If you’re Indian, it’s almost unpatriotic not to be a fan of Shah Rukh Khan. Whether he’s helping Kajol onto the train, teaching Preity Zinta how to love life again, or being reincarnated to win Deepika Padukone’s heart, SRK/ Baadshah/ King Khan is Bollywood’s reigning King of Romance. And it has to be said; most of his movies are romantic inspiration for young lovers everywhere.
Devdas is not one of these movies.
Sure, on the surface, a love triangle, some soulful Sanjay Leela Bhansali dialogues and classical music and dancing may seem like a textbook formula for romance, but people who tout this as another Shah Rukh Khan love story are clearly missing the point of the movie.
Recently, we’ve had a spate of socially aware millennials criticizing the movie for romanticizing assault; and they’re not wrong. Shah Rukh’s Devdas is a somewhat misogynist, condescending idiot with a superiority complex; and to consider him the ideal romantic hero is incredibly problematic.
But the thing is that the movie doesn’t portray him as the ideal romantic hero. His relationships with Paro and Chandramukhi represent two very different stages of his rather tragic life. With Paro, he is the young, slightly arrogant returnee from London, full of dreams, ready to marry his childhood sweetheart, and believing that the world is his to conquer. With Chandramukhi, he is a broken shell of a man, dependent on alcohol, resentful of the world for stealing his happiness, and trying to regain his feelings of superiority by putting down Chandramukhi and her profession as a courtesan as often as possible. Devdas is not a hero; if anything, he’s an anti-hero. Viewers start the movie by rooting for him, wanting him and Paro to be happy together; and as the movie goes on, the find themselves disgusted with his behaviour, even as they weep for the unresolved love he and Paro so clearly still share. And yet, even as we criticize Devdas for making all the wrong choices and being responsible for his own unhappiness, we cannot help but pity him for the lousy hand his family dealt him. And that is the genius of Shah Rukh Khan; even as he plays one of Bollywood’s most unlikable primary characters, he makes you pity him, weep for him, and find yourself wishing for his redemption. Yes, Devdas starts out as a romance; but it is so much more than that. It is a story of passion, jealousy, betrayal, heartbreak, weakness… the list goes on.
As for the women in the story, one thing is certain; the movie may be named after Devdas, but it revolves completely around the dynamic between them. Kaushalya openly humiliating Sumitra, Sumitra vowing revenge, Paro marrying another man out of heartbreak, Kumud’s machinations getting Devdas kicked out of the house, Chandramukhi tenderly nursing Devdas to health… Devdas’ life is thrown out of balance and somewhat restored because of the women around him. Paro, romanticized as the meek, subservient lover, is anything but. When Devdas calls her ‘silly’ and a ‘ganwaar’, she strikes back, rebuking him for making light of her feelings. When he expresses his shock at her marrying another, she furiously chides him for thinking that her mother being disrespected by his was not a big deal. And yet, she never stops loving him, or caring for his well-being. After everything he did to her, she still tries to convince him to give up drinking, and tries to comfort his father on his deathbed. When she learns of Chandramukhi, she blames her at first, but slowly recognizes a kindred soul in her; one who, despite themselves, loves Devdas as well. She sees the latter as a human being, not a courtesan, and invites her to the Durga Puja. She fulfils her duties as a daughter-in-law, and as a stepmother to her husband’s children. When her husband and mother-in-law confront her about Devdas, she quietly reminds them that her husband too still loved his first wife; as Subhadra was her husband’s first love, Devdas was hers. The lamp Paro keeps burning for Devdas is a testament to the fact that while she held on to her self-respect, and the dignity of her family, her love stayed true. To me, all these things show tremendous strength.
As for Chandramukhi, she is quite possibly the unsung hero of the entire movie. When Devdas rudely calls her shameless for dancing in front of men, she is not shamed or angry; instead, her first response is compassion, and pity for the man who “has such anguish in his eyes”. She is not blindly infatuated with Devdas; when he condescendingly offers her money for ‘a night wasted’, she snaps at him, “Now I see why Paro abandoned you. Forget love, you are not even worthy of sympathy.” When he then mockingly asks her what she knows of love, passion and romance, she replies, without missing a beat: “Pyaar aatman ki parchai hai; ishq, ishvar ki ibaadat; aur mohabbat, zindagi ki maksad” (“Love is a reflection of the soul; passion, a gift from god; and romance, the goal of life”). Her love for Devdas stems from the fact that she sees his heartbreak, his pain, and sees the person behind the crude façade. Her love, like Paro’s, is unconditional, but in a different way. Paro loves Devdas even while being the wife of another man; Chandramukhi loves him even though she knows his heart belongs to another.
In many ways, Chandramukhi’s iconic line drawing distinctions between love, passion and romance is mirrored in the relationships between Devdas, Paro and herself. Pyaar, the pure, unconditional love, the reflection of the soul, is what Paro feels for Devdas; she kept his lamp burning from the day he left to the day he died, and in many ways, it shaped her. Ishq, the fiery, all-consuming passion, is what Devdas feels for Paro; so much so that when she leaves him, he turns to the bottle, which eventually kills him. And mohabbat, the more settled passion, the goal of life, is what Chandramukhi feels for Devdas. Even as she knows his love is for Paro, she loves him unconditionally, content to merely keep him company.
And in this way, we see how Sanjay Leela Bhansali masterfully weaves a story full of pathos, and simultaneous raw and complex emotions. Devdas is not a tale of love, or an epic romance; it is a story of how making the wrong choices, and choosing weakness over strength can cost you everything. And thus, it may very well be one of the most realistic Bollywood movies ever made.