Two Indias: With Hate, With Hope

There is a continuous, vicious and vile synchronization, jarring as a crass orchestra, which seems to be the perennial background score of the C-Grade horror movie unleashed in India since the summer of 2014. It seems breathless, relentless, and endless. Almost like a bad dream in bad faith. And, unlike the most terrible nightmares in half-sleep, this ‘phenomena’ simply refuses to die.

And, yet, hope floats, like both counter-culture and parallel cinema, with its own uplifting, classically pulsating and melodious music as backdrop. Like a mountain stream across the zigzag of the moist and lovely sun-soaked Himalayan foothills, with its butterflies and grasshoppers floating like freedom’s own, special species. Like two Indias.

For instance, the hate mongers are afraid that Vir Das has created an upsurge of hope and rationality. There might be two Indias and there might be a million Indias, though without a million mutinies, as VS Naipaul said once upon a time. However, if he has struck a chord with millions across the globe, it is again evidence that come what may, despite the daily onslaught, a huge population has refused to succumb to fanaticism and ugliness. They still are celebrating unity in diversity, the deep beauty of secular humanity and the inner greatness of stoic resistance. As Vir Das says, “Please do not be fooled by edited snippets. People cheer for India with hope, not hate. People clap for India with respect, not malice.”

The detention in Tripura and Assam of two young women journalists is not the first instance which reflects that Indian democracy and its freedom of Press has been under severe strain in contemporary India, even while the loyalist media runs amok, and both objectivity and media ethics can be damned. In the everyday history of this vast geography, the vicious synchronization of injustice and hate politics has become so ritualistic and commonplace that, sometimes, all seems lost.

And, yet, surely, all is not lost. There is almost always a great current which flows simultaneously, across the polluted landscape, and brings with it a breath of fresh air. It restores our faith in the secular pluralism of a shared existential reality, as much as in the abiding faith that India might be an unequal, unjust and fragmented democracy, but, nevertheless, it is still a democracy, with a noble Indian Constitution derived from the great values of the freedom movement and revolutionary struggle against colonial slavery, and its martyrdoms, prisons, sacrifices, ideals, visions and dreams. Clearly, those who did not participate in the freedom struggle, and those who were glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust during that historic epoch, remain clueless.

The arrest and harassment of the women journalists was widely covered in the Indian media, and so was the bail. The reports told their own truth with non-partisan objectivity. Significantly, the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC), while demanding their immediate release, issued a categorical statement. “The Indian Women’s Press Corps stands in solidarity with Samriddhi K. Sakunia and Swarna Jha, the two women journalists who have been harassed, intimidated and detained for doing their job. The IWPC demands that the police immediately releases them and allows them to do their job without fear.”

The small border state of Tripura, which showed reasonable progress, peace and harmony under a long spell under the Left led by former chief minister Manik Sarkar of the CPM, with his reputation of impeccable integrity, seems to be torn asunder under the current BJP regime. Not only has economic distress and failed promises stalked this beautiful state in recent times, delicately poised as it is at the border with multiple conflict zones, but communal violence and divisive politics has now ravaged its social fabric. Hence, the significant response from The Editors Guild of India, is, yet again, a sign of dogged hope.

“The Editors Guild of India is deeply shocked by the Tripura Police’s action of booking 102 people, including journalists, under the coercive Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, for reporting and writing on the recent communal violence in the state…The Guild is of the opinion that this is an attempt by the state government to deflect attention away from its own failure to control majoritarian violence, as well as to take action against the perpetrators. Governments cannot use stringent laws like UAPA to suppress reporting on such incidents.”

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Ace fast bowler Mohammad Shami was trolled because he was a Muslim. Only those who are fanatically bereft of rationality or sporting spirit can equate a cricket match with hate politics and war. Virat Kohli proved them wrong, both as a captain and as a thinking, secular human being. First, he was hanging out with the Pakistani openers who played so well to defeat India by 10 wickets, apparently congratulating them. And, second, he was forthright during a press conference soon after in Dubai.

He said: “To me attacking someone over their religion is the most, I would say, pathetic thing that a human being can do. Everyone has the right to voice their opinion and what they feel about certain situations, but I personally have never ever even thought of discriminating against anyone over their religion. That is a very sacred and personal thing to every human being and that should be left there…We stand by him fully. We are backing him 200%, and all those who have attacked him can come with more force if they want to: our brotherhood, our friendship within the team, nothing can be shaken. I can guarantee you that as the captain of the team, we have built a culture where these things will not even infiltrate into this environment 0.0001%. That is an absolute guarantee from my side…There’s a good reason why we are playing on the field and not some bunch of spineless people on social media that have no courage to actually speak to any individual in person. They hide behind their identities and go after people through social media, making fun of people and that has become a source of entertainment in today’s world, which is so unfortunate and sad to see because this is literally the lowest level of human potential that one can operate at, and that’s how I look at these people.”

Even Sachin Tendulkar spoke out: “When we support #TeamIndia, we support every person who represents Team India. @MdShami11 is a committed, world-class bowler. He had an off day like any other sportsperson can have. I stand behind Shami & Team India.”  

However, Rahul Gandhi, told the bitter truth: “Mohammad #Shami we are all with you. These people are filled with hate because nobody gives them any love. Forgive them.”

And what happened after Olympic gold medalist Neeraj Chopra made a remark on Pakistani javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem? Predictably, huge hate outrage against the Pakistani.  And how did Neeraj Chopra react to that?

In a video posted on Twitter, he said: “I would request everyone to please not use me and my comments as a medium to further your vested interests and propaganda. Sports teaches us to be together and united. I’m extremely disappointed to see some of the reactions from the public on my recent comments.”

So they went after Aryan Khan and his father. The fake news and propaganda media, possessed and obsessed, yet again ran amok. So please check out the unprecedented outpouring of an ocean of support for Shahrukh Khan, and not only on social media. Even most of Bollywood biggies came out strongly for him, and publicly, in what is surely a secular film industry, with its great progressive and brilliant inheritance.

That is why, I say, let us not get suffocated by the jarring orchestra of a bad dream in bad faith. Let us follow the pristine mountain spring, and the sublime originality of the beautiful music, which purifies our sad souls, and heals our simmering wounds. This is because, humanism, love and good sense will win, in the final instance; because, butterflies are free. That is why, hope floats, eternally, inside our hearts, and in our chilly, wounded, winter landscape.

Devdas, The Show Isn’t Over Yet

As Hindu epics-based television serials Ramayan and Mahabharat gather encore from Indian audiences locked-in by Caronavirus, I wondered what could come next in reach, frequency and impact. My search ended with films based on the Bengali novel, Devdas, by Sharat Chandra Chatterjee. However, they are distant second by millions of miles, understandably, because Devdas is not an epic, nor does it preach any faith, ideology or philosophy.

Of the 20 odd films, one or two can arguably be called classics. Again, together they are no match to cinema, theatre, art and literature springing from the epics and other scriptures. Cinema and Devdas are but a century-old. None compares to, say, Hollywood’s Ten Commandments. But that would be digressing.

The novel or the films have not attained mass popularity because they end tragically. Readers/viewers find that depressing. Chatterjee who wrote this semi-autobiography in 1900 did not publish till 1917. He was embarrassed, as per his son, having written under alcohol’s influence. He thought it lacked maturity, although it remains his most famous work.

Devdas is a tragic triangle. Temperamental and timid by turns, the protagonist baulks when childhood love Parvati (Paro), entering his bedroom at night, proposes marriage. Blaming himself, but also her, for the ‘mistake,’ he takes to booze and to Chandramukhi, a courtesan. She loves him hopelessly but he, unable to forget an unattainable Paro, dislikes her, even as he depends upon her.

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Devdas dominates child-Paro, even strikes her on the eve of her marriage. Class and caste divides of the 19th century Bengal determine his parents’ rejection of the alliance and hers retaliate by finding someone higher and richer, even if old.

This story of viraha (separation) and self-destruction ends with a nomadic and sick Devdas, keeping the promise made to Parvati of “one last meeting”, dies at her doorsteps. There is no reunion.

Devdas’ 20 odd film versions cover the Indian Cinema’s evolution. The first by Naresh Mitra, released in 1927, was ‘silent’.  In 1935, four years after Indian cinema went ‘talkie’, its director P C Barua also enacted the lead. The very next year, he directed K L Saigal and Jamuna, captivating imagination of the pre-Partition India’s cine-goers with their acting and haunting songs. Barua was not done: the Assamese version came in 1937.

In 1953, Vedantam Raghaviah made Tamil and Telugu versions. Both had Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Savithri playhing Devdas and Parvati.  Two decades later, Vijaya Nirmala directed and played Parvati in another Tamil version (1974).   

In southern India, Akkineni’s depiction of Devdasu is considered the ultimate. Stories have it that for Bimal Roy’s Hindi version (1955), Dilip Kumar repeatedly watched the Telugu film.  Purists think no actor can surpass their performances.  

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Devdas inspired passion and continuity. Roy was Barua’s cinematographer. That it triggered several re-makes over a long period is remarkable. It laid the most significant milestones in careers of all concerned. 

It’s difficult, also unfair perhaps, to compare different versions made in different times with varying literary, technological, artistic, even financial inputs. I venture to say – and I am not alone – that Roy, by now working in what became Bollywood, getting Dilip Kumar – reportedly for Rs one lakh, a ‘princely’ sum in those times — to pair with Bengal’s Suchitra Sen, and with Vyjayantimala playing Chandramukhi, Kamal Bose’ photography and S D Burman’s music, is the most significant version.   

Devdas, following Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951) and others where Dilip Kumar played melancholic characters, sealed his reputation as the “tragedy king”. It caused him psychological imbalance. But it also inspired many a young aspirant to flock to Mumbai to act in films.

Translating a literary work on celluloid is never easy. Capturing Bengal’s countryside, providing the right musical notes from Baul to Mujhra, and of course, writing, played their respective roles. Roy, it would seem, got the combination right.  

In one of this film’s iconic scenes, Chandramukhi pleads with Devdas that he has drunk excessively and more would harm him. Surrounded by bottles, he retorts in utter despair: “Kaun kambakht hai jo bardasht karne ke liye peeta hai… main to peeta hun ke bas saans le sakun.”

I am unable to translate these lines by Rajinder Singh Bedi. But they were more or less repeated 47 years later in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 version.

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Unintended perhaps, there is continuity in the way Shahrukh Khan interpreted Devdas for Bhansali. Whether or not Kumar ‘learnt’ from Akkineni, Khan certainly emulated Kumar with whom he shares not only looks, but also ethnic/cultural roots. Think of the two Pathans hailing from Peshawar, interpreting a Bengali ‘bhadralok’!   

This ‘flexibility’ explains Devdas’ larger South Asian literary/cinematic reach, unaffected by India’s Partition. It has been filmed twice each in Pakistan (in Urdu 1965 and 2010) and Bangladesh (in Bengali in 1982 and 2013).  But it remains essentially Indian, with versions in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Assamese.  Most “non-Bengali” versions have been made post-Partition.

Generations have embraced Devdas. My father loved Saigal’s portrayal. Post-independence generations go gaga over Dilip’s. But my son prefers SRK’s colourful bonanza. One of the most lavishly mounted Bollywood venture, it was the first Indian film to be premiered at Cannes Film Festival.    

Sadly, I have seen only a few clips of Saigal. A Dilip admirer, I must confess to SRK’s interpretation growing on me as it were, on more viewings.

Film-makers by and large stuck faithfully to Chatterjee’s Devdas. But with the turn of the century, the current lot is taking artistic liberties. ‘Original’ Devdas went to Kolkata (then Calcutta) for studies. But Bhansali sent him to England, returning as a smoker, donning Western coat and hat. He lapses into dhoti-Panjabi ensemble when life gets tough and tragic. Incensed West Bengal lawmakers had demanded the film’s ban for its many ‘distortions’.

Among major actors of their times, besides Barua, Saigal and Akkineni, Kamal Haasan and SoumitraChaterjee played Devdas.    Parvati and Chandramukhi have been interpreted by Pakistan’s Shamim Ara and Banglaesh’s Kabori Chowdhur/Sarwar, Vijaya Nirmala (also its producer), Vyjayantimala, Supriya Chowdhury, Sridvi, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dikshit.

Vyjayantimala was known to have rejected the Best Supporting Actor nomination, insisting that her Chandramukhi, and not Paro, is the real heroine. Her view can be compared to Ramayan being viewed from Ravan’s standpoint, not always Ram’s.

On Suchitra Sen’s passing away in 2014, however, she admitted to being acknowledged at the national level and by critics after she played alongside Suchitra.

Ironically, save a brief frame, the two did not share a single sequence. While Vyjayantimala shot in Bombay, Sen’s part was filmed in Bengal.

For Madhuri who played Bhansali’s Chandramukhi with great aplomb, it was vindication. Clutching her Filmfare Award, she chided her critics who had written her off as a fading star after her marriage and migration to the United States.

Of Devdas’ five modern-day takes, in Anurag Kashyap’s “Dev D” all three protagonists are into booze and sex. The setting is Punjabi. His Chandramukhi is a hippy-like call-girl painting Delhi red. 

In “Daas Dev” (2018) Sudhir Mishra borrows not just from Chatterjee’s novel but also from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to capture the dynamics of India’s dynastic politics.

In a sense, Devdas is India’s answer to Hamlet. Both have survived generations. Life does oscillate between hope and despair.  Many would question their relevance today, though, especially their failure to rebel against prevailing norms.

The only known survivor of the 1955 saga besides Vyjayantimala, Dilip once stated that his aim was “to convey the sense of hopelessness that pervades the relationship between Devdas and the two women and others who are a part of his doomed life without leading ardent viewers to cynicism and despondence.”

The mystique continues. Gulzar’s 1980s attempt, with Dharmendra (who had reportedly financed the venture), Sharmila Tagore as Parvati and Hema Malini as Chandramukhi was aborted, nobody knows why. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) is searching the two reels Gulzar completed, but are missing.

In early 1960s, India lost its treasure of old films, including Devdas, in a fire in a Mumbai godown. The NFAI engaged in protracted talks with its Bangladeshi counterpart to retrieve the only surviving copy of the 1936 version found with a Chittagong film distributor. It was exchanged for Satyajit Ray’s Apu Triology.

The recovery of Devdas, film analyst Gautam Kaul recalls, was aptly celebrated with a ‘premier’ held at Nandan theatre in Kolkata.   

Great story-telling on cinema may elude in this era when a film-maker must stay commercially viable. Yet, last word may not have been said on Devdas.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com