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As Sanjay Bhansali’s Devdas Turns A Mature 21, Subhash K Jha Recalls Being A Small Part Of This Monumental Epic



Is it a mere coincidence that  Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas was released on  Bimal Roy’s birth anniversary July 12?  Bhansali’s Devdas is the  ultimate  homage  to Bimalda,the Master Creator.

Sanjay Bhansali insists that he made Devdas because of me.Of course he was merely being  generous.An evening two years  prior to  Devdas, while I was watching Hum… Dil Chuke Sanam spellbound, I realised that if there was anyone who could make Devdas today, it was Sanjay. He had the vision and the sensitivity, the epic sweep and the intimate characterisations.

Yup, Sanjay was the guy for the job. When I telephoned to congratulate him for Hum Dil… (those were the days of  the  landline  phones)  I told him his next project ought to be Devdas. There was a thoughtful silence at the other end, which I then presumed to be scepticism. It was actually a ratification of his own convictions.

Back then when I compared Sanjay with Bimal Roy in my writings, I received a barrage of how-could-yous from tradition-centric cineastes. They all came around, later. A leading movie-critic in Bombay even confessed, “I gave it a 3-star rating. I should’ve given it more.”

Critics had to invent a new six-star rating for Devdas. For, every frame of the film was a work of art. I know how Sanjay suffered through the screenplay. One thought the main pain had ended on paper. Who knew the trauma that would accompany the shooting of the film?

Every schedule of this lavishly mounted film was a battle of survival. Threats from both the anti-social and legal elements, producer Bharat Shah’s arrest for alleged underworld links, the lack of funds, Aishwarya’s personal troubles (courtesy a certain Mr Khan) and Madame Dixit, who gave Sanjay a deadline to complete the film and  stopped shooting when her payment was delayed.

I never cease to marvel at how well the man  held up, determined to see his dream to the end; to prove all those who say Devdas is ‘jinxed’ , to be liars.

Sanjay’s passion for the smallest things in life is well-known. A telephone conversation with him is never casual, it’s an occasion. His hands fly like windmills in the countryside, his eyebrows arch like dark rainbows, his mouth breaks into multi-mooded grins and smiles… You had  to see how much Devdas meant to Sanjay Bhansali, and how determined he was to translate his passion on screen.

Ever since Devdas went into production in January 2001, this lavishly mounted period epic chronicling the fatal love of Devdas for the unresponsive Parvati and the sympathetic and devoted Chandramukhi, was besieged  by rumours and allegations.

I jokingly tell Sanjay that a book on the making of Devdas would be a far bigger success than the film.Sanjay’s devotion to bringing Saratchandra Chatterjee’s epic to life had to be seen to be believed.

The film to this day  looks like a dream. The frames appear to be a collage of free-flowing Rembrandt paintings, fused into a work of art, as timeless as it is timely.

The filmmaker was very aware of the responsibilities that rest on his shoulder . Several versions of the Bangla epic novel  were  attempted before. Most important among them was the films by P C Baruah in 1935 and Bimal Roy in 1955 featuring K L Sahgal and Dilip Kumar as the tragic hero who fades into a romantic death in a haze of alcohol.

During the  release  Sanjay said to this writer,  “My Devdas is very different from both the Baruah and Bimal Roy films. Shah Rukh Khan has played him differently, but stunningly. He has surpassed all my expectations. You can say mine is the new-millennium Devdas.”

The film was shot completely on sets recreating Kolkata, erected at the Film City in Mumbai, to represent Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai’s haveli and Madhuri Dixit’s kotha. Art director Nitin Desai erected ten massive sets which cinematographer Binod Pradhan  shot like a dream.

Besides the three principal actors, Sanjay  assembled a very interesting supporting cast toplined by Jackie Shroff, who plays Devdas’ jaunty friend Chunnilal. The role  of Chunnilal   was first  offered to Govinda.Vijayendra Ghatge was cast as Aishwarya Rai’s husband and Dina Pathak as her mother-in-law. Kiron Kher played Aishwarya’s mother. Arpa Mehta (the Gujarati stage actress seen in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) was cast as the Madame at Chandramukhi’s brothel. Sanjay also cast two movie debutants in crucial supporting roles. Veteran stage actor Vijay Crishna starred as  Shah Rukh Khan’s father, while the lady from the Ayurvedic Concepts ad, Abha Mukherjee, played Shah Rukh’s grandmother.

Devdas contained  nine songs composed by Ismail Durbar (Hum… Dil De Chuke Sanam).Sanjay  also discovered a new female voice Shreya  Ghosal for his film. Sanjay sang the tunes to me over the phone.

I found the Bimal Roy in my own life.

Sanjay and I are hardcore Lata bhakts. His day never begins without listening to her songs. Mine  never ends without thanking the Universe  for her  voice.


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