Article Bengali

PC Barua's Devdas (1935): A film that revolutionized Indian cinema

Devdas was the first film to represent the social ramifications of a man of so-called high birth moving away from his feudal roots in rural Bengal to the colonial city of Calcutta in the pre-War years.

Shoma A Chatterji

Devdas (1935) was a big hit in its time and went on to become a classic of Indian cinema. The film made Pramathesh Chandra Barua an overnight star and revolutionized the concept of cinema as entertainment into (a) cinema of social concern and (b) literature expressed on celluloid.

Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, a frequent visitor at the time at the New Theatres studio in south Calcutta, told Barua after seeing the film, “It appears that I was born to write Devdas because you were born to re-create it in cinema.” It was a rare tribute from a writer to a director of a film based on his work.

Over time, the character of Devdas became synonymous with the name of PC Barua. Till today, the image of Barua the man is inseparable from the image of Devdas, the character he played on screen.

Saratchandra (1876-1938) wrote Devdas in 1900. But he could not find a publisher for his manuscript till 1917, partly because the writer himself was a little hesitant about some autobiographical elements in the novel.

Barua used Saratchandra's novel as his raw material and created his own structure, transforming what was purely verbal into an essentially visual form. Avoiding stereotypes and the melodrama of the period, Barua raised the film to the level of noble tragedy. The film's characters are not heroes and villains but ordinary people conditioned by a rigid and crumbling social system. Even the lead character, Devdas, has no heroic dimension to his character. What one sees are his weaknesses, his narcissism, his humanity as he is torn by driving passion and inner conflict.

Pramathesh Chandra Barua

Devdas established Barua as a front-ranking filmmaker and New Theatres as one of India's top studios, a position it held into the 1950s.

The character of Devdas and the film of the same name have “become a reference point in the romantic genre”, according to film historian BD Garga in his seminal work So Many Cinemas, published by Mumbai's Eminence Designs Pvt Ltd in 1996.

Never before had an Indian film won such commercial and critical acclaim. The Bombay Chronicle newspaper hailed it as “a brilliant contribution to the Indian film industry. One wonders as one sees it, when shall we have such another.”

The film ran to packed houses in all major cities, with people returning to see it over and over again, as recounted in Garga's So Many Cinemas. A Bengali magazine (Dipali, 13 November 1936) wrote: “Pramathesh Barua, who became famous overnight with his superb direction of Devdas, shows in this picture the same skill in handling psychological themes.”

Jamuna Barua, the film's Parvati aka Paro, said, “The audience would just not stop clapping when the film came to an end and this happened every day for each single show. The Hindi version was a hit too, but not as much as the Bengali one.”

The closure of the film was PC Barua’s original contribution to the story. Saratchandra had written it differently. “Had Devdas the film ended the way the novel did, the audience might not have understood it," Jamuna Barua said. "It is possible to convey things through the written word that may not be possible to place on screen.

"So, Barua decided that when Parvati would hear that her Devdas was dying under a tree outside her house, she would run out to see him. But as she would rush out, the doors would begin to close on her. The door is a metaphor for the social taboo against a married woman rushing out to see her former lover, crossing the threshold of her marital home. It was unthinkable in those days.

"Barua conceptualized this entire scene. It was not there in the novel. When Saratbabu saw the film, he was so moved by it that he told Barua that even he had never thought of ending the novel the way Barua had done.”

Saratbabu went on to tell Pramathesh Barua that this actor’s entry into films was solely to give life to Devdas, the character he had created through the written word.

Devdas turned into a folk hero for all time while the actor-director became a household name. Barua metamorphosed into a cultural icon of his time. Yet, the story goes that the actor-filmmaker was under severe mental stress during the making of the film as he was still struggling to cope with the death of Kshiti aka Amala Devi, his second wife, who had passed away before he began to shoot Devdas.

(Kshiti was the woman Barua had married though he was already married to a girl arranged by his father. He loved Kshiti deeply but since his zamindar father threatened to cut him out, they lived in a rented flat in Calcutta. But Kshiti had TB and it is believed that Barua contracted the disease from his association with her. She died leaving behind a son who was sent back to Gauripur, Assam, where Barua's first wife Madhuri Lata brought him up as her own. Barua kept in touch with his first wife and had deep respect for her.)

The script of Devdas was being written when Barua was shooting Rooplekha (1934). After the casting was completed, Barua discovered that he had not found the Parvati he was looking for. Kanan Devi was approached but she had to decline because she was under contract with Radha Films. He then chanced upon Jamuna, sister of Sitara and Jaya Gupta of Varanasi, and she was chosen to portray Parvati.

Some time during the making of the film, the reel love story turned into a real-life romance and Jamuna became Barua's third wife. As soon as work on Devdas was complete, Jamuna gave birth to their son who, to rhyme with the film that brought the lovers together, was christened Debkumar.

Devdas, produced under the New Theatres banner, was released in Chitra Talkies in Calcutta on 30 March 1935, but some sources put the film's release date at 26 April 1935.

There are several scenes in Devdas that marked the entry of a new editing technique, the jump-cut, to heighten drama. When Devdas vomits blood during his travels, the edit cuts in to show a plate of floral offerings falling from Parvati’s hands, far away in her matrimonial home. In a night scene on the train, as soon as Devdas calls out to Paro, the scene cuts to show the doors and windows burst open in Parvati’s room as Parvati screams in her sleep, in the middle of a nightmare.

These scenes set out Barua's creative imagination in explaining through the language of cinema the psychological stress his characters were reeling under, as also the telepathic bonding the lovers shared, without reducing these to melodrama or using sentimental dialogue.

According to the late filmmaker Phani Majumdar, Pramathesh Barua’s best performance was in Devdas. He describes, in particular, the scene where Devdas, after his beloved Parvati has been married to another, wanders aimlessly, drinking and shooting birds at random. A friend of Parvati who spots him from a distance while carrying a pot of water back home is scared to cross his path. But Devdas merely comes close to the young woman and asks how she is.

This building a scene to an unpredictable anti-climax in a film spilling over with dramatic twists and turns and human tragedy is an example of how Barua had gained both command and control of the medium of cinema.

As an actor, Pramathesh Barua abhorred melodrama. He kept his face almost deadpan, used minimum body language, and left it to his audience to read from his emotions and from the total mise en scène.

Stylistically, Barua adopted a refreshing economy throughout the film. “The film was a complete departure from the then prevalent theatricality in acting, treatment and dialogue," BD Garga wrote in So Many Cinemas. "Barua initiated a style of acting which was natural and unaffected; his method was to underplay, to convey emotion through the slightest tremor of the voice and use significant pauses between the dialogues to telling effect. The dialogue, too, was simple, everyday speech, without dramatic flamboyance or literary flourish. The slow, soft and cleverly modulated dialogue became a hallmark not only of Barua’s but all of New Theatres' films.”

Devdas was the first film to represent the social ramifications of a man of so-called high birth moving away from his feudal, upper-class roots in rural Bengal to the colonial city of Calcutta during the pre-World War II years. It tried to explore the inner pain of this man, torn between the pull he feels towards his village roots and his wish to run away to the city to escape the tragic reality of a lost love.

Devdas's wilful manner of moving towards self-destruction could be read as his casual indifference to the village he once belonged to, a village he now responds to with mixed feelings.

Before his death, he tries, in vain, to run away from an anonymous death in the unfeeling city by coming back to the village, in one last desperate attempt to renew lost ties. The harsh, heartless reality of the city has changed his perspective towards the village. He finally rejects the tempting illusions and fantasies the city once held for him.

The city loses Devdas, but the village, too, refuses to accept him even in his ignominious, humiliating and tragic death. Only two women, Parvati and Chandramukhi, who operate like invisible, unwritten ‘guardians of conscience’ in the wreckage his life is reduced to, are left to grieve over his death.

For Parvati, Devdas symbolizes the adorable rebel from a feudal family who breaks rules only to come back to them in the end, proving that he is no rebel after all. For Chandramukhi, Devdas represents the generosity that characterizes a prince who wills himself to self-destruction through excess.

Devdas failed to offer social respectability to the two women in his life. Somewhere down the line, the audience forgot to draw the line between the Devdas they saw on screen and Pramathesh Barua, the real man who was merely playing out a role. Never before or since has any screen character meshed so completely, so seamlessly and so ideally with the actor who brought the character to life on celluloid.

Barua did not create Devdas; he was Devdas. So powerful was the impact of his portrayal on screen, so close did it grow to his private life, that to the Bengali audience, Devdas was synonymous with the actor who played the character. By the time the film was released, Barua had become aware that he had contracted tuberculosis, and, drawn inescapably to the bottle like his screen parallel, wasted himself slowly but surely, to die an untimely death 16 years after he had lived the character of Devdas on screen. He was only 48.