What follows is an expanded version of a comment originally posted on Bollyviewer's review of Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955):
Since everybody hates the Sanjay Leela Bhansali version of Devdas (2002), I feel I have to say a few words in its defense. After all, I did pick it as one of my favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s.
Say what you will about Shah Rukh Khan in the thankless title role—and most people say he's over the top. But I'm not sure any approach would make this character fully sympathetic. After all, Devdas is callous, weak, abusive, self-pitying, and self-destructive. Given those elements of the character, going operatic makes as much sense as any other approach (someone underplaying the role would have gotten lost in SLB's outrageously lush visuals).
But what makes the 2002 version so special for me is Ismail Darbar's music, and the way that the songs are so carefully woven into the narrative. In fact, the songs convey absolutely crucial information, particularly in the sequence "Bairi Piya," "Morey Piya," and "Kahe Chhed Mohe."
Taking the first four songs in order:
1. "Silsila Yeh Chaahat Ka" expresses the yearning of Devdas' childhood sweetheart Paro (Aishwarya Rai) for Devdas' return:
It's significant that the first number is a performance of Paro's unwavering devotion—a devotion that will be severely tested over the course of following events.
2. "Bairi Piya": Devdas and Paro tease and flirt with each other, though there's an edge that suggests Devdas' later violence against Paro. Two important things happen during this song. First is the symbolic marriage of Devdas and Paro, when Devdas gives her his grandmother's wedding bangle. And second, each makes a prediction about the other's future. His prediction for her:
Hers for him:
Both predictions, of course, will come true.
3. "More Piya" involves two intercut sequences. Paro's mother Sumitra (Kirron Kher) celebrates what she thinks will be Paro and Devdas' engagement with a love song about the encounter of Radha and Krishna on the banks of the Yamuna.
Meanwhile, on the banks of their local stream, Devdas is raping Paro. While "rape" perhaps doesn't quite capture all the nuances of what's happening between them, there really is no other word for it. Paro loves him, doesn't struggle, and ultimately acquiesces, but there's no mistaking her reluctance:
The invocations of Krishna and Radha in Sumitra's song and the prominence of the flute (Krishna's instrument) in the Devdas-Paro sequences, plus the the explicit symbolism (the river bank, the water jugs, and the way Devdas removes Paro's jewelry and veil as a husband removes his bride's on their wedding night) leave no doubt about what takes place between Devdas and Paro. And this makes Devdas' later repudiation of Paro even more heartless and cruel.
4. "Kahe Chhed Mohe": The very next song, performed by the tawaif Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit) for Devdas, his dissolute friend Chunnilal (Jackie Shroff) and a third man whose importance is only revealed later, is another retelling of the Krishna and Radha story. As Chandramukhi sings of Krishna,
Devdas realizes his own cruelty and callousness towards Paro, and the terrible mistake he's made in sending her a letter of rejection. Alas, his remorse comes too late.
Incidentally, thanks to Ismail Darbar's excellent music, Madhuri's brilliant, eloquent dancing and SLB's swirling, hypnotic visuals (which evoke other great courtesan dances from films such as Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Pakeezah (1971) and Umrao Jaan (1981)), "Kahe Chhed Mohe" remains my Platonic ideal of what a Bollywood dance number can be.
Devdas was the second Bollywood film we saw, and we were mesmerized by it. I realize that we're in a distinct minority, and know it's a film that people love to hate. But it's so obviously a labor of love for everyone involved that I just can't share that disdain. And SLB's hallucinatorily rich visuals are a sumptuous feast. The moment in "Kahe Chhed Mohe" when Chandramukhi spins outside, and we see the whole pleasure district behind her lit up in the night and filled with tiny moving and dancing figures, is simply breathtaking.
Bimal Roy is, of course, one of the greatest directors of not only Indian but world cinema. I think, though, that a small-scale and realistic approach to these characters just foregrounds how despicable Devdas' actions are. Instead, I feel that the story of Devdas requires a heightened quality and larger-than-life emotions, something that the SLB version certainly provides.
As I wrote in my comment on Bollyviewer's post, give me a moment to get under cover, and then you can start throwing things!
Update 28 May 2012: It seems that it's not just me who appreciates Devdas. It came in at a surprising Number 1 in the Top 10 Shah Rukh Khan Movies as voted by the viewers of Namaste America. And it was listed at Number 8 on Time magazine critic Richard Corliss' 10 Greatest Films of the Millennium (Thus Far), although any list that also includes Moulin Rouge (2001) and Avatar (2009) has to be viewed with some skepticism.
Here's a glimpse of why Devdas is so ravishing: the exquisite Madhuri Dixit in "Kahe Chhed Mohe":