MastaniLink
3. On BlackLink
4. On the weaving motif in the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali—Link
5. On Goliyon Ki Raasleea Ram-LeelaLink

Dialogue of the Day:
"Nadi sagar se milne kyun jaati hai, surajmukhi hamesha suraj ki taraf hi kyun dekhta hai."
—Paro, Devdas

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