Sunday, November 21, 2010


Dilip Kumar has been the “perfectionist” actor of the golden era of Hindi cinema, just as Amir Khan is addressed as Mr. Perfectionist in the current era of Bollywood. Another common appellation that is attached to his name is that of “Tragedy King.” We all know that by some quirk of fate, the initial career of Thespian Dilip Kumar took him through the portals of the many tragic roles in such movies as Jugnu (1947), Shaheed, Nadiya ke Paar, Mela (all 1948), Andaz (1949), Babul (1950), Deedar (1951) and Uran Khatola (1955) - to name just a few. While most of the roles ended in the death of the protagonist, some stories portrayed the hero as the living dead, as in Uran Khatola where his beloved is sacrificed to appease the tooth and claws of nature. Dilip Kumar’s transition to comedy happened only after Devdas (1955) that was yet another tragedy role that crowned Dilip Kumar as the King of Tragedy. It is for this reason that a small discussion about Devdas becomes imperative.

Speaking about Devdas, it was sometimes in mid- Nineteen Fifties that the ace director, Bimal Roy, cast Dilip Kumar in one of the most challenging roles ever. Dilip Kumar picked up the gauntlet to play Devdas - a character in Sarat Chandra, famous novel of that name. Of course, earlier in 1935, K.L. Saigal had donned the garb of Devdas. However, that Devdas is remembered more for the immortal songs of Saigal Saab. With the consummate artistry, Dilip Kumar was able to lend such intensity and realism to the role of the alcoholic and self-defeating Devdas that the character became larger than life and is  remembered even after 55 years of the film’s release.  Dilip Kumar’s acting prowess fetched him yet another Filmfare Award in the Best Actor category. Also, no Bollywood actor dared to enact a full-fledged role of Devdas, though down the years that was done in snatches or as a parody or even symbolically. Thus the critics have noted that the role of Sikandar, played by Amitabh Bachchan in Muqaddar ka Sikandar during his mega-star days, has the shades of a Devdas what with his wooing of  the courtesan  (Rekha) at her ‘Kotha’. Dharmendra too had dropped the idea of enacting the role of Devdas.

For Bimal Roy, Devdas was the labour of love and it rightly won him critics’ acclaims and the movie has passed on to the Hall of Fame as a Bollywood “Classic”. The flip side was that Devdas did not earn money for Bimal Roy who was therefore drained financially. The silver linining to that dark cloud, however, was that Bimal Roy toyed with the idea of making Madhumati, a heroine-oriented romantic story of rebirth, with Dilip Kumar and Vyajayantimala in the lead. When Madhumati was released in 1958 not only was Bimal Roy laughing his way to the Bank, but had even accumulated as many as nine Filmfare Awards – a record that was surpassed only in 1995  by  Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge.

When I had watched Devdas at the Bombay’s Swastik Cinema in 1955, I was just a kid who had no sense of the seriousness of the movie or about its huge star-cast:  Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen (Paro his childhood love) , Vyajayantimala (Chandramukhi the courtesan)  and Motilal (Chunni Babu who leads him to the 'Kotha'though reluctantly) .   I did not understand that the rigidity of the caste-system creates a great chasm between the hearts of men.   Nor could I then understand how  a failed childhood love should drive someone  so crazy that he would drink himself to death!  Why should a ravishing courtesan who is the cynosure of all eyes (though lusting eyes) give up her smiles and laughter plus a lucrative business for a man whose heart and soul belongs to some other woman who has been married off to a much older man whose children belong to the same age-group as Devdas.   Was that some vicarious love of Paro with which she hoped to win over the hopeless alcoholic?  His mere presence had changed everything not only from the outside but also from the inside of Chandramukhi.  He was the first man in her life who had given her a wad of hard currency without demanding anything from her in return.  Who was more praiseworthy?  Chandramukhi?  Or Paro,  who is crushed under the wheels of filial obedience but who nevertheless musters enough courage to sneak after mid-night to meet Devdas, a 'Mard' to speak about the marriage  only to be turned down by him since he lacks the courage to rebel against his parents and escapes to Calcutta.   Both Paro and Chandramukhi are ready to serve Devdas in their own way;  but Devdas has a promise to keep.  A promise to  visit Paro sometimes.  He does that.  He dies at her doorstep! 

Youngsters would hardly find anything of interest there that would be suitable to their age.  However, I had to revise my opinion when many years ago I read an article by an eminent female film journalist (since deceased).  She recounts that as a teenager how she and other girls used to bunk their school off and on to watch Dilip Kumar as Devdas at the Swastik Cinema. Since they had no money to purchase tickets for the movie, they used to move inside the movie-hall on the sly, only after the movie started. A “friendly” usher readily helped them find vacant seats in the dark hall  but at a price. While guiding them to the seats in the dark, he would fondle the girls at the wrong places. The girls did not mind as long as they could watch Dilip Kumar on the screen!  It is not surprising therefore that girls of impressionable age too fell for his on-screen charm. Unknown to him, his future wife, Saira Banu, had a crush on him since she was twelve!     Evidently, Dilip Kumar’s persona was not less of a lady-killer even in such a  movie as Devdas where he dons a sombre, drunken  and brooding  look  almost all the time. 

More than four decades wouId pass before someone could think of re-making Devdas in earnest. Sanjay Leela Bansali decided to re-make Devdas with Shahrukh Khan in the title role. Though Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas was a box-office hit, it wasn’t a faithful adaptation of the novel. Nor did it have a stark realism of the older black- and-white version.  Compared to the rustic version, the new Devdas was a glamourised version which looked more of a costume drama that had lavish sets and was packaged in gaudy colours, artificial histrionics, and contrived sub-plots, such as the non-existent meeting of Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) with Paro (a younger Aishwarya Rai) and and their mega song-and-dance sequence. The liberties taken by Sanjay with the original novel rightly had the purists fuming.

As for Shahrukh Khan, he had the explicit blessings of  Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu. In fact, it was Saira Banu who stated that if anyone could do Devdas it would be Shahrukh Khan. Shahrukh Khan must have certainly found it tough to do justice to the role for it is said that he often took to drinking on the sets to bring realism to his role of the drunkard.  According to Shahrukh, "My Devdas is just a tribute to Dilip saab 's performance. I hope that a lot of youngsters would watch me and then go back to watch Dilip saab as Devdas."   That was sweet of him to say!   However, while comparing the roles of Dilip Kumar and Shahrukh Khan, Vyajayantimala stated that Dilip Kumar had acted as Devdas while Shahrukh Khan acted as himself.

Reference to Devdas was a must, since the character had taken a toll of the psyche of Dilip Kumar and it was imperative that his humours were restored.  It was at this moment that Azaad, a non-tragedy film,  appeared to be God-sent. 

To continue...


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