Dear Saratbabu, I’m writing this on behalf of Bengalis everywhere. Honorary Bengalis and even those non-Bengalis who revere you and admire your work. I have just come back from a film that I’m told is based on your novel.
If it truly is, I’m embarrassed. And if it isn’t, I’d love to sue. The thing about Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas is that it is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas.
Not yours. Not Saratchandra Chatterjee’s, which would be okay if he hadn’t used your name and credited you with the story. But he has. And frankly, this monstrosity has very little to do with your classic. And I don’t want you to get a bad name.
There have been other Devdases — some flawed, some passable, some bad. But this Rs 50 crore joke that claims to be based on your work cannot be as easily assessed or even dismissed. You know why?
There is far too much money riding on it. And your inheritors (if any) aren’t likely to see any of it. It is a free-for-all. The operative word being free. What is wrong with the film? Everything. Starting with the arrogance and presumptuousness of its maker.
It’s one thing to hide behind ‘‘creative license’’ and kill a legendary love story. Quite another to cold-bloodedly murder it, which is the crime this Devdas stands accused of.
My husband (a passionate and volatile Bengali — is there another kind?) refused to see the movie. Sensible. If he’d been there with me, he might’ve started an andolan right there and then.
First, over the annoying mangling of his sweet mother-tongue (sandesh mishti satyi bandhu bhalo uttered in a distinct Punjabi accent and in entirely the wrong context). And then, at the blatant distortion of your timeless tragedy. My husband has reason to be extra touchy.
His family comes from the same village (Debanandapur in the Hoogly district) that Devdas and you come from. We also have a photograph in our study that shows you seated on a sofa with your contemporary (and rival)— Rabindranath Tagore. Behind you two literary giants, stands the host — my husband’s paternal grandfather.
Apart from this association, movies evoke strong emotions in us Indians. Unfortunately, this one generated outrage. Especially, the ‘‘nautch’’ sequence featuring the courtesan (Madhuri Dixit) and the Thakur rani (Aishwarya Rai) at a Durga puja.
A little like Baz Luhrman staging a can-can in a cathedral during midnight mass. In such a bastardised version, one can expect anything. But since you are being exploited, it’s time to register a protest. With no royalty and nobody to protect your reputation, film-makers are at liberty to take full advantage of your legacy. Which they’re doing with impunity.
Bhansali’s version bows deeper in the direction of Saas bhi khabi bahu thi... than Saratchandra’s epic. It is a disco-Disney, desi-chutney version of the original, and worse, there is nothing original about it. From V Shantaram’s Stree and Navrang to Kamaal Amrohi’s Pakeezah, Bhansali has it all.
If the film succeeds (as it might well), it will do so on your name. If it flops, then again, people will say it’s all your fault for having created a hero who’s a zero. The present generation neither knows you nor cares.
Why, they wouldn’t know a Dilip Kumar from K L Saigal. I’m told, India’s teeny-boppers are weeping buckets during screenings. For whom? I think they’re weeping for themselves. For the death of romance. And the end of love and commitment in their own empty, synthetic lives. I wept, too.
But my tears were for you. And for what crass commercial Bollywood had done to insult your memory. The real Devdas will rise again. And again. There’s a Devdas in every man. And that is your finest contribution.
The ultimate tribute to your genius. Till we get the celluloid Devdas we deserve, let us obliterate this one. Shah Rukh Khan is gorgeous. But he’s not Devdas. Shotti. He’s Shah Rukh Khan.
Published in TimesOfIndia