May 29, 2002 
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Ash, Madhuri raise Devdas
But Bhansali's epic is exaggerated and melodramatic

Kryztoff de Breza in Cannes

At over $13 million, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas is clearly the most expensive Indian film ever made. From the very first shot, which shows a luxurious haveli at the turn of last century in Bengal, it is clear that no expense has been spared.

From the first visual to the last, Devdas is a treat to the eyes. Beautiful sets [courtesy Nitin Desai], lovely costumes [courtesy Neeta Lulla for Aishwarya Rai, and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla for Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan], great lighting and dizzying camerawork [by Binod Pradhan].

Noted dancer Pandit Birju Maharaj's choreography will leave you spellbound. Your eyes couldn't have asked for more.

Unfortunately, the same applies to your other sensibilities. The film is loud. That in itself is no surprise for a Hindi film. But it appears shocking when it comes from a director like Bhansali, whose earlier films [Khamoshi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam] were subtle.

As if to compensate, Bhansali packs Devdas with melodrama and exaggeration.

The first sequence itself has an overjoyed Kaushalya (Smita Jayakar) prancing with excitement at her only son Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan), returning home after ten years in London. The scene, perhaps aimed at showing how much Devdas was missed by his mother, succeeds only in becoming a parody.

Aishwarya Rai plays Paro The film is replete with such overkill. The first contact between Devdas and his childhood love, Paro (Aishwarya Rai) seems beyond the realm of credulity. Despite such excesses, the film manages to hold audience interest, largely due to the exquisite sets, costumes and classical dance, all captured exquistely by Pradhan.

The budding romance between Devdas and Paro and their dreams of maritail bliss are shattered by Devdas' parents, who drag economic, social and political barriers into the picture.

Paro's mother (Kiron Kher), blissfully unaware, builds castles in the air. But dreams of her daughter's marriage crash when she is publicly humiliated by Devdas' mother. Angry, she curses the family, saying that she will find a richer groom for her daughter and condems Devdas to a life without love.

Afraid of the consequences, Paro arranges a moonlit, clandestine rendezvous with Devdas, hoping to elope with him. But the couple is discovered by Devdas' barrister father; Paro is humiliated again.

Angered, Devdas leaves home and finds refuge with Chuni Babu (Jackie Shroff), whose relation with Devdas is never really disclosed. He then writes to Paro, asking her to forget him as their marriage would destroy his family. Shattered, Paro gives in to her mother's pleas for a marriage elsewhere.

A lonely Devdas visits a kotha [brothel] with Chuni Babu, where he meets Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit).

Devdas now realises the depths of his yearning for Paro and the fact that he will never be able to forget her. He rushes back to Paro, too late --- the baraat [wedding procession] is at the door. Paro, still hurt by Devdas' letter, refuses to change her mind.

Her marriage shatters Devdas who turns to liquor and to Chandramukhi, even though he initially turns her away.

Later, he admits his love for Chandramukhi, though he tells her she can never replace Paro. Meanwhile, liquor takes its toll on Devdas.

This far, the film is gripping and performances by Aishwarya, Madhuri and Shah Rukh are very good.

Shah Rukh and Madhuri in a still from Devdas Somewhere here, Bhansali seems to lose the strings and the film degenerates rapidly. The many drunk sequences with Khan and Shroff and an obnoxious song don't help matters. All the hard work of the first 150 minutes of the film evaporates faster than the liquor Devdas consumes. And the film becomes tragic-comic and utterly unwatchable.

The saving grace is the performances by Aishwarya and Madhuri, who are totally absorbed their characters. Besides looking regal, Aishwarya puts all of herself into Paro. And a refreshed Madhuri gives in an excellent performance. Though difficult, Khan does manage to carry his role, except for some of the drunk sequences.

Shroff's presence in the film remains a complete mystery.

The day Devdas hits Indian screens, comparisons will definitely be drawn with the two earlier attempts to capture Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay's masterpiece on the silver screen. In its modern avatar, the actors of Devdas seem to carry it off, but the comparison between Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali remains far-fetched.

More on Devdas at Cannes 2002:
Why Shah Rukh believes in competing only with himself
Why Devdas is a troublesome, but dear child
Issh! The new buzzword at Cannes
Ash shines at Cannes


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