Indian auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a new film coming out in December, the period drama Padmavati. Manish takes a look back at Bhansali’s career, spanning two decades and nine films.
It was July of 2002. My family drove from our small town in Maryland to Falls Church, Virginia, to the closest Indian movie theater, the Loehmann’s Twin Cinemas, to see Devdas. I was capital-E Excited for this movie. I had already memorized every beat of every song on the soundtrack. I had absorbed the trailers and TV promos. Once I watched it, the movie had a major impact on me, though I didn’t fully understand why at the time. Devdas is immensely influential in my love for cinema. Earlier this year, Devdas celebrated its 15th anniversary, for which I wrote a retrospective. Devdas has been a film I’ve cherished ever since I first saw it.
With his two previous films, Sanjay Leela Bhansali was building towards something. Khamoshi: The Musical is grounded in realism, with some flights of fancy. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam then bridges the gap by being contemporary but more opulent. Devdas completely eschews realism, taking place in heightened, melodramatic artifice. The sets have bonkers architecture, floor to ceiling design, colorful curtains, and extravagant chandeliers. The costumes are vibrant and intricate. Devdas is a big ask, requiring its audience to be on its amplified wavelength.
Even under the visual splendor, however, Bhansali doesn’t lose track of his characters. Some of the most effective shots in the film are close-ups of his three stars, Aishwarya Rai (returning from HDDCS), Shah Rukh Khan, and Madhuri Dixit. Bhansali utilizes the grandeur and over-the-top theatricality to emphasize the performances the characters are giving within the film itself. Their whole lives are played out on a theatre stage, where they must contend with judging eyes or the risk of breaking social customs. These characters enter a scene in one role, then reveal their inner feelings as the scene progresses. This is especially true for Paro (Rai), who has to play different parts in different stages of her life. In the film, Paro becomes an aristocrat (the highest social standing in the main cast) and often has to enact the role of a haughty lady. And yet she cannot keep her true self from coming forward, turning away from someone to keep them from seeing her.
Devdas is rich with dialogue scenes, during which the characters go through multiple emotions and their relationships with the others shift multiple times. Bhansali keeps his characters moving around, as the dynamic between them shifts. For example, a scene between Paro and Devdas (Khan) can go from teasing to hurtful, from romantic to tragic, within minutes. Bhansali utilizes his lavish sets as a space for characters to track their own changes in emotions. Bhansali’s camera moves around with them; cinematographer Binod Pradhan capturing every movement of Bhansali’s blocking. The editing by Bhansali favorite Bela Segal can transform from sharp cuts to smooth long takes as needed by the beats of the scene.
Bhansali uses Hindu mythological imagery in two of the songs that appear back to back, which gives them a metatextual connection. The first song “Morey Piya” (My beloved) has Devdas and Paro along the banks of a river (evoking the religious figures Lord Krishna and Radha) in what is coded as a sexual encounter (Paro gets a thorn in her foot producing blood, flowing water, etc.). Devdas soon abandons Paro after an argument with his family and ends up at a brothel. Chandramukhi (Dixit) is a courtesan who performs “Kaahe Chedh Mohe” (Why do you tease me?), a song from the perspective of Radha as she complains about Lord Krishna taking her honor. Devdas is visibly tormented by the performance, ashamed of leaving Paro after their night at the river. Devdas’s own guilt manifests itself through these two interlinked musical numbers.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s informal trilogy of love torn apart by parental dissent reaches its crescendo with Devdas. It’s interesting to note how each film has a different kind of ending. Khamoshi had a happy ending, HDDCS had a bittersweet finale, and Devdas is a tragedy. Devdas, like Bhansali’s previous work, has been appreciated worldwide. It was nominated for the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film, and it was placed on best world cinema lists in TIME and Empire magazines. The transcendent imagery and complicated characters still resonate with me after all this time, and Devdas remains a treasured classic.
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