As of now, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s genre-defining novel Devdas has been filmed a total of 20 times in seven languages ​​in three countries. Everyone has played the titular role of KL Saigal and Dilip Kumara to Soumitra Chatterjee and even Paoli Dam (although she was Devi in ​​the movie). The topic is so popular that I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more newer adaptations are announced by the time I finish this piece. Which version of? Devdas you think the groundbreaking adaptation may very well depend on when and where you grew up. Of course, I’m also bringing up my bias here when I say that it’s the Sanjay Leela Bhansali version starring Shah Rukh Khan that really captures the essence of the novel like no one else has. I know it’s a controversial approach, but listen to me before you grab the pitchforks. Also read: Shah Rukh Khan Reveals ‘Problem’ While Making Devdas

Devdas, the red-hued and luscious, was released in theaters on July 12, exactly 20 years ago. When it was announced, it was the first attempt by a Hindi filmmaker to adapt the classic in nearly five decades. And when heavyweights Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Aishwarya Rai were thrown, the stakes got even higher. When the film was released, it was a huge success, but also polarized fans. Many considered it an instant classic, a grand, larger-than-life look at love and loss. Others found the opulence distracting from the nuclear plot. And others didn’t think it was a “fair” adjustment because it strayed too far.

Many said the previous iterations of the story didn’t require lavish sets and Technicolor song-and-dance sequences to tell the same story. But keep it in mind. Dilip Kumar’s Devdas was directed by the man who gave us Do Bigha Zamin, while Shah Rukh’s film was the work of a man who was going to make Padmaavat. On the spectrum of grandeur and realism in storytelling, Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali would likely be on opposite sides. It says a lot about the beauty of cinema that both can tell the same story in such contrasting ways. For me, the grandeur adds to the story because it magnifies the emotions each character feels, making a simple story that much more intense. That elevates it higher than its predecessors.

And the time has been kind to Bhansali’s magnum opus. It is a story about love, pride and man’s fall into madness because of ego. How can it not be great? How can it not be over the top? Especially at a time when even the simplest tales of teenage romance (Mohabbatein) and forbidden love (Gadar) were told in the greatest possible way. It was a product of its time, but one that is still relevant today. It also gave us the first glimpses of Bhansali perfecting his cinematic signature. After a relatively austere debut with Khamoshi, he tried something bigger in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but it was Devdas who wore many of Bhansali’s trademarks that he still uses.

Shah Rukh Khan's Devdas and Aishwarya Rai's Paro in happier times.
Shah Rukh Khan’s Devdas and Aishwarya Rai’s Paro in happier times.

One of the biggest criticisms of Bhansali’s Devdas is that it deviates from the original novel in many places. Purists grabbed their pearls when Paro met Chandramukhi and nearly passed out in horror as the two danced together in Durga Puja. Others asked why Chandramukhi, a courtesan, would have 20 backing dancers in Humpe Ye Kisne.

It says a lot that many people are more likely to accept a version in which ‘Chandramukhi’ is the victim of an MMS scandal than a version in which she meets Paro. For me, both versions are valid and both are actually very well made. The reason is that Devdas is a story about emotions, not facts. It does not tell a historical story where distortion takes something away from the story. It is up to the filmmaker how he wants to adjust and project those emotions on the screen. Some choose to portray it with Dola Re Dola and others with O Pardesi. Which is more “valid” is just as subjective as which ice cream flavor tastes best. However, I do know one thing. None of the added elements in the film – be it Devdas playing his own shraadh or Dola Re Dola – are redundant. None of them stick out. Which basically means that the end product works. To me, that shows the superiority of the project that it was able to add elements to the plot without losing focus on the core emotions.

While the benchmark for Devdas by Dilip Kumar may be out of reach, Shah Rukh Khan came close.
While the benchmark for Devdas by Dilip Kumar may be out of reach, Shah Rukh Khan came close.

Another criticism of the film is how Shah Rukh’s portrayal of the titular character fares compared to some of the other versions. Some of the biggest names and biggest actors in Indian cinema history had played Devdas before Shah Rukh took the mantle: KL Saigal, A Nageswara Rao, Dilip Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee, to name a few. Comparisons were inevitable. The benchmark for a good Devdas performance from Dilip Kumar may be hard to reach, but Shah Rukh came close. His strengths are unlike those of a classic actor in Dilip Kumar’s mold. No actor can come close to Dilip Kumar by portraying Devdas’ sorrow so simply but so beautifully. But there is one aspect in which Shah Rukh surpassed the great master – by portraying the arrogant madness of Dev. Shah Rukhs Devdas was an unsympathetic, arrogant and somewhat misogynistic man who needed no romanticization. And Shah Rukh delivered that superbly on screen. His version doesn’t have to be the best, or even better than anyone else. It was different and intense enough to work. And that’s all that matters.

In another 20 years, to a newer generation, both Shah Rukh and Dilip Kumar may seem like thespians from “a distant past.” And perhaps the year Devdas from 2002, like the previous one, can be regarded as a cine classic. And to them, it may seem like it was always so universally loved. Retroactive valuation is one thing, you know.

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