Bimal Roy's Devdas: a burning tragedy

Publié le 17 Avril 2012

Krishna's song

Contrary to what many people think, love isn’t a simple passion. First many things, such as the family, the social situation, the history of the two lovers, etc. combine to create the particular context of the relationship, but also in itself love challenges who you are, your self-esteem, your need for recognition, your ideals. So that when, for example, Bollyviewer (in an otherwise very pleasant review – check her captions !) questions Devdas’ desire for self-destruction (« a man destroying himself for LOVE! » she exclaims in utter disbelief), I believe one has to give the film the credit of complexity and suggestiveness and not rush to decide that Devdas’ downfall is only artistic quirkiness.

Paro listening to Krishna's music

Bimal Roy’s celebrated movie (from 1955) possesses the charm of both a realistic and imaginative story. The leads are fine, especially Suchitra Sen (heavy-lids Paro!) and Vijayanthimala (Chandramukhi), but I found Dilip Kumar (in the title-role) a little aloof, a little distant. Somehow I would have preferred him to be more passionate and romantic. But his coldness adds to the mystery, too. We’ll see that there is perhaps a reason for his stilted detachment. The reviews I read very rightly underline the beautiful cinematography, which shares with Satyajit Ray or Ritwick Ghatak a sense of realistic details (the beauty of faces) and symbolic natural scenes. The songs blend in quite meaningfully - I was reminded of other Bimal Roy films (Sujata, or Bandini, especially) - and most of all there is a delicate attention to the human emotionality through the characters’ desires and frailties.

smart Devdas

Then there is the Guru Dutt association: Kaagaz ke phool dates back to 1959, and (even I haven’t researched the links between the two films) it seems clear that the anguished later work is striving to recreate something that Bimalji masterfully created with his Devdas: a depth of meaning combined with a balance of artistic beauty that he must have found so satifying that he re-evoked the symbols of Devdas in his lovelorn opus so poignantly. True enough, Guru Dutt has turned his film into an amazing meditation on the cinema, and even art itself. But he’s left enough signs of his indebted inspiration: the use of Baby Naaz and Johnny Walker, the theme of impossible love and self-destruction through drinking, and that mysterious final run towards death, so evocative of what happens in Devdas.

close the gate

What I find profoundly true in Bimal Roy’s work is the opening passage telling of Devdas’ and Paro’s childhood (which goes back to the myth of the gopi Radha that Krishna had elected as his beloved). It’s true because it justifies the lovers’ behaviour later; with their childhood in mind, you look upon them as grownups much differently and you can always relate what they say and do to the bond which united them then. This is something which is not permitted, for example, in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 version. Perhaps he assumed that everybody had the original story in mind, and could refer to it without him including this episode in the film. But for me, the answers to the enigmas of Paro and Devdas’ story are to be found in their childhood and so it is essential that we see them as children.

watching birdies

For example Paro’s scarring: after having suffered his lover’s rebuke, Devdas whips her face with his fishing rod, saying that from now on, whenever she looks at herself in the mirror, she will see that sign of her pride. From a modern point of view, what an intolerably selfish attitude! How can he do that, just after he has proclaimed his love for her! Isn’t this going to estrange the two of them for ever? No, because, shocked at first, Paro later sees in her scar the indelible indication of her love, and we have this wonderful silent comment she makes, when she goes back to see him later in the film:


Had we not seen Paro’s childhood devotion for her Devdas, her fiery independent spirit as well as her forlorn need of his presence when he is sent away, we wouldn’t have given this episode such depth and meaning. One of the film’s most beautiful songs occur just after Devdas’ departure from Paro’s budding life. She meets some vagrant singers and offers them a princely amount of money – Devdas’s money (so we can interpret the song to come from him, to be his parting message) – if they sing for her. What does the song say? That Radha is lost when her Lord Krishna has gone, and that she wishes he would come back. When the song is over, little Radha wipes her tears. She has been wounded by Krishna’s love. This announces (and explains) the risk she takes when, an opened lily, she wanders out at night and crosses the boundary between the two homes to expose herself to him. The scar will thus become the visible equivalent of the stigma she had decided to bear that night, knowing full well it would endanger her maiden reputation. But she loved him enough to scar her name for ever with his. She is even ready to drown if it comes to that. And so when she is really whipped, she accepts the suffering as a physical proof of their eternal bond.


Let’s now come to that self-destructive passion which seizes Devdas once he knows that he won’t be able to unite with his beloved (his parents forbid it). It’s true that he has just sent her that cruel letter in which he tells her he never really loved her. Tragedy of the written word! Warned by his conscience, he rushes back to her, and upon seeing her, he tries to retreat and say he wrote the words too fast, and that he now realises he loves her as much as she does: but it’s too late, the words have been heard, and somehow their truth is greater than Devdas himself! And even if this is wrong from the point of view of love, which lives in the present and has the power to re-evaluate past declarations in the light of renewed feelings, for Paro the letter’s words must correspond to Devdas’s real self, otherwise she would never have forsaken him.

Paro's pride

Through these words she reads him as he really is: fickle and weak, changeable and unpredictable. Devdas’s destiny is one of half-commitments, illusions and hesitations. He loves Paro indeed, but cannot or won’t risk everything for her. What’s strange is that it is only when he has lost her that he becomes absolute. Before, when he could still hope to have her, he dallies, he considers his reputation, Paro’s, his parents’ orders… And because he wants to conciliate things, he breaks the unspoken promise which bonds him to her.

typical housewife

Conciliation… Love cannot compromise; love is a tyrant and wants all the lover’s soul. It takes love’s ruin for love to be revealed to Devdas, and from then on he will be enslaved to it. Hence his self-destruction. But which part of himself is Devdas destroying? Isn't it more like a purification (pyre = fire)? What he has done to himself, to his eternal soul calling for its companion, cannot be mended by anybody else; nobody else will take advantage of what he has burnt (he's doing to himself what he's done to Paro by scarring her). Romantic and absolute love is more realistic, in a way, than common, down to earth loving (which on the other hand is easier to deal with!) because it corresponds to man’s aspiration to something beyond him, something of the stars, of the whole universe. Romantic love cannot love twice because life is unique and therefore tragic. Whatever is done cannot be undone! And so Devdas kills himself because he’s missed Parvati’s Love. 

snapshot dvd 01.50.39 [2012.03.24 02.11.15]

And yet, mysteriously, it’s because he’s missed it that he finds it. There’s a classic paradox here, which is that of the impossibility of true love. Love is divine and so men cannot hope to partake of it in its essence; the only way they can taste it is if a god descends to Earth and makes them participants of his divinity. Mythologies tell us that this is what happened to men in times past. Men have been created with love inside them, with god inside them, and they spend their life trying to find its hiding-place. And so therefore love has a divine reality which we cannot change, we belong to it. Having lost Paro, Devdas must die to who he once was, and destroy and purify his human social self. Liquor is often moralized as the archetypal dissolver of lucidity, the eternal killer of scruples. But it should not too quickly be equated with sinfulness. Devdas is more a victim than a sinner. His relationship to alcohol is almost like a cure; thanks to it, he burns away his impurities (one might say, his weighty karma); and his sacrifice makes him become a purifier of human bonds. This is how he attracts the attention of Chandramukhi.

squashed flower1

The tawaif has been used to men of all sorts, she has been flattered by all, but never had she met before one who told her the truth about herself. When Devdas arrives in her presence, there’s a violent rejection of everything she represents. Is it love at first sight? Hardly, with this kind of woman. The story seems to indicate she’s more impressed by Devdas’s attitude towards her. It is because he isn’t attracted to her that she’s attracted to him, following the classic mimetic formula. And his self-destructive descent corresponds to her elevation. He somehow becomes her guru. His burning sacrifice of his love, of his life, becomes a bright fire in her life. Because of his self-denial, she finds a way to her purification; she then participates to his purification. Atoning for her sins, her love earns him the way back to his childhood innocence (whose name is “Paro”). This transparency takes the form of her fight to drive him away from liquor which his tempter friend Chunni (Motilal) draws him back to every time.

not drink again

But the logic of the tragedy needs Devdas to go all the way through the redemption process; we follow his decline as he drinks himself blind in streets before Chandramukhi pulls him out and brings him back to a short reprieve, because soon he’s called by Death’s chariot in the form of a frightfully rushing night train on which Chunni, his bad angel, climbs and precipitates him to his final journey, all the way to Paro’s door that fateful dawn.

no other solution

Before that, we have been the witnesses to the two women’s exchange of Devdas’s care, when, out in the country one day, they briefly and unknowingly meet, the virtuous Paro coming back from his home and the longing Chandramukhi despairing to see him again. It is indeed striking that Paro, after her separation from Devdas, follows as much a beautiful path as he stumbles down a rough and broken one. As if somehow the sacrifice of their love was meant to bring honour and family values back to life, and if the love they could not enjoy has been transmuted into purity and generosity towards others.

snapshot dvd 01.57.51 [2012.03.24 02.14.19]  the 2 women 1

But the exchange of looks that morning on the country path makes the two women strangely similar. Both are the lovers of an unrequited love, both are menders of a broken heart, both are vigils of a dying soul. Living, Devdas couldn’t love; dying he is truly loved by both. Both become the priestesses of their dying burning Love.

PS: there has been some controversy around that caning/scarring scene (see the comments). Here's an interview of Dilip Kumar which refers to it, in which he states that: "I still cannot bring myself to agree with Devdas, when hits Paro with a stick and says, 'I have given you this mark to punish your pride'. But I played the part. And because the author was good, he turned the most nonsensical idea into sense"

Rédigé par yves

Publié dans #Film reviews

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<br /> hi yves.<br /> <br /> <br /> i'm not a big fan of dilip kumar<br /> <br /> <br />  <br /> <br /> <br /> u might be interested in reading what i wrote in the comments section of<br /> <br /> <br /> dated 24 january 2012.<br /> <br /> <br />  <br /> <br /> <br /> let me know your opinion on my writing. this is first time when i have tried to write something on my own. <br /> <br /> <br />  <br /> <br /> <br /> cheers<br />
<br /> <br /> Hello VK,<br /> <br /> <br /> You write about Dilip Kumar: "he had fairly limited acting abilities" - I think I agree - except that he cannot have played for so long and with such success without some talent. I've seen a<br /> number of his movies. He never strikes one as very emotional, for example, but in his style, there's a restraint, a neutrality which in itself is interesting. So many actors today (especially on<br /> the stage) overplay that to have in mind someone who underplayed isn't necessarily 100% negative!<br /> <br /> <br /> Thanks for sharing your ideas.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> Now this analysis is just like you Yves! You make me notice things that I never do normally in films and surprise me with interpretations that give me pause..what a good analyser you are! But you<br /> use your talents on a story I absolutely dislike. I have seen the old Sehgal version and the new SRK version but have not seen this in between version about which I have heard good things. But my<br /> dislike of the story makes me reluctant to pick it up, even though it is Bimal Roy.<br /> <br /> <br /> I am very much in sympathy with Anu's opinion. Is it just that women think differently? Is that why reaction is so very different from ours? Or is it women from India? I think that my reaction to<br /> the film comes from a reaction to a whole set of attitudes that I have seen, faced or heard about from my growing period in India. For example, when you talk of the of the scarring episode (which<br /> I detest), you comment is very thought provoking - 'The scar will thus become the visible equivalent of the stigma she had decided to bear that night'.  Yet I cannot but equate it to the<br /> attitude many men bore towards women in that era (and still bear in some places), an attitude of subjugation. How dare she have pretensions of any kind? I see it as his desire to put her in her<br /> place. If there were symbolic meanings like you indicate, my emotional response to scenes like that inhibit my thinking of symbolisms.<br /> <br /> <br /> Yet I cannot agree with you on your equating Devdas's self-destruction with purification by fire. Its self-sacrificing women that we associate with fire and the funeral pyre - thanks to Sati. But<br /> not men. And when you say 'Love is divine and so men cannot hope to partake of it in its essence; the only way they can taste it is if a god descends to Earth and makes them participants of his<br /> divinity', this is Christian thought, not Hindu and I cannot imagine that this so Indian a story has anything to do with Christian thinking. Nor can I agree with you when you say 'His<br /> relationship to alcohol is almost like a cure; thanks to it, he burns away his impurities'. You try too hard to put a good spin on a rotten, selfish act of self-destruction by a weak character<br /> unworthy of the love that Paro bears for him. He has no courage to marry her, and when she marries someone else, he has no courage to face life without her. A coward through and through and not<br /> in the least romantic to any woman of sense!<br /> <br /> <br />  <br />
<br /> <br /> Hello Suja,<br /> <br /> <br /> Thanks for a very interesting comment! First of all, I do think you should see - or have seen - the film before judging, especially Bimal Roy, who I think can be credited for doing things<br /> differently than, say, Sanjay Leela Bhansali.<br /> <br /> <br /> Then, I'd say you're probably right about my Christian interpretation... I do have a tendancy to apply it in other fields of experience, where it should perhaps not be applied. So thanks for<br /> reminding me. On the other hand, if indeed Sati was a sacrifice that was dictated for women to perform, does it preclude men from sometimes sacrificing themselves in special circumstances?<br /> <br /> <br /> And then your reaction to the film - or rather what you admit yourself is only the story, not Bimal Roy's version of it: naturally I respect the frame in which you have grown, which composes your<br /> culture, and of course the way you have reacted against it. This attitude of masculine subjugation you denounce is sadly true. I'd say it's a universal attitude! But Devdas doesn't really belong<br /> to the category. He has this one moment of superiority, indeed, a rash and violent one. But I think it is as much dictated by his frustrated love and pathetic mismanagement of feelings that he<br /> shows in the first part of the film, as from an ingrained contempt of women, or caste-consciousness. Could he be putting her in her place? Yes, in a way. But he's also strangely calm when doing<br /> so, as if he didn't believe in what he's doing.<br /> <br /> <br /> But two things must also come into our appreciation of this moment of violence: first his  pitiful downfall and subsequent refusal to go back to normal life after he's lost Paro. It's a<br /> foolish and immature attitude, of course, but it can only be pitied, as far as I'm concerned. I see it as the reaction of a wounded passion of which he's a victim.<br /> <br /> <br /> Then Paro's attitude: she looks upon her scar as the sign of a continuing relationship between Devdas and herself ("this scar is my joy and wealth"). One might say she's forgiven him because she<br /> loves him, that she's a saint (something I've read which comes also from her exemplary attitude towards her husband's family). I believe that while this might be true, it shows she also<br /> understands him and grieves for him. She would probably have preferred him to have behaved differently; but in his radical self-destruction she sees the drama, and the quest he's going through.<br /> One is entitled to say he's a coward, if you want. But Paro doesn't do it, and she's the first one who could have had this right. Now of course if you say she's foolish, you put an end to any<br /> possibiity to draw any meaning from her attitude. But I think that if had the movie in mind, you wouldn't call her that.<br /> <br /> <br /> Well, there. I don't think I will have convinced you, but I just wanted to make you understand how I felt about the story told by one of India's greatest film-makers.<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> Yves, forgive me for being pragmatic - but what need do I have for a lover who had rather kill himself in drink and pathos than live, and fight, for me and my love? If I have put aside all<br /> barriers of honour and shame and gone to a man in the middle of then night, and he ahd rejected me, and my love for him - then proceeded to make a blooming ass of himself *after* I have been<br /> married off; proceeding to drink himself silly - sorry, I would have very little symathy for him. All this talk of 'dying for love' is all very well in a book (actually, not even that), but give<br /> me a man who can *live* for that love,a nd who will stand by me through anything that  life may throw at us. <br /> <br /> <br /> :) Sorry. Your opinion is different - you see it as something noble, that sacrifice. Womanlike, I have no use for useless sacrifices that condemn me to a life of tears, tied down to a man I do<br /> not love.<br />
<br /> <br /> Hello Anu,<br /> <br /> <br /> I agree with you that Devdas' dilly-dallying (amounting to a refusal) when Paro jeopardizes herself for him as she has done, is the sign of his fundamental weakness. My point was that from then<br /> on, he enters a spiral of refusal of anything that isn't Paro's love because he knows what he has lost. He kills himself in self-punishment for what he's done. I don't think I suggested this<br /> sacrifice was something "noble" in the sense of elevated, as much as in the sense of absolute, or radical. What I'm suggesting is that Devdas sacrifices everything, including himself, including<br /> his life, because he's lost Paro's love.<br /> <br /> <br /> You say that dying for love is something bookish - from a certain pragmatist point of view, yes, you're right. But Bimal Roy presents us with a case which might not necessarily be so rare (even<br /> if it's clearly a romantic dramatization), of somebody who's so desperate that he inflicts on himself the punishment for what he understands as his faults. This would perhaps, today, be looked<br /> upon as a pyschiatric case, but our medicalisation of passion is coherent with a society which doesn't always understand man's deepest aspirations. I continue to believe that Devdas' character,<br /> in spite of his exasperating superiority, a superiority which he little by little learns to abandon -  testifies to the existence of an absolute (or a transcendance) in man.<br /> <br /> <br /> What need do I have for this sort of lover, you ask. None, clearly. As a self-punished lover, Devdas nevertheless "saves" Chandramukhi, who, like him, had fallen in the corrupted rut of<br /> degradation, and because she sees in him this aspiration to the absolute, opens her heart to who she really is, and leaves her old sinful ways.<br /> <br /> <br />  <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />
<br /> Beautiful analysis, Yves. I must confess that I have never liked Devdas as a character - I always wondered why Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's 'heroes' were weak - just as his heroines were strong<br /> (within the parameters of their role in the society they were born into). I loved the film itself because of the performances (and Bimalda's direction) - and there, I guess, I must disagree with<br /> you about Dilip Kumar. :) I thought he brought that inherent weakness and despair to life - which is why I hated him so much. :)<br /> <br /> <br /> Thanks for refreshing my memory.<br />
<br /> <br /> Thanks for the appreciation Anu. I'm interested to know why you believe he's weak, though. Wouldn't you say he is only so at the beginning, but that he becomes stronger and stronger? His desire<br /> to die, to sacrifice himself totally for Paro, isn't this a kind of strength? Doesn't he learn from her how to abandon everything, and doesn't he demonstrate he loves her more than life itself?<br /> <br /> <br /> <br />