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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Devdas’ (1955): Everything Old is New Again

Directed by: Bimal Roy || Produced by: Bimal Roy

Screenplay by: Nabendu Ghosh, Rajinder Singh Bedi || Starring: Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Vyjayanthimala, Motilal Rajvansh

Music by: S. D. Burman || Cinematography: Kamal Bose || Edited by: Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Das Dhaimade || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 167 minutes

Not long after I first started exploring Indian movies (back then, exclusively Hindi-language films), I got into a minor argument with one of my international student friends from Delhi about the then handful of Bollywood movies I had sampled; I remarked how I preferred the colorful, musical-heavy dance set-pieces of period films like Sanjay Bhansali’s Devdas (2002) over cornball dramas set during modern times like Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998; KKHH), to which she responded how I imagine most Northern Indians raised from the 1990s-2000s would, “The 2002 Devdas doesn’t hold a candle to the classic 1955 Devdas with Dilip Kumar, and neither are fit to lick the boots of KKHH.” I of course disagreed with her about the comparison between Johar and Bhansali’s directorial prowess, a sentiment that continues to this day, but I had no opinion at the time on the comparison between the most famous modern blockbuster adaptation (the 2002 film) of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s well regarded Bengali novel, Devdas, and arguably the most famous old-school, black-and-white classic take on the same material (the 1955 movie).

One of my biggest problems with the story of Devdas in any format is why the prominent courtesan, Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthimala, foreground left), has any emotional connection whatsoever with the titular character (Dilip Kumar, far right).

Over ten years later, I at last got around to watching the latter film, one of the most popular works by renowned Hindi filmmaker Bimal Roy and starring the venerable Dilip Kumar (real name of Mohammed Yusuf Khan) as indicated above by my friend in the title role. A major hurdle for me with respect to these older, monochrome Bollywood classics is, simply put, their lack of color; even if you can find a decent online copy of films like Devdas or Awaara (1951) or Naya Daur (1957) — not an easy ask, mind you — outdoor landscapes never pop and the tropical explosion of colors for which South Asian dress, festivals (e.g. Holi), and foods are famous get sidelined when in grayscale. As I stated in my review of Pyaasa (1957) by writer-director-star Guru Dutt, I think black-and-white photography works fine in crime dramas like film noir or Scarface (1932), but in musical melodramas the lack of a full color palette works against the material.

My overall positive reaction to Pyaasa encouraged me to take a chance on another older, near 3-hour monochrome Hindi film, but unfortunately the presence of a way more entertaining, colorful, and exciting 2000s rendition of the same source material makes the 1955 Devdas feel old-fashioned rather than old-school. I understand many fans of Golden Age Bollywood (1940s-1960s) love this stuff, but I’d argue the appeal of something like Roy’s film is limited to those particular, homegrown audiences as opposed to something like Bhansali’s explosive, over-the-top musical.

My biggest problem with Devdas ’55 is the story, where, like every film or television adaptation of the seminal novel, the titular upper-caste Devdas (Kumar) falls for childhood friend and girl-next-door, Parvati (“Paro” for short; here played by Suchitra Sen), but the former’s parents say no to their marriage out of snobbishness; Paro’s parents then marry her to an older, even wealthier widower out of spite, so Devdas moves to Calcutta to live in a brothel in protest until he drinks himself into an early grave. While I’m sure this broad outline is fleshed out in interesting, more nuanced ways in the novel, in screenplay form it’s little different than the rebellion against arranged marriages and casteism you’ll find in hundreds of other South Asian flicks. The main characters here feel passive and the plot drags once Devdas leaves for Calcutta, as little else in the narrative develops besides a one-sided relationship between Devdas and courtesan Chandramukhi (Tamil actress Vyjayanthimala in one of her earlier and most famous Hindi roles).

While I like the film’s frequent use of dissolves, fades to and from black, and overall editing style that helps with the story’s longwinded 167-minute runtime, the outdoor cinematography feels limited by the grayscale film format and the indoor camerawork feels cavernous to the point where you can barely see anything (this may be a function of the lackluster prints available online, but I can only comment upon what I can find). Most frustrating of all is how theatrical Devdas ’55 feels in a bad way; most actors are blocked in doubles facing the camera in medium to wide-shots with little noteworthy set-design or props to further inform the characters, and those characters’ movements feel limited by the largely immobile camera technology of the time period. A few exceptions to the aforementioned exist in the handsome prologue, where some nice vertical tracking movements follow Devdas and Paro as children; some of Vyjayanthimala’s later solo dance sequences also feature a couple overhead shots and a handful of compositions with notable foreground to background depth.

Female lead Parvati (Suchitra Sen) gives Devdas (Kumar) the cold shoulder after he fails to fight for their relationship against his parents.

With all that said, I fail to get the hype of this Golden Age Hindi picture unlike the dramatic Mother India (1957), the majestic Mughal-e-Azam (1960), or the introspective Guide (1965). I believe I have enough perspective as both a fan of Indian film and as a cinephile in general to challenge, where appropriate, the entrenched nostalgia certain audiences have for certain older watershed movies. I don’t dislike this movie, nor am I offended at how most South Asian cinephiles likely default to Bimal Roy’s take on the Devdas property compared to Sanjay Bhansali’s, but I also find this narrative premise dull on screen and much better used as an excuse, a framework for musical set-pieces that better illustrate the same characterizations than nonstop dialogue. One style just feels more cinematic than the other.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Many well regarded movies from the 1950s (the height of the Golden Age of both Hollywood and Bollywood cinema) are famous for their epic scale and nuanced, emotional characters, but just as many, I feel, are overrated given their tiresome similarity to talky, stilted stage plays instead of the visual storytelling language unique to filmmaking. As much as this conclusion may irk fans of old-school Hindi cinema, I think that latter description best fits the 1955 Devdas.

However… the prologue is a nice standalone short inside a much longer movie and the montage style of several important sequences stand out.


? If Sen had been more subtle about her reaction to Kumar’s death, could she not have snuck out of her family’s compound at the end?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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