The Agony and Ecstasy of Devdas
edited: Friday, July 18, 2003
By Pat Brown
Posted: Friday, July 18, 2003
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We grow up desiring to fall in love...to experience this feeling of pure bliss. But is it really bliss? And does it even exist? And if it does, is it doomed from the start?
Although few Americans are familiar with the story of Devdas, many a person in India considers this tale to be one of the most captivating and compelling stories to have been penned in the last century. Written in 1917 by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, the story of Devdas and his love for Paro is sometimes compared to the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Yet the profound issues in the Devdas drama far exceed the relative simplicity of teenage lovers who kill themselves in a hapless moment of stupidity. On the surface, there is a similarity in the basic stories. Two young people fall in love and marriage between the two is thwarted by parental opposition. However, the similarity ends as soon as the story is set in motion .The naïve Romeo and Juliet do not question their simplistic love for each other and little understand the greater circumstances around them except in light of the barrier such circumstances present to being together. Without agonizing over their decisions, they wed, spend a night of conjugal bliss and attempt to flee their parent’s control. When they fail and think each other dead, the same passion that brought them together so quickly in romance, ignites the anguish of loss that causes each to commit suicide thus bring an immediate end to any suffering life has caused them.
Devdas and Paro have a much more complicated history and love for each other. When they also are not permitted to marry by Devdas’ parents, there are no simple answers and Devdas and Paro struggle for a solution. When they fail to agree on a plan to be together, the two do not escape the agony that humans go through when they suffer a great loss and yet must go on living.
While the lives of Romeo and Juliet ended tragically, the pain is short-lived and most readers simply feel sorry that selfish parents caused a situation in which foolish teenagers acted hastily in response to their hormones. Although Devdas also acts foolishly and carelessly in response to his parent’s refusal to allow his marriage to Paro, the love between Devdas and Paro is much more involved, complicated, and mature than Romeo and Juliet’s puppy love. The tragedy of Devdas and Paro is not a simple cause and effect affair, but a lifelong struggle that fails to ever succeed in bringing happiness or peace of mind.
In this way, Devdas and Paro represent every man and woman. They represent our attempts to make sense of love and life, pain and pleasure, the pathology of the male/female relationship, the unbreakable bond we have to the society into which we are born, and the lifelong dilemmas we face within those social boundaries. They bare their souls so that we can examine ours. The author allows us to pick and choose what aspects of the human predicament we wish to examine each and every time we reencounter the Devdas narrative and each time we do revisit, we find ourselves drawn into yet another issue we previously had ignored or avoided.
It is because we can see ourselves in the story of Devdas that makes this timeless story all the more unforgettable and disturbing. There are, of course, those few who refuse to see themselves within the pages of this book and view Devdas as simply a story of love unfulfilled that can be read in less than an hour. This “simple” story, however, has inspired ten different film versions of this tale and no doubt will in the future drive more men mad in their attempt to explain the demons of Devdas to the world and perhaps, more importantly, to themselves.
I, myself, will attempt the same here, and for the same reasons. The issues that tormented Devdas torment us all and we would like to be able to reason with these warring factions in us and go to our graves comfortable in our knowledge that we were able to know and defeat them. Unfortunately, we are no more capable than Devdas of succeeding and so I, with full recognition of my own weaknesses, will tread this same path, most likely a circuitous route ending in the place at which I am starting.
For the purposes of this futile attempt at explaining such pathos, I will refer to three sources for my illustrations and conclusions: the text of Devdas translated into English from the Bengali by Sreejata Guha, Bimal Roy’s 1955 black and white film version of Devdas starring Dilip Kumar, Vvjayantimala, Motilal, and Suchitra Sen, and the recent 2002 stunning remake by Sanjay Leela Bhansali starring Shahrukh Khan as Devdas, Aishwarya Rai as Parvati (Paro), Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi, and Jacky Shroff as Chunilal.
For those unfamiliar with the Devdas tale, I will start with as simple a rendition of the story that I can muster for purposes of framing the concepts and familiarizing the reader with the essentials. Devdas, youngest son of a wealthy family, grows up with childhood friend, Parvati, affectionately called Paro. While her family is of lesser status, the two are inseparable as children, which in no way violates the social convention of the day. Eventually, Devdas is sent away to Calcutta (or England in the Bhansali version) to complete his schooling. He returns as an adult and Devdas and Paro enter into a new stage of intimacy, in the form of romantic love. Paro’s family suggests marriage to Devdas’ family who rejects the match for both class and personal reasons. Paro, in desperation, comes to Devdas in the night offering herself to him as his wife. Devdas refuses her, both sexually and emotionally, bowing to his parents’ decision. He makes a half-hearted attempt to change his parents’ minds, then shirking any responsibility to Paro, leaves town without facing her again. He then drives the nails into his coffin by writing her a thoughtless letter telling her to forget him as though she were only a minor distraction in his life. It is only after he sends the letter does he realize that his less-than-mature acts have long-term consequences and he hurriedly returns to his village to salvage his relationship with Paro. Alas, he is too late, as Paro is now about to be married to a wealthy older man. Devdas makes an attempt to explain his poor behavior and asks him trust him to marry her, that he will go to his parents once again and get them to change their minds. Paro immediately sees the likely outcome of this foolish plan. She has little faith left in her for Devdas and in asking her to embarrass her family yet a second time by canceling the arranged marriage and perhaps a third time when no marriage with Devdas materializes, Paro becomes livid and tells him she has no intention of humiliating herself and her family at his whims. In his anger at her obviously more mature handling of life and her ability to be the one now in control of his destiny (no longer the dependent female), he strikes her, leaving a mark on her forehead that she should never forget him and she always will belong to him.
In spite of her deep love for Devdas, Paro does not give in to his demands and goes ahead with the arranged marriage. Devastated, Devdas leaves town again. Tormented by his loss and his now fully realized love for Paro, Devdas begs his hedonistic and amoral friend, Chunilal, to show him the way to save himself from his pain. Chunilal, wise in the ways of debauchery and self-medication, leads Devdas to a house of prostitution and the bottle. There he succumbs to alcohol but resists the temptations of the beautiful courtesan and dancer, Chandramukhi who in turn falls in love with Devdas because he refuses her. Devdas claims it is his revulsion to wicked women that prevents him from enjoying her charms, but it is far more likely his admission of sexual desire would force him to face agonizing reality that he will never have a physical relationship with Paro. Another likely cause of his feeling of initial hatred of Chandramukhi lies in his comment, “You are the prime example of how much humiliation and assault, how many jibes and insults a woman can stand.” He speaks unknowingly of himself and his behavior towards Paro and he cannot tolerate that in Chandramukhi he sees himself mirrored as the kind of man who disrespects and destroys the lives of innocent women.
Over the next number of years, Devdas descends into alcoholism as he tries to forget Paro and accept Chandramukhi’s love. He fails dismally at both. At one point in time, he makes another pitiful attempt to make Paro his wife when he asks her to run away with him. He has done nothing, however, to restore Paro’s faith in him as he has no job, is frittering his money away, and is a total drunk. She, on the other hand, though trapped in a loveless unconsummated marriage, is a success as a wife and mother, and has risen to an even higher status in society than Devdas’ own family. She cannot accept his proposal and he returns to Chandramukhi. Chandramukhi, also has improved her status in life. She has quit the life of prostitution and is willing and capable of caring for Devdas as a loving wife and companion. Devdas, now has developed love for Chandramukhi, but he cannot commit to a relationship that would either require him to deal with the realities of class issues and also the reality of true commitment as someone’s spouse. He, therefore, leaves her (runs away yet again rather than face life) and goes off to be “cared for” by Chunilal. A willing victim to Chunilal’s “cure”, Devdas destroys his liver and becomes critically ill. In a last attempt to be with Paro, he has himself transported to her home. He dies, however, outside her gates before Paro can reach his side. Right until and even at the end of his life, Devdas still fails to make the choices that would truly bond him with the women he loves.
So what the hell is wrong with this man? Why does this handsome man with education and money have no balls and why is he so stunted in his maturity? Why is he so childish and why doesn’t he seem to want to grow up? Do we even like Devdas? Do we feel at all sorry for him? Why do these women even give him the time of day if he is such a jerk? To comprehend Devdas, or the metaphor of Devdas, we can look to all three sources for understanding. There are those that argue over which telling of the story is right or better. Some love one version and hate the others. I love them all. Like the description of the elephant by the group of blind men or the attempt to explain God by different religions or as a triune being, the variations of Devdas are all about impotence and ignorance - cultural, sexual and emotional - but each version tends to explore each of these aspects in slightly different ways and spends more time of one specific aspect than the others.
Chattopadhyay’s book most clearly recognizes the cultural constructs and political, religious, and class influences of the time that heavily influenced the lives of the men and women trapped within those invisible walls. Although the author recognizes that the individual personality and the free will of humans can influence their decisions and even allow them to break free of societal chains, he more intelligently recognizes that society so shapes the individual he is often unaware of where his thoughts end and society thoughts begins.
The author, however, does not tell a story in a completely static society. Increased travel, education and colonization also bring new ideas, options and conflict into the milieu. These new developments add yet more layers of complication to human relationships. Devdas goes to study in the city and comes back more stylish and educated, but further in thought from those he had grown up with. Likewise, when he returns to the city, his village ways no doubt impact on his relationships there as well. Change can be both beneficial and damaging to culture and relationships and it is the individual’s reactions to change that determine its effect.
Roy’s classic film focuses slightly less on the societal influences; instead he prefers to show us the unfortunate results of man’s desire for power and control that rage within the individual and a bold acknowledgement of sadism as a weapon often embedded in the male arsenal to deal with times of self-doubt. The Devdas portrayed brilliantly by Dilip Kumar is a not a black and white character one can label either evil or good. This Devdas is both willful and lethargic, passionate and coldhearted, clever and dimwitted, cruel and kind. In his attempts to be respected by others (thereby gaining power for himself), he fails to recognize which relationships should have priority and he has no insight as to which behavior would be effective in gaining that person’s love and support. He also is unaware of the importance of time and the principles of cause and effect within that dynamic. The unintentional contrast of the film’s black and white medium further magnifies the conflicting emotions and behaviors we see and its starkness adds to the despair of reality we feel as Devdas decisions spiral Paro, Chandramurkhi and himself helplessly into an emotional abyss.
Bhansali’s version, the most recent and spectacular of all the films, is the exact opposite. The dazzling array of color, lights, and overwhelming beauty of just about every aspect of the film, including the red light district in which Chandramurkhi resides, sets a completely different tone than the earthy Roy version. While Roy focused on the base instincts in man, Bhansali chooses to transport us into almost unbearably gorgeous world where love is spiritual and sensual, but not sexual. This is idealized love; love that is eternal and pure, unsoiled by sexual coupling, decaying bodies, and the unrelenting familiarity of married life. While the relationship between Devdas and Paro and Chandramukhi remains chaste and unsullied, perhaps in an unconscious desire he himself becomes the metaphor for the ugliness of human beings and life on earth. Drunken behavior leading to vomiting, loss of bladder control, and rolling about in the filthy gutter and failure of body organs in late stage cirrhosis of the liver leading to the spitting up of blood, yellowing skin, and sunken eyes – these are not pretty sights. Devdas becomes unfit for sexual trysts and thereby does not have to face his feelings about women and sexuality.
In order to delve into the sexual dynamics of the male/female relationship, the struggle between the fantasy of romantic love and the reality of earthly love, and the impotence in life and love that leads to tremendous loss for all those involved, Shahrukh Khan portrays Devdas in a radical departure from previous depictions. He shows far less strength, less action, and less sadism than the other Devdas.
Khan’s Devdas is also a far more sympathetic character. While he does strike Paro with a piece of jewelry on her forehead leaving a permanent scar, he does so more out of love and desperation to be a part of her than we see in the calculated assault with a stick by the Devdas of Bimal Roy’s version. Likewise, the physical assaults of Paro committed in the Roy film, the slaps to her face as a child for her disobedience of Devdas and the cruel comments by this Devdas to both Paro and Chandramukhi are reduced to teasing behaviors and tempered insults in Bhansali’s rendition. The Devdas of Bhansali’s film is much less physical and far less down-to-earth than the other Devdas. All the emotional angst is on the mental plane where idealized love lives. One wishes one could slap this Devdas and demand him to wake up from his dream before his dream ends but his slumber continues.
Khan’s Devdas is not confused about the depth of his love for Paro. He loves her beyond reason, but he isn’t mature enough to take control of their destinies. He also has more empathy for Paro and Chandramukhi in this version, but his empathy is not enough to overtake his impotency in dealing with life. Near the end of the film he despairingly asks why human beings make stupid mistakes that ruin their lives forever. He never asks, of course, why human beings don’t correct their stupid mistakes and compound these mistakes with yet more foolish mistakes. Why are we as humans often a day late and a dollar short in the smart moves department?
While the Paro of Bhansali’s film does not act significantly different that the Paro of Roy’s film, the glamour of her clothes, her jewelry, her surroundings, the songs and marvelously choreographed dances all accent the beautiful form and face of one of India’s most beautiful women, Aishwarya Rai of Miss World fame and raise Paro to the level of a virgin diva of Ishq (romantic love). Is this romantic love too beautiful an emotion to destroy? Is Devdas really running from fear of being trapped in a mundane life? Should Devdas actually seduce Paro, marry Paro, allow her to grow older and more decrepit, he will undoubtedly lose that quality of love he feels for her. If he were a mature and responsible man, he might accept the fact that romantic love only exists in fantasy and the reality of ongoing relationships, daily bodily functions, and the demands of a normal human life soon bring the dreamer down to earth and a more shared companionship kind of love based on friendship and commitment will have to be acceptable. But Devdas is no where near mature and responsible.
Likewise, should Devdas enter into a sexual relationship with Chandramukhi, so exquisitely portrayed by Maduri Dixit, he would have to actually confront the true work of this beautiful, alluring courtesan; a woman who will perform any sex act paid for by the never ending train of men coming to her door. He would have to confront the fact that men like him cause women like her to end up in these miserable situations. While his act of love could raise a prostitute from forced sex acts to consensual lovemaking, he failure to love Paro has forced Paro to become a prostitute herself and submit to any crude desire of the husband who has bought her (although it is never clear if he ever finds out that Paro’s marriage is unconsummated)
Khan’s Devdas encourages Chandramukhi to leave the life of prostitution, but when she does, he dumps her. Should she become Devdas wife, he would also have to be able to live up to the responsibility of caring for another person and he clearly cannot even take care of himself. He would also have to deal with the repercussions of society, he would have to accept his wife’s past and he would have to confront real sexual impotence as the result of alcoholism. For a man who can’t even mastermind his own demise without the help of his friend, Chunilal, Devdas is far too weak to commit to any realistic love relationship
All these versions ask the same questions but respond with only partial answers. The questions we ask are, “What is true love? Is a human capable of such love? Does such a love actually exist or is it purely in the human mind that it has existence? Are we all pursuing a fantasy that cannot be realized? Does the society we live in completely shape how we feel and how we act? Do we have any real control over who we are? Do we have free will and even if we have it, do we understand enough about love and life to be able to use it? Do we even have a clue to what we really want?”
The written version of Devdas is perhaps the most honest. Devdas admits to not knowing if he knows what love is and in not knowing, he also does not know how to respond. He is essentially impotent as a result of his upbringing. He allows others to dictate his choices rather than make his own destiny. When Paro visits him in his room and he tells her he cannot marry her against his parents’ wishes, he then opts to walk Paro home at the risk of being found out. He states “If someone sees us and there’s a scandal, there may be a way out for us yet.” He will not be responsible for his decision but vaguely hopes fate will decide for him. At the point where his health is declining and he is without either woman, his mind vacillates between the memories of both women, sometimes resulting in his inability to distinctly separate them. Chattopadhyay’s Devdas, who had never truly empathized with the women or their situations in his life, can now no longer even recognize the women as individuals. In a male dominated society where women have limited rights, it would be difficult for Devdas to see the women as anything but an extension of himself and his status. In the end, his lack of responsibility to those that truly care for him costs him not only his happiness but the happiness of Paro and Chandramukhi as well.
The original story obviously believes that an individual may find himself at the mercy of the society into which he is born. Although this Devdas had a cruel streak, he also had kindness in him as well and he seemed to be torn between the demands of his status in society both as a man in general and as a man wealth, and the desires of the heart which he made subservient to the other issues. The movie versions focus less on the politics and society as the creators of behavior and focus more on a biological basis for the power struggle between Devdas and his women, the weakness of humans in general and the Roy film also explores the issues of sadism and masochism in the male/female relationship. Why does Devdas abuse of Paro not end her love for him? Is Paro masochistic?
Roy’s Devdas slaps Paro as a child and no one even chastises him for it (except Paro herself). She is rather exceptional in that she actually does stand up to him, but she does not end their relationship. Devdas feels it is his right to treat Paro as he will and it makes him feel in control of their relationship. While he can mistreat Paro and break her heart, he cannot stand up to those more powerful than him. While Paro can stand up to Devdas, she cannot break her ties of love to him. Even the blow to her head, while not stopping her marriage to another, did indeed increase the bond between her and Devdas as he wished. That moment of extreme emotion towards her was etched in not only on her forehead but in her heart for as long as she would live. Devdas was not truly sadistic toward Paro. He loved her and wanted her to acknowledge him. While Paro undoubtedly recognized his outbursts of violence as stemming from the anger of impotence, she most likely still held the belief that aggressive action was better than no action at all and perhaps this anger might finally take positive direction
On the other hand, Devdas starts his relationship with Chandramukhi on a truly sadistic note. He wants to punish Chandramukhi for reminding him of Paro and what he can’t ever have with her. There is little point in physically assaulting Chandramukhi because she is already a consenting partner in abusive relationships with men. However, by refusing sex with her, he actually causes her to suffer. A woman who is so skilled at pleasing men has no way to make the man she loves happy. Chandramukhi, an extremely strong woman, fights back by killing Devdas with kindness. He finally succumbs, admits he loves her, and then leaves her in her moment of victory. This act, however, I doubt was one of sadism any more than I believe his leaving of Paro was a sadistic act. Devdas flees because of his pitiful inability to be a true partner in love.
Lastly, one could ask if Devdas himself was a masochist. Did he enjoy torturing himself with his unrequited loves? I don’t believe so. I am more likely to guess that he recognized his failure as a man brought others grief and he sentence himself to suffering and death. Devdas is not a bad man; he has a conscience. In a scene created for the Bhansali version, Shahrukh Khan’s Devdas, in a superbly drunken moment, enacts a courtroom scene in which he as God sentences him to drink himself to death and he as Devdas responds with “No objection.”
Of course, there is the possibility that Khan’s Devdas knew romantic love would end with commitment and familiarity. Perhaps he was not as impotent or immature as we believe. Maybe he in some way knew that in winning the battle he would lose the war. Maybe he was an idealist, a fanatic, a ridiculous romantic who could not live life on a material plane that would extinguish the light of mythical love.
Then, again, he is more likely just a confused and clueless idiot like the rest of us. At the end of his life, he had no stunning revelation or moment of clarity. He still had no idea as to what he should have wanted out of life or what he should have done with his life and his loves.
Well, here I am at the end of this rant. I clearly haven’t answered any of those questions to any degree of satisfaction as I knew I never would. Even as a criminal profiler, I really can’t say what causes people to fall in love and out of it. I don’t know if romantic love truly exists outside of a deranged state of mind; I have never experienced it. I don’t know if it is worth experiencing or it is something just as well left alone, like a rattlesnake sunbathing on a rock. Some days I am happy Romeo and Juliet kicked off rather than watch them grow old in mutual dislike for each other as the years pass and Juliet grows fat and Romeo goes bald. Some days I wish Devdas would get his Paro and Chandramukhi would get her Devdas. Some days I wish I would be the one to get Devdas.
If I haven’t helped you understand the dynamics of love and relationships, please read the Devdas novel or see one of the fine Devdas films. I will look forward to your thoughts on the matter. My brain is off on holiday.