How The Story Is Told

In this paper, I will compare Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955) with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s (2002). Although both films tell the same basic story, they differ in how they tell that story; each film is clearly distinguishable by the manner in which the story is presented. By analyzing and comparing each film in respect to the filmic aspects of aesthetics, narrative structure, and content (and their associated elements), I will describe how, exactly, the films are alike, and how they are different, focusing especially on the latter. I will assert that, since they are created almost fifty years apart, each film is, to some extent, a reflection of the state of the Bollywood film industry, as well as (to a lesser extent) the social, economical, and cultural state of India, at the time of each film’s production. I will begin by briefly addressing the blatant similarities between the films.

Among several others, such as the two 1935 versions (one Hindi, one  Bengali), Roy and Bhansali’s Devdas’ are adaptations of a novella written by Sharat Chandra Chatterji in 1917. Consequently, although they are adapted somewhat differently, they share the same basic story: forbidden to marry his first love, Parvati/Paro (Suchitra Sen [1955], Aishwarya Rai [2002]), Devdas Mukherji (Dilip Kumar [1955], Shahrukh Khan [2002]) descends into despair, alcoholism, and, ultimately, death.

Aesthetically, the films are remarkably dissimilar. While the (black and white) 1955 version of Devdas is simple and naturalistic, utilizing natural light and minimal camera movement, the (coloured) 2002 version is extravagant and spectacular, utilizing various techniques for enhanced lighting and sophisticated camera movements. Of course, much of this difference is due to technological and economical advancements in the Bollywood film industry.

Cinematographically, the 1955 version is simplistic. Most shots are of medium or long length with minimal, if any, camera movement. The camera is usually still, but pans and zooms are used occasionally. There are only a few tracking shots, and even the most sophisticated shots yield simplicity. For example, after Devdas hits Paro’s roof with a mango, she runs downstairs to meet him under the archway (this occurs twice in the film). The camera pans left, tracks down the archway, and becomes still, moving from a medium shot to a long shot to a medium shot; Paro moves from center frame to left frame to center frame. It is simple, but it is elegant, natural, and effective. Moreover, all the shots are leveled (not canted) and straight (not tilted), and, aside from a few dissolves, the film is composed entirely of straight cuts.

On the other hand, the 2002 version is cinematographically complex. The shots range from extreme close ups to extreme long shots, from quick jump cuts to extreme long takes, and the camera is rarely still. For example, the film opens with a sophisticated extreme long take (of about two minutes) that involves extraordinary tracking, crane movements, and pans. Moreover, the film incorporates slow motion, canted and tilted angles, many dissolves, and several incredible aerial shots.

In respect to mise-en-scène, the 2002 version is much more of a spectacle. While the 1955 version is dark, shadowy, and ominous, with most scenes barely lit with candles,  almost every scene in the 2002 version utilizes high key lighting. The lighting, which typically enters from all directions, illuminates, reflects, and refracts off jewel adorned objects, stained glass windows, and transparent glass furniture of various colours. In addition, the film utilizes colour lighting filters and coloured smoke.

While the extraordinary camera movements and spectacular lighting make the 2002 version more viscerally engaging than its predecessor, much of its extravagant aesthetic is done in vain, for it (generally) does not support the plot or befit the theme. For example, when Devdas is spiraling into alcoholism, the tone of the film remains quite glamorous and upbeat. This is because the extravagance merely draws attention to itself, as if to say “look at this, amazing isn’t it” – this is the result of high budgeting and technological advancement.  In effect, the spectacular aesthetic somewhat overshadows the depths of the tragic story. On the other hand, though less viscerally engaging, the aesthetic of the 1955 version both supports the plot and befit’s the theme; the dark, shadowy, ominous images suit the darkness and despair of Devdas’ descent into alcoholism and tragic demise.

It is worth noting that Bhansali had the 1955 Devdas as an archetype when he crafted his version in 2002; therefore, in order to be original, he could only use the film as a basis, or a guide, for his own development. As a result, some scenes are discarded while others are invented. For example, only the 1955 version contains scenes of Devdas and Paro as children, and only the 2002 version contains scenes of Paro and Chandramukhi (Vyjayanthymala [1955], Madhuri Dixit [2002])interacting.

Of the scenes that are neither discarded nor invented, such as the scene of Devdas writing Paro that he does not love her, Bhansali presents the story in a different manner. In this case, he rearranges points in the narration: in the 1955 version, Devdas writes the letter, regrets it immediately, and heads home; however, in the 2002 version, he writes the letter, Paro reads it, a song and dance sequence occurs at the brothel, then Devdas realizes his mistake and heads home.

Regarding narrative structure, the films’ major difference is in how they present the protagonists’ childhood. In the 1955 version, their childhood is explicitly shown, and, towards the end, there are several flashbacks (reoccurrences of scenes we saw previously as part of the story). On the other hand, in the 2002 version, aspects of their childhood are told primarily through dialogue, and secondarily through flashbacks (which are not reoccurrences), since it begins with them already grown-up. By leaving their childhood out of the story, it leaves more to the viewer’s imagination; in a way, this may make their love seem boundless. However, by explicitly displaying their childhood, the 1955 version defines and grounds their relationship, forming a background for the rest of the film. As a result, when flashbacks occur later in the film, they are more emotionally resonant.

While both films develop motifs (recurring plot elements) in order to maintain plot continuity, the 1955 version builds a more solid foundation by relying primarily on objects. For example, the bird and tree (branch), which references the song Devdas and Paro sing together as kids, reoccurs throughout the film, such as when Devdas, in a drunken stupor, shoots birds (to kill the memory). Moreover, images of mangos, the scar, and the father’s hookah reoccur. Developed in such a way, when motifs are recognized, they are rewarding since they help the viewer connect separate parts of the story and get a sense of unity and continuity. Motifs in the 2002 version include the candle (which can be likened to the bird in the 1955 version), and the scar (this time caused by a tasbih), as well as the conceptual motifs of ‘the moon’ (being likened to Paro), and ‘the evil eye’.

In regards to dialogue, the films are quite different. The 1955 version incorporates monologues where the character speaks to someone but doesn’t face them, often with their back to them. Their words are quite subtle, contemplative, and philosophical, such as when Devdas, while drowning his sorrows, cries “Tell consciousness…to never be conscious”. On the other hand, dialogue in the 2002 version is quick, straightforward, and direct. On a few occasions, both versions utilize the exact dialogue, such as when Paro says to her sister, “You’re married, and yet you don’t know what a husband means”; however, in general, the story is presented quickly and more overtly in the 2002 version.

Moreover, the themes of alienation, despair, and desperation are explored more thoroughly in the 1955 version. In it, Devdas’ descent into alcoholism as an “only solution” is slower and more expressive, giving the viewers time to take it all in, whereas, in the 2002 version, his descent into alcoholism occurs rather quickly, and less expressively. To some extent, it is overshadowed by the glamorous aesthetics, the more cheerful mood, and distracting sub-plots, such as the rivalry between Devdas’ and Paro’s mothers. It seems that the 1955 version is about love, loss, and descent into sorrow, while the 2002 version is more about their love, people’s relationships, and the games they play. The drinking aspect and Devdas’ descent from emotional suffering to physical suffering, and, ultimately, death (a slow, painful form of suicide), is not as deeply explored.

Furthermore, the 2002 version originally incorporates an evil step-sister, various games, lies, bets, and deceit. These occur in sub plots, such as that of the rivalry between Devdas’ and Paro’s mothers. They are incorporated because they are not only entertaining (in their trivialness), but they, to some extent, reflect the modern cultural and social state of India. Unlike in 1955, in 2002 women have some power, exercise that power, and are permitted to express their selves and act on their own accord.
Moreover, the sub-plots of the women’s games and tricks add another dimension to the film. For example, instead of simply having the father reject Paro because of her class, the mother rejects her because of her own cattyness, envy, and dislike of Sumitra (Kiron Kher). Then, after being deceived and humiliated, Sumitra vows to ‘get even’ by marrying Paro to an even richer landlord. This is one way in which Bhansali adapts to modernity; he moves the plot forward, but in a different manner, catering to modern film expectations and viewer interest.

In conclusion, when dealing with films based on the same story, how the story is told, the manner in which the story is presented, both distinguishes and determines the quality of the film. Because of it’s spectacular, viscerally engaging aesthetic, quick exploration of themes, plots, and characters, and adaptations to modernity, the 2002 Devdas more easily facilitates escapism; however, if escapism or entertainment value is not how one qualifies a films worth, one may find the simplicity, naturalness, and depth of the 1955 Devdas more appreciable.

Works Cited

Filmography
Devdas. Dir. Bimal Roy. Writ. Sarat Chandra Chatterji, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Nabendu Gosh. Perfs. Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Vyjayanthimala. Film. Bimal Roy Productions. 1955.

Devdas. Dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Writ. Sarat Chandra Chatterji, Prakash Kapadia, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Perfs. Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit. Film. Mega Bollywood. 2002.

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About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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