By Edward Porter
If you have never seen a Bollywood movie, have you missed
out on a cinematic
The ideal way
to find out is to watch Devdas. After all, if you want to give Bollywood
films a fair chance of knocking your socks off, you might as well
start with the most expensive movie in the history of Bombay film-making,
which also happens to be the first Bollywood picture to be included
in the official selection at the Cannes film festival.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Devdas is based on a 1917 novel that has
already been filmed several times in India. It tells the story of
two star-crossed young lovers: the titular hero (played by Shahrukh
Khan) and his soulmate, Paro (Aishwarya Rai). Sweethearts since
childhood, they now long to be married, but Devdas's snobbish father
vetoes the idea on the grounds that Paro's social status is too
lowly. Paro ends up lovelessly married to an older man, Devdas sinks
into despair and drunkenness, and we viewers must wait to see if
fate will allow a happy ending.
Bollywood style, all of this is presented in the manner of a myth
or fairy tale. To say that the film lacks irony is putting it mildly.
Irony has been locked in a safe, encased in concrete and dumped
at the bottom of a very deep lake, leaving the two lovers free to
gaze passionately into each other's eyes and proclaim their feelings
in purple prose that makes Catherine and Heathcliff sound noncommittal.
If, then, you are the sort of person who gets swept along by Mills
& Boony romantic movies and are always lamenting the fact that
Hollywood doesn't make 'em like that any more, then Devdas is the
film for you.
It should also
appeal to those who enjoy romantic sagas in a slightly different
way - not as overpowering dramas, but as comforting candyfloss nonsense.
Although Devdas never consciously puts its tongue in its cheek,
there is nothing to stop you chuckling at the film's straightfaced
excess - nothing, perhaps, except the politically correct side of
does Devdas have to offer those of us who don't warm to its make-believe
romanticism? The answer is there in every frame. Even if you think
the story hackneyed (as I did), you are likely to be dazzled by
the film's visual opulence. The palaces in which most of the action
occurs are represented by huge sets decorated in a kaleidoscope
of colours: emerald green, blood red, copper-sulphate blue, imperial
purple, all lined and encrusted with gold and silver. The brocaded
costumes are resplendent, and the song-and-dance sequences, overflowing
with performers, are dynamically choreographed.
You can, of
course, have too much of a good thing. For me, the film's third
hour was hard work - the cinematic equivalent of being force-fed
a few dozen Crunchie bars - and I left feeling no great desire to
see a similar epic in the near future.
I'm quite sure,
though, that other newcomers to Bollywood will be delighted by Bhansali's
movie from start to finish. If, for instance, you loved the colour
and bustle of Moulin Rouge, you should certainly see Devdas, which,
in its spectacular luxuriousness, makes Baz Luhrmann seem a dour