Some of the most sumptuous production values in Bollywood history frequently overwhelm the sliver of story in "Devdas," the latest and most extravagant version of a classic Indian novel of Romeo & Juliet dimensions.

Some of the most sumptuous production values in Bollywood history frequently overwhelm the sliver of story in “Devdas,” the latest and most extravagant version of a classic Indian novel of Romeo & Juliet dimensions. Strongly cast with big industry names, and hardly pausing for breath during its three-hour running time, this third feature by Sanjay Leela Bhansali is unquestionably a dazzling ride that’s a superb showcase for contempo Bollywood prowess. Rarely, however, does this tale of doomed love impress on an emotional level, so full on (and, ultimately, deadening) are the design and pacing, especially in the first half. At home, the long-in-production pic (reportedly Bollywood’s priciest to date) is highly awaited, and should perform comfortably when it opens July 14. With 15-20 minutes’ trimming, pic could carve a modest career with non-Indian auds on the basis of its exotic looks alone, but it doesn’t appear to have major breakout potential beyond the sub-continent.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhye’s 1917 novel has been filmed apparently nine times, starting with a silent version in 1928. Prior to the current version by Bhansali, the two previous ones in Hindi were helmed by P.C. Barua in 1935 and by Bimal Roy in 1956. Though not a big success at the time, Roy’s pic is now regarded as a classic of ’50s Hindi cinema — and even the simplest comparisons between his and Bhansali’s versions vividly demonstrate how far Bollywood has traveled in the past half-century.

Roy’s “Devdas,” filmed in B&W, spends the first 25 minutes (and two songs) detailing the sweethearts’ childhood in the countryside, where young Devdas, son of a high-caste landlord, is a prankster, and pretty little Paro, daughter of a lower-caste family, is his best friend. Playing down the melodrama, Roy creates a flowing, socially aware portrait of a love destroyed by class pressures and character weaknesses.

By contrast, Bhansali’s reworking, in splashy color and widescreen, cranks up the fantasy elements, piles on the melodrama and shears back most of the novel’s plot. Set in the early 1900s, pic kicks off with the protags already adults and Devdas Mukherjee about to return home after 10 years in London. As the news of his approach spreads through the huge house — in a breathtaking rush of tracking shots, fluttering fabrics, gossiping relatives and vivid saris — the mothers of Devdas and Paro recall their children as young kids.

Basically, however, Bhansali is more concerned with constructing a giant 20-minute introduction designed to knock the socks off his audience. First, Paro (megababe Aishwarya Rai) is teasingly introduced — almost a limb at a time — as she tends an oil lamp she’s kept burning for Devdas. And after a full-scale musical number, there’s a similarly long, teasing lead-up to intro’ing Devdas (megahunk Shah Rukh Khan).

Strongly recalling the highly textured look of Bhansali’s hit sophomore pic, “Hum dil de chuke sanam” (1999), but visually cranked up even more, the first two reels are breathtaking — after which you expect a drop in temperature and some characterization. However, with scarcely a pause for breath and almost grudgingly dropping in plot elements en route, Bhansali careens on through a magical, semi-dream sequence.

Finally, almost an hour into the movie, comes the first conflict, as Devdas’ snooty mom (Smita Jayakar) refuses a request by Paro’s mom Sumitra (Kiron Kher) for the kids to marry and Sumitra storms out, threatening to marry off Paro to someone else within a week. After a row with his estranged dad, Devdas also storms off — to stay with a friend, Chunnilal (Jackie Shroff), who intros him to the delights of super-courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit). Devdas tries to patch things up with Paro; but she, accusing him of inconstancy, goes ahead with her arranged marriage to a rich landowner, Bhuvan Choudhry (Vijayendra Ghatge), as the intermission arrives.

Part two essentially traces the long decline of Devdas into alcoholism. And here’s the surprise. Just when the running time enters the period (round about the two-hour mark) when Bollywood pics often go into dramatic rigor mortis, “Devdas” suddenly starts to breathe. Following a scene between Devdas and Paro in which she tries to persuade him to stop drinking — the first sequence that isn’t overwhelmed by production and costume design — Paro then goes to confront Chandramukhi at her luxurious lakeside establishment. Latter admits she still adores Devdas, and Paro invites Chandramukhi to her house for a festival.

The chemistry in this scene between the two actresses eclipses anything thus far. And it sets the scene for the next musical number, a joyful, highly rhythmic dance led by the two femmes, which is an instant, hair-raising Bollywood classic. Pic really takes flight here, as the gamine, almost Audrey Hepburn-like Rai strikes sparks off the older but still vivacious Dixit. Subsequent scene in which the glamorous Dixit defends her profession is the pic’s acting highlight.

Though he never fully loosens up, and consistently looks too old for the part, Khan also blooms more in Part Two and — in almost the only sequence that directly recalls Roy’s 1956 version — gives a good account of his character during a chance meeting with Chunnilal. Other roles are played OK within their limits, with Ghatge quietly dignified as Paro’s sympathetic husband and Shroff lively as the lascivious Chunnilal.

Production design by Nitin Chandrakant Desai (from “Hum dil”) adopts very distinctive styles for the four main sets: the yellow and green, Roman-columned manse of the Mukherjees, the musky stained-glass folly of Paro’s home, the cream and gold expanses of Chandramukhi’s house of pleasure, and the deep reds of Choudhry’s traditional manor house. The way in which most of the film rotates between these four huge sets, with hardly any exteriors or landscapes or major changes of locale, increases the pic’s dramatic claustrophobia. So, too, the sheer Samuel Bronston-like luxuriousness of the costumes which, though often jaw-dropping in their use of fabrics, decorations and hues, gradually overwhelm the viewer with their unrelieved richness.

Pic was, unfortunately, shown at Cannes without its intermission break, which comes after Paro’s mom curses the Mukherjee family.

Devdas

India

Production

An Eros Intl. presentation of a Mega Bollywood production. (International sales: Focus Intl., New York/Eros, London.) Produced by Bharat Shah. Executive producers, Mohan Nayyar, Gajendra Mishra. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Screenplay, Prakash Kapadia, Bhansali, based on the novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhye.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Binod Pradhan; editor, Bela Segal; background music, Monty; song music, Ismail Darbar, Birju Maharaj; lyrics, Nusrat Badr, Sameer; production designer, Nitin Chandrakant Desai; costume designers, Abu Jani & Sandeep Khosla, Neeta Lulla, Reza Shariffi; sound (stereo), Jitendra Chaudhary, Leslie Fernandes; sound designers, Vikramaditya Motwane, Kunal Sharma, Leslie Fernandes; choreographers, Birju Maharaj, Saroj Khan, Vaibhavi Merchant, Pappu-Mallu; associate directors, Motwane, Apratim Khare; assistant directors, Vatsala Sikandar, Rashika Pradeep, Amit Suhas, Sangeeta Manu, Nishat Amber, Raj Ashraf, Rohit Dheeraj; casting, Suguna Sundaram. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing), May 17, 2002. Running time: 181 MIN. (I: 87 MIN.; II: 94 MIN.). (Hindi dialogue)

With

Devdas Mukherjee - Shah Rukh Khan Chandramukhi - Madhuri Dixit Parvati ("Paro") - Aishwarya Rai Chunnilal - Jackie Shroff Sumitra - Kiron Kher Kaushalya - Smita Jayakar Bhuvan Choudhry - Vijayendra Ghatge Kumud - Ananya Khare
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