January 21, 2020
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Loser Takes All

Bhansali's Devdas is a flamboyant quitter. But he's the toast of a bele aguered industry for saving it from near-bankruptcy.

Loser Takes All
Loser Takes All
A lovesick Paro furtively meets Devdas in the thick of the night to persuade him to elope with her. Their tryst is interrupted by his authoritarian father. As the old man kayos their plans and calls Paro a tawaif (courtesan), a defiant Devdas retorts: "I object...I object...I object..." The audience responds with wolf-whistles and applause. Wait, India's most-famous anti-hero is not done yet. "Ek dalal bhi apni beti ko kothe pe nahin bithata hai (A pimp too wouldn't put his own daughter in a brothel)," he continues. The viewers are delirious.

Well, that's not what you thought watching Devdas was all about, right? Wasn't watching this weepy classic of unrequited love all about quiet introspection, silent sobs and teary eyes? But then, Shahrukh Khan is not the Devdas you can pick up from the pages of Saratchandra Chatterjee's popular 1917 novel. New-age maverick filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali transforms the legendary alcoholic wastrel into a stylish, flamboyant loser. A loser who's registering the highest turnover for a film so far in 2002. A loser who's the toast of a beleaguered Bollywood for saving it from near-bankruptcy.

The success of Devdas is mystifying. The most expensive Indian film had little hope of breaking even. After all, a stunning sum of Rs 50 crore, which could well be the budget of a small district like Palamau, is not easy to recover from a sluggish market. But this was not the only trouble for Devdas—producer Bharat Shah was arrested last year for alleged underworld links, the loaded star cast made for tough schedules, and the mishaps on the sets made it look like a jinxed flick. Then, the much-touted Cannes premiere didn't go down well with foreign critics—most ditched it. London's Daily Telegraph called it a "lumberingly industrial work that should embarrass all those involved in its making".

However, Bhansali is far from embarrassed. He is, in fact, jubilant. Devdas opened at No. 5 in Britain, ahead of Joel Schumacher's Bad Company. Having mopped up 4,46,370 'brown' pounds from 54 screens in the first week, it's average earning per screen was close to that of the week's top hit, Scooby Doo. The story is the same at home. For beleaguered theatre-owners and distributors groaning under losses, Devdas is manna from heaven. Chew on this—Film Information, a trade journal, says Devdas is expected to get the distributors' returns of about Rs 45 crore. The music rights for the film were sold for Rs 12.5 crore, territory rights went for about Rs 3 crore for a major territory. It translated into a Rs 13 crore 'table' loss for the producer. But the film was distributed in Mumbai and overseas market by Shah himself and it's in these pockets that it's performing the best. Tipped to get Rs 20 crore and Rs 9-10 crore from overseas and Mumbai respectively, Shah's got every reason to breathe easy. It's doing great business even in Bengal and Bihar—traditionally not SRK-starrer strongholds.

Nonetheless, the success is baffling. Devdas is not a 21st century Bollywood blockbuster. It is not set in faux Manhattan. The stars don't wear GAP and DKNY. The songs are not shot on the Switzerland railroad. What's more, its notion of love is at complete variance with the rules of Generation Y. Love in the 21st century is candyfloss and confetti, hurting just slightly. It doesn't thrive on thwarted passions. It doesn't need to transcend social barriers and inequities. It's not about sacrifice, separation, pain or even death. How then do you tell—and sell—a mawkish tale about a guy who boozes to death for unrequited love in these me-only, practical times?

Yes, in a Warholian age where image often triumphs over content, Devdas' success can be partly explained by its successful high pitched pre-release hype and spin—stories about its "fantastic" advance bookings and flashy corporate endorsements kept the film in the headlines."It's not a spontaneous success, but a creation of the hype," says media critic Sudheesh Pachauri. But that's possibly not all. Director Aziz Mirza calls Devdas "sheer poetry". Mahesh Bhatt loves its passion and flourish. Gulzar calls Bhansali a "passionate narrator". Others like upcoming filmmaker Anurag Kashyap feels it falls short of being a classic: "It doesn't provoke you into thinking, it doesn't stay with you once it's over." Script-writer Kamlesh Pandey refers to Devdas as a "missed opportunity". "Bhansali could have rediscovered Devdas for this generation."

That's still not all. Could Devdas' success be fuelled by the audience's desire for new narratives? "Anything done with conviction, which treads a new path, works for our jaded appetites. The surest way to success is to tell an old story in today's language," says Santosh Desai, executive vice-president, McCann Ericksson. That's precisely what Bhansali does. Devdas marks a glossy return to the classical romance. It's about opulence of images, eye-catching colours, a grand opera where content is secondary to the spectacle. "Bhansali spatialises Devdas in a series of still-life tableaus," says sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan. Note how 21st century Devdas hits Paro with a pretty string of pearls instead of a boring stick. Bhansali has got the packaging right—he retells Devdas lavishly, which may not really be in line with the spirit of the novel but works for its day and age. The film steers clear of questions of social inequality or feudal hierarchies. It portrays suffering, pain, insecurities and frailties of its characters in a most palatable way. So the audience takes in as much of the embroidery on SRK's kurta as the love in his eyes. "The opulence of the sets kills whatever agony the protagonists suffer, the tragedy never reaches its poignancy," says director Rituparno Ghosh. "No one is really empathising with the lover, it's more like going for a ramp show, a fashion parade," says Pachauri. Is Devdas then more an ode to the market and materialism? "It's symptomatic of the times when rich indulge in vulgar consumption of wealth, hence all emotions are given a go-by," says Sashi Kumar of Asian College of Journalism.

However, Bhatt disagrees: "It's not rich only on the surface, it's got emotional realism." Devdas appeals to the collective emotional instincts of the audience. After Titanic, here's another film that makes them weep copiously. So why search for any social relevance here? "Devdas is told from the point of view of a lover. It lifts you into an alternate reality, the magical world of love. Why are we then being cynical about it?" asks Bhatt. Also, perhaps, Bimal Roy's naturalistic, noir-ish Devdas wouldn't have worked today. "In the age of globalisation, the wastrel has to be placed amidst pomp and grandeur, it has to be a celebratory Devdas," argues Shohini Ghosh of the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. So, despite the tragedy, it remains a very contemporary film. "It belongs to an old era but you don't feel that. It's not outdated, the characters behave like you and me," says Shubha Singh, a Delhi-based management consultant. And, in some ways, the tone is feelgood as well. "Every tragedy elevates you. Devdas' catharsis is also very exalting," says Mirza.

It only helps that Generation Y has no reference points about what is possibly the 12th remake. For filmmaker Mrinal Sen, the novel itself was never a great work of art. (Chatterjee wrote it in 1901, and refused to publish it for the next 16 years, insisting that it wasn't among his notable works). "It's a typical story of aristocratic decadence in a feudal setting," he says. Today's youngsters take in Bhansali's version without such a baggage of nostalgia—for them the hero could have even been called Charan Das.Few know the story, some may not even be able to distinguish between a Dilip Kumar and a K.L. Saigal. But the emotions could ring a bell anywhere, anytime. "Loss is a part of everyone's life, none of us have got all that we wanted," says adman-turned-filmmaker Shashanka Ghosh. For many, Chatterjee's novel work has the ability to appeal across time and generation. "Devdas' journey is resonant for a lot of Indians, it invokes a sense of loss for a life that's passed," says sociologist Ashish Nandy. For Gulzar, Devdas is "timeless". "Love knows no period or time. Even today people experience tragic angst and face social taboos. Just because our politicians are different today doesn't mean that Nehru is not relevant," he says. Pandey feels Devdas' appeal lies in the fact that he was not a loser but a rebel. "His deathwish is a rebellion against the society and its conventions," he says. As in Titanic, it's this spin that's cool—of choosing your end.

Bhansali reinterprets Devdas in other ways that could cause heartburn for purists. For instance, he turns Devdas into a family drama. "It's an Ekta Kapoor-style soap opera full of family intrigues and relatives conspiring against the couple," says Vishwanathan. In fact, Devdas is more the story of the women than the man. Bhansali gives more depth to the character of Paro's mother (Kiron Kher); he even makes Paro and Chandramukhi come together for a joyous dance in the midst of misery. "P.C. Barua and Bimal Roy also took liberties with the text. So why not Bhansali so long as the spirit is rightly narrated," justifies Gulzar. "It's Bhansali's personal vision of Devdas," says director Farhan Akhtar. Then, there is the sheer star-value to bring in the hordes. "What more does an audience need than Ash and Madhuri dancing together?" asks Film Information's Komal Nahata.

Bhansali, a true blue commercial filmmaker, is also faithful to the market values. So his Devdas is about gratification rather than edification, "like cocaine, a celebration of the senses," as Bhatt says. Every generation deserves its Devdas. We, it seems, want to amuse ourselves to death. So Shahrukh Khan, the great entertainer, as Devdas is doing just fine.

Namrata Joshi With Ashis K. Biswas in Calcutta, S. Anand in Chennai and Lata Khubchandani in Mumbai

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