Sarat Chandra wrote Devdas at 25 years of age in 1901, three years before his death Sarat Chandra would drop in at the New Theatres studio in South Calcutta, where the erstwhile Prince of Gauripur and legendary filmmaker Pramatesh Chandra Barua was busy wrapping his film Devdas. The novelist allegedly told Barua after seeing Devdas that he was born to write Devdas because Barua was born to re-create it in cinema!
Barua was working on the second celluloid version of the perennial classic that has transfixed viewers and readers over the ages alike what with sudhir Mishra’s announcement to be working on the seventeenth version of the novella! Devdas has been produced even in Pakistan in Urdu off course in 1965 and 2010! In 1935, Barua’s band of four cinematographers included names like Dilip Gupta and Nitin Bose. However there was a new young publicity photographer at New Theatres by the name of Bimal Roy, who was getting obsessed by the film and would patiently like the proverbial Job would wait for 20 years to present his version, the sixth stab and unarguably the most dazzling film of the master called Dilip Kumar!
Bimal Roy had approached Dilip Kumar sometime in 1954 with the idea of playing the eponymous role in the film Devdas, Dilip Kumar neither had seen the K. L. Saigal starrer nor had read Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous novel. In fact, Bimal Roy never displayed his entire deck, when he visited Dilip Kumar that his intention was to discuss the film he was keen to make from last two decades. Bimal Roy let producer Hiten Choudhury who accompanied him, bring up the subject. Dilip Kumar was stumped and asked for a few days to mull it over. Bimal Roy smiled as he was leaving, and promised Dilip Kumar a fine translation.
Dilip Kumar received the translation the very next day and boy was he in agony over rendering a character whose pain and depression over losing in love translated to dark alcohol dependency being the panacea. Dilip Kumar also felt that it could become a memorable film and he was going to play the lead in one of the iconic films of all time if he played the part with appropriate discretion. It was this dilemma that he brought on the sets and lived in angst till the film was wrapped. This was one of the films that led him attempt comedy on suggestion of famous Harley Street psychiatrist Dr. W. D. Nichols introduced to him by Dame Sybil Thorndike and Dame Margaret Rutherford
The screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh recalled that tea breaks always found Dilip Kumar wandering alone and often in an agitated state or in deep reverie avoiding the rest of the cast. Nabendu Ghosh went up to himont afternoon and asked him what was troubling the thespian? Dilip Kumar replied that three men Sarat Chandra, Pramtesh Barua and Kundan Lal Saigal were sitting on his shoulders and were weighing him down! Dilip Kumar had got so much in to the skin of Devdas that he is said to have taken a while to come out of the role, but it also went on to fetch him the second of his 8 Filmfare Awards for best actor. The film won the Certificate of Merit for the Third Best Feature Film in Hindi in the 3rd National Film Awards.
Bimal Roy knew that Dilip Kumar was a stickler for making the writing base of a film strong, therefore writing work was done with Dilip Kumar, screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and dialogue writer Rajinder Singh Bedi. The lines from Devdas, are some of the most oak strong and yet sensitive and laced with poignancy that have been ever written for a Hindi film hero from the pen of Rajinder Singh Bedi.
It was Suchitra Sen’s debut in a Hindi movie and also features the great Pran in his tiniest role – a ten-second appearance at Chandramukhi’s kotha. Dilip Kumar, Bimal Roy’s first choice for Devdas, wanted Meena Kumari as Paro, and Nargis as Chandramukhi. But, Meena Kumari was under embargo because of an irate Kamal Amrohi drawing certain terms and conditions that were not acceptable to Bimal Roy. Nargis had set her heart on the lead role of Paro, if that was not enough diva trouble! Bina Rai and Suraiya too threw their hats and pestered Roy for Paro’s role! Nabendu Ghosh did not approve of the rising superstar Vyjayanthimala as Chandramukhi, but the distributors were sold to the idea to the point of being admant in having the southern belle and Bimal Roy straddled with a big unit and an uncompromising attitude towards making of his film needed money! In came Vyjayanthimala.
According to Vyjayanthimala, she was taken seriously as an actress only when Devdas happened in her career. But she was to play Chandramukhi opposite Dilip Kumar for the first time and the apprehension whether she would be able to measure up to his expectations as Chandramukhi in the critical sequences with an actor of repute like Dilip Kumar under the demanding baton of Bimal Roy kept gnawing her? But her work in this film led B.R. Chopra to replace Madhubala with her in Naya Daur (1957) and Vyjayanthimala went on to co-star with Dilip Kumar in seven successful and noted films.
Suchitra Sen had thoroughly read her script before coming to shoot and would always be in animated discussions with Dilip Kumar, Motilal, Vyjayantimala, Bimalda and scriptwriter Nabendu Ghosh regarding the film. Though her Hindi was tinged with a Bengali accent but it sounded sweet according to Dilip Kumar. It was her acting that had Dilip Kumar mesmerised as she could give five modulations to a single dialogue. And her expressive eyes conveyed volumes with a single look. During an intense scene in Devdas, Dilip Kumar had to look straight into her eyes and Sen had to convey romance filled with pathos. She reacted doing a slight lip movement drew compliments from both Bimal Roy and Dilip Kumar.According to Dilip Kumar,Suchitra Sen maintained a distance with the crew and preferred to work in silence. But she never disrespected anyone. As an artiste, she gave full respect to even a spot boy. Musafir (1957) was the only other film that Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen worked as part of the cast, but were never paired together again!
The film’s characters are ordinary people caught within a rigid and crumbling social system and that holds true for the hero Devdas torn by driving passion and inner turmoil!
Dilip Kumar at the peak of his prowess as Hindi film greatest tragic hero invested himself in to the literary character with his integrity and chemistry of an actor par excellence. Dilip Kumar as the self-destructive doomed lover looks and appears remarkable in the drunken scenes which are understated and accentuated by inimitable style of dialogue delivery. In his autobiography, The Substance and the Shadow (2014), Dilip Kumar gives the credit to the dialogue writer, Rajinder Singh Bedi as ‘…one of those rare writers whose syntax was so perfect that the simple lines he wrote inspired actors to build up deep emotions in their rendering.’
Ashok Kumar and Motilal were the two reference points in the craft of acting that Dilip Kumar constantly drew upon when he was making his mark as an actor. He and Motilal appeared in three films together- Devdas (1955), Paigham (1959) and Leader (1964).Motilal was the best Chunilal and foil to Dilip Kumar among the many versions of Devdas that have been made. His portrayal of the glib dandy whose empathy and understanding the tragedy of his friend is near perfect. Motilal’s fluent Chunni babu, who introduces Devdas to alcohol, dancing girl and doom in a lesser actor would have transmuted in to a negative character. Motilal’s innate charm, made him an arresting bon vivant and earned him his first Filmfare award for the best supporting actor.
Devdas was the first film within mainstream Hindi cinema to gamble on celluloid a weak hero of high birth whose narcissism, passion and inner-conflict is pitted against the two women in his life, Parvati and Chandramukhi, who are stronger than he is, as independent women with minds of their own.In a rare interview in 1982, Dilip Kumar when asked for an appraisal of his work admitted that Roy’s Devdas was an exercise in restrained work and though Shikast, Gunga Jumna, Mughal-e-Azam and Kohinoor were all close to his heart. He personally liked doing serious work and still had a fondness for Devdas!
(The writer is filmy buff)