Dir: Sanjay Leela Bhansali. India. 2002. 181mins
Devdas is a bloated banquet with minimal nutrition for the grey cells, but a few spicy morsels to tease the taste buds along the way. Expectations are riding high for the $10 million production, which opens worldwide with around 1,000 prints today (July 12) in the Indian subcontinent and around 74 prints in the UK. In India prospects look solid for this, the ninth remake of the 1917 novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. But for Western audiences the film offers little beyond its sheer opulence, to make it stand out from arthouse crowd. Instead it lacks the dramatic texture, complexity and above all, the sense of event required of a film which, including the intermission, will demand more than three hours of an audience's time. In the UK, its appeal beyond the Asian community depends on ecstatic reviews (not necessarily guaranteed, judging by early reactions in Cannes) and on whether appetites have been whetted or sated by the glut of other Bollywoodiana there this summer. Elsewhere, crossover potential is unlikely to approach Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proportions.
The film's release has been backed by a hefty promotional budget, an official screening in Cannes (a first for Bollywood) and the hoopla surrounding the visit of lead superstar Shahruh Khan to the Croisette.
Set in the early 1900s, the new feature begins as Devdas (Khan), the spoiled younger son of a wealthy family, returns home after 10 years studying law in London. Instead of going straight to greet his mother, he stops off first to see Paro (Aishwarya Rai), the beautiful girl-next-door. Their childhood friendship instantly flares into passion, but a marriage is vetoed by Devdas' parents because of the other family's lower status.
Affronted, Paro's mother arranges an even more prestigious match for her daughter, which Devdas tries in vain to prevent. But, in shades of Hitchcock's Rebecca, after the wedding the young woman finds herself virtually imprisoned in a lavish mausoleum with husband Zaminder Bhuvan (Ghutge) who, obsessed with the memory of his first wife, declines to consummate the union. Meanwhile Devdas seeks solace in the bottle. It takes the film more than half its three-hour running time to spin out this weakest of plots.
Khan, as Devdas himself, is a dead loss as the film's romantic hero. He spends its first half losing the love of his life through weakness and self-absorption and the second half stumbling around in a drunken stupor, setting fire to the sets. His chemistry with Paro (Aishwarya Rai), on the other hand, fails to ignite. But audiences not pre-sold on Khan's star status won't be impressed by his performance and, at 34, he looks too old for the role. However Rai, a former Miss World, develops nicely from gorgeous doe-eyed ingenue to a figure of real stature and authority.
While billed as a "saga of timeless love", Devdas' most memorable sequences lie elsewhere. There's a terrific confrontation between the two warring matriarchs, as Devdas' snobbish mother Kaushalya (Jayakur) publicly humiliates Paro's mum Sumitra (Kher), a former dancer, who at the end of the first half places a chilling curse on the rival family.
The film gets another boost in its latter stages when Paro meets a feisty courtesan (Dixit) who loves Devdas, and takes him under her wing. Their exuberant duo celebrating the friendship is one of the choreographic highlights. And Dixit's defence of her profession and attack on male hypocrisy suggest further parallels between this and the Hollywood women's picture, elements which astute marketeers could use to steer Devdas towards female audiences.
However, the unrelenting intensity of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's direction eventually becomes tiring in a film this long. Variations in tone would be welcome, and some more fully realised minor characters would combat the overall impression of a small story inflated into epic proportions and then gradually suffocated by a mass of elaborate costumes and sets.
Prod cos: Mega Bollywood
Int'l sales: Focus International
UK dist: Eros International
Prod: Bharat Shah
Exec prod: Gajendra Mishra, Mohan Nayyar
Scr: Prakash Ranjit Kapadia, based on the novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
Cinematography: Binod Kumar Pradham
Prod des: Nitin Chandrakhant Desai
Ed: Bela Segal
Music: Ismail Darbar, Monty
Main cast: Shahrukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai, Vijayendra Ghatge, Smita Jayakar, Kiron Kher