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Tuesday, August 13, 2002


Candle for Devdas

A letter to the editor by John Maxwell Taylor in August 12, 2002 Time Magazine (quoted in full here because the website doesn't seem to have it):

Bollywood movies, those Indian musical dramas with their unabashed displays of pure feeling, represent something that has been lost in American film. In the days of silent movies, lovers had to express what they felt in their hearts solely through their eyes and facial expressions. From the 1970's on, a no-acting-please mentality has cramped expression of the higher aspects of love. The displays of feeling and sometimes declamatory dramatic style in Indian films may make us squirm and snigger, but maybe we should question our own dysfunction. Perhaps Indian film can inspire us to create epic movies once again that point to the higher possibilities of human nature.

the lovely Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi

The Lovely Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi, the lovelorn prostitute. Watch for the lovely melancholy song, “Maar Daala” sung by Kavita K. Subramanium

Last week I saw Devdas , an elaborate remake of the classic 1935 film. Before discussing the film itself, I wanted to mention the aspect of the film that is the most recognizable to Americans: the use of elaborate settings as “eye candy”. The house of Devda's family is multistoried, lavishly equipped with long open hallways and a panoply of servants. So is Paro's house and Chandramukhi's brothel. Is anybody poor or at least middle class in India? But when is the last time American cinema has depicted lower middle class or middle class life? Everything is idealized. All the movies show the students with cars, fashionable outfits and spacious houses. I was reminded of the offbeat, “Last Action Hero” where the artificial world contained only beautiful people. What is realism anyway? No one expects realism in a musical, but at least some musicals can maintain a certain edginess toward the artifice it creates (as in Golddiggers of 1933, where Ginger Rogers, after rehearsing the “We're in the Money” song for a play, learns that the theatre is closing down due to lack of money). In this production of Devdas, we are supposed to think that Devdas' family looks down upon Paro's family, although they both have beautiful houses and a panoply of servants. Another critic wrote, "all the emotions are lost in the opulence."

Do films that ostentatiously display wealthy accouterments entice or alienate an audience? One film that handled this tension beautifully was Monsoon Wedding, where a subplot involving a middle-class wedding planner falls in love with one of the house servant of the wedding family. Ultimately, the main wedding was an enjoyable bore; the people were rich, alienated individuals with Western sensibilities and nice cars and fashionable problems. The point of the movie is to show the wide-ranging ramifications that an event like a lavish wedding can have, not only on the immediate family, but bystanders and even servants. The magic of the film (and the story) is seeing how each person contents oneself in romantic reveries at the expense of the individuals who really care about them then and now. Devdas ignores Chandramukhi while dreaming of Paro. Paro's husband ignores Paro while basking in the nostalgia of his deceased wife. And Paro returns the favor by proclaiming her love for Devdas. The insight here is that individuals rarely have the ability to pick and choose the objects of their affections, that past amours can linger and even poison current relationships, that romantic affections for a nonexistent partner can rule our actions if only to keep the dream alive. The film's beautiful metaphor is a candle that remains lit long after it is necessary. If an individual lets the candle burn out, that not only denies that person's romantic dreams, it also kills the part of the individual animated by this dream. If Paro let the candle burn out, she would be unfaithful not only to Devdas but herself as well.

For me, the Devdas story seems more compelling than Sanjay Leela Bhansali's version. I came across an excellent essay about the original novel and 1935 Bengali film (which I would love to find!) Devdas: India's Emasculated Hero, Sado-Masochism and Colonialism by Poonam Arora. Although Arora spends a lot of time integrating theoretical perspectives with the substance of the movie itself, in many ways that approach is perfectly appropriate. The premise of the earlier film, she argues, is that Devdas' education abroad is what spoiled him (and in fact the 1935 film is a subtle protest against colonial influences). In Bhansali's simplified version of the world, Devdas parents are responsible for everything going to hell; they veto the marriage arrangement, and –darn it!--the father interrupts Paro's nighttime visit after the big fight. As Arora points out, it is Devdas who submits to the decision of his parents; he confesses to not thinking about Paro while studying overseas; he scolds Paro for coming to visit him in the middle of the night and he refuses to see her visit as an opportunity. Arora quotes Rinki Bhattacharya, who claims, "Devdas (has been to the Indian actor) what Hamlet is to his western counterpart." Devdas has somehow softened by his journeys overseas and been incapable to succumbing to the romantic bond he had agreed to much earlier in life.

According to Arora's reading, the tragic flaw lies mainly with Devdas and his inability to pursue the romance that he was fated for. The recent movie (which paints a romantic illusion as attractive as it is doomed) seems to suggest all of us (not just drunkards) possess this flaw. Arora refers to texts in sado-masochistism (including the very appropriate “Story of O”) to show how sado-masochistic self-denial sustains itself by forming a partnership with the master who establishes all the boundaries. Arora writes:

“According to the logic of sado-masochism "one person maintains his boundary, and one allows the boundary to be broken" (Benjamin, 285). The pathology of failed differentiation implies that "together the partners form a whole--the tension in which the assertion and loss of self are united" (ibid). While in Story of O the masculine and feminine postures are definite though in constant need of re-inscription, in Devdas the masculine and the feminine postures alternate. When the one advances, the other recedes. It is in keeping with this logic that Devdas may submit to Parvati at the end (giving into the feminine), but Parvati may not accept his submission (thereby ascending to the masculine). This paradoxical relationship of control and submission must either exhaust the dynamic through death or suicide or it must transcend the inertia/momentum of the context. “

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