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Devdas: The tragic hero act that made KL Saigal a household name

On actor-singer KL Saigal's 115th birth anniversary, a look at PC Barua's iconic 1935 film that first put tragedy in Indian cinema’s romance.

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Bollywood has always loved romancing with romanticism on screen. Over the decades, this love has produced films that people have kept returning to, without the box office ever running dry. One of the earliest pioneers of the romance genre was Kundan Lal Saigal, the great singer-actor who came to be regarded as Hindi film industry’s first superstar. KL Saigal had already earned a name for himself with some exceptionally popular devotional songs but it was the tragic role of Devdas in PC Barua’s 1935 film of the same name that really catapulted him to national fame.

As we remember him on his 115th birth anniversary this week, it seems only obvious that we look back at the role that not only gave the Hindi film industry its first adaptation of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1915 classic novella but also combined tragedy with romance for the first time on silver screen. At the same time, it also turned on its head KL Saigal’s acting career, which hadn’t until then witnessed much box office success.

The tale of a rich zamindar’s son, Devdas, deeply in love with his childhood friend, Paro, who couldn’t get together in a class-ruled society, has been adapted nearly a dozen times since its publication. But it was PC Barua, a New Theatre director, who set things off. Barua had already directed Devdas in Bengali, released earlier that same year. KL Saigal, who would play the lead in Barua’s Hindi version of the film, had a small cameo in the Bengali adaptation (in which Barua directed himself in the role of Devdas).

Also read: Dear millennials, meet K.L. Saigal who WAS Bollywood music

The heady concoction of tragedy and romance

Devdas rose itself above the rich-boy-poor-girl narrative to turn the story being told on the screen from that of one romance to a tale about tragedy and unrequited love. Early Indian cinema was still a medium seen as a way to entertain people, and happy ending is what drove them to the theatre, making tragedies a taboo for filmmakers. But Saigal’s act of a lover drinking his way to self-destruction caught the public imagination unlike anything they had seen before. The success of Devdas in 1935 would begin the Hindi film industry’s romance with such unsuccessful love stories that would continue to this day, even though nothing would eclipse Devdas, not even its many adaptation and remakes.

The birth of a cult hero

KL Saigal was already an established singer before his turn as Devdas made him a household name. He is reported to have left behind a ‘Devdas syndrome’ whereby young men would drink themselves away to destruction in the name of love. The role would later be essayed on screen by actors like Guru Dutt, Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and others. The silver screen’s Devdas’ central characteristic trait would leave an imprint in the lives of PC Barua and KL Saigal. Both carried a part of Devdas with them as they met their end due to severe drinking.

KL Saigal’s portrayal of a drunk, self-destructive lover called for special attention. Being an accomplished singer, Saigal also sang the film’s songs. In the very first scene of the film, we see him singing when Paro, played by Jamuna Bai, stops and starts tickling his ears. Their courtship exhibits an innocent friendship.


Also read: Why Bimal Roy’s Devdas remains the first among equals

The women who had a voice

Women characters in Sarat Chandra’s works made his body of literature stand outside of the milieu, calling attention in a patriarchal world. And Devdas had not one but two  strong women characters at the centre of things.

Paro is docile and shy with her sole purpose in life being to take care of Devdas. When she is denied that, it does not stop her from asking Devdas to marry her. This forwardness shown by a woman in a pre-independent India was unseen. When Bimal Roy retold Devdas in 1955 with Suchitra Sen in the role of Paro, the daring act of Paro going up to Devdas’ room in night alone seemed sublime (even though some of Paro’s ferocity, seen in earlier versions, had been tamed in Bimal’s Roy’s time). In this respect, Chandramukhi, played by Chandrabati Devi, holds the fort when it comes to portraying a courtesan.

Austerity shown in the early two versions of Devdas is reflective of the then Nehruvian mindset prevalent in India. This naturally makes the Devdas of KL Saigal and Dilip Kumar (who was directed by Bimal Roy), world apart from the opulence seen in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas (2002). Unlike Bhansali’s version, where Shah Rukh Khan’s Dev returns from London, Bimal Roy and PC Barua stick to Sarat Chandra’s vision of a Calcutta-returned Devdas.

Also read: How Kader Khan’s dialogues made Devdas look cool in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar

A crown of the studio era

Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), which came years after PC Barua’s Devdas, used the film to show the glory of the studio era of Indian cinema. To date Barua’s Devdas is considered one of the best productions during that era. His use of close-ups to highlight agony as well as use of depth of field were some of the earliest instances of the techniques that would become a norm in cinema world-wide. Diegetic sound synchronisation was another feature that Barua introduced with this film.

PC Barua’s Devdas stands out for both its technical and narrative feats. And while KL Saigal’s performance may have met with many challengers over the years, his 1936 career-defining portrayal would forever live on and may inspire more adaptations.

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  1. K L Saigal was mother’s favourite. We were growing up in the times of Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh, so we used to tease her about such an old fashioned choice. Ek bangla banne nyara was one of the songs I have a recollection of.

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