Devdas is a landmark 20th century tragic romantic Indian novella by revolutionary Bengali novelist, realist fiction writer Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. In the nine decades, since its publication in 1917, the story has acquired a cult status in the Indian cinema and society through inspired film adaption on big screen. Sanjay Leela Bhansali‘s (2002) version sensitised generations of Indian viewers to ‘Devdas’ as a saga of unrequited love revolving around the doomed inter personal relationships between each of the three pivotal characters- Parvati, Devdas, and Chandramukhi- whose love for each other is never mortally realised.
The movie seems to be a vivid description of how the society ascribes gender-specific roles to men and women, under the umbrella of patriarchy by putting women under the control of men, where they are supposed to be the holders of family values. The first half represents Devdas as a sadist who resorts to erotic domination over Paro in order to organise his masculinity. Devdas is infantilised in private domain by the authority of his aristocratic father. Similarly, in public realm he is emasculated by the manly ‘Englishman’. Hence, it is only through violence upon the ‘other’ that the powerless colonial subject can salvage and articulate his sense of masculinity and heroism.
Therefore, Devdas’s character is the most vulnerably gendered, within the factions of colonialism, class, caste, social roles. Devdas was sent to London for studies by his father, but even his legal training in law could not prepare him to confront his father. He seems ineffectual; unable to express his love in the face of paternal opposition and one who himself seems to be a victim of patriarchy. However, the powerless colonial subject who lacks an ability to stand up for his lover against the societal barriers considers his right and control over Paro through his love.
On the eve of Paro’s marriage, in an iconic sado-masochistic gesture, Devdas strikes Paro, inflicting a scar on her forehead stating it as remembrance of their love (pyaar ki nishaani). This clearly inflicts the desire for control within men where men (husbands or elderly males) subsume women to find comfort within their subordination. Unfortunately, it is the woman who is always supposed to bear the scars of love by men, as remembrance of their love. Why not men? The answer lies within the boundaries of patriarchy which regard women as upholders of values and tradition.
A.K. Ramanujan identifies action and quest as male narrative elements but defines female elements in terms of sufferings to protect traditional values (marriage). This is vividly reflected in the movie where the male rejected self-destructive lover unable to have union with her beloved (Paro), gets addicted to alcohol, leaves his family, wanders here and there in search of some solace within himself while, in the meantime also gets habituated by the caring and loving nature of the courtesan Chandramukhi. The movie, therefore, seems to revolve around the male lover, sympathising with the self-destruction of this protagonist and his immense immortal love for Paro; failing to recognize the sufferings of the female lovers and their bondage with the societal institutions.
Chandramukhi, as a tawaif, in the movie emerges as another important character possessing great levels of independence and assertiveness. Because her relations with specific respectable males are undefined or non-existent, a tawaif’s personal and sexual history cannot be represented in terms of male control. A tawaif seems to be controlling men through her sexual agency and appeal. In this traditional (i.e. masculine) conceptualisation of female identity(which is certainly less dominant in 20th century in parts of India), women who positioned themselves so as to attract male attention and a sexualised male gaze and thus implied that their bodies are beyond social control were understood to be women of ill repute almost by definition. As the film hero even explains it to Chandramukhi, “a woman is a mother, a sister, a wife or a friend; when she is nothing, she is a tawaif.” The movie, very powerfully projects the silent, self-sacrificing married Paro who is bound to a lifetime of service to her husband and his family, without meeting with other men or construing her own needs, as an ideal woman, and Chandramukhi as bad, immoral woman who is independent and beyond the control of men.
The public-private dichotomy also seems to be at play, here, where men and women seem to be differently situated in the public and private domain. Chandramukhi who is beyond the male control in public (where she is a tawaif) because of her assertive sexual agency; worships Devdas and desires to become his ‘dasi’ in order to lovingly serve him, in the private domain. Both the women also regard Devdas as their ‘Devta’; which further legitimises the role of men as controllers accepted by women, in regards with the desire of women to serve the male lover. The gendered constructions of society, therefore imbibes such an understanding within the woman, where she consents to her subordinate nature within the society, to some extent.
In typical bollywood representations and even the Indian society, the hero is the male who fights evils of society, rescues his female lover from the clutches of goons through violence and eventually wins her over and the narrative establishes a happy ending of fulfilled love. Under such circumstances of popular representations of the ‘hero’, Devdas clearly does not qualify as a hero as he resorts to masochistic violence after being rejected in love and the narrative culminates with his death, resulting in unfulfilled love. Moreover, Devdas is stripped off his masculinity and heroism through acts of indecision, impulsiveness, escapism, chauvinism, narcissism and self destruction. Devdas’ disqualification as a ‘hero’ is not to be read in terms of personal inadequacies, but as being embedded in the prevailing social structures. Challenging popular culture representations, when viewed from a critical lens, Devdas certainly emerges a hero and the text establishes his heroism through a valorisation of chastity and in Devdas’ honoring his promise to Paro that he would visit her before his death.
The song-driven narrations in the movie further, seem to contribute to the relationship between the gender constructions of men and women, within the society. The movie set in a backdrop of colonialism and patriarchy, reflects the vulnerability that ‘gender’ brings to men, women and their relationships with each other by caging them into worldly institutions (i.e. family, marriage, etc.). Throughout the film, Bhansali presents various images that liken marriage to bondage and social imprisonment, especially during the second last scene where Devdas lies dying outside while Paro’s family forbids the last reunion with her spiritual beloved. Thus with the closing of the gates, Parvati, who was once free from the bonds of societal expectations, becomes a prisoner of her love for Devdas by not being permitted to see him by her worldly marital family.
While Paro and Chandramukhi possess greater levels of individual agency and decisiveness, the male protagonist (Devdas) is representative of a passive colonial subject, with indecisive nature being unable to stand for his lover who lacked the individual agency.
The movie, to some extent, fails to do justice with the female lovers by leaving the audience sympathising with the male protagonist, failing to recognise the devotion of the female lovers. Further, it also tends to reflect the patriarchal structure of the society victimising both men and women, through its socially constructed meanings to different aspects of the society. Yet, in the end, “Devdas” tends to be a classic text projecting differently situated, socially attained gender stringent roles of individuals and the community, as well.
Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org