devdas (2002)


director: sanjay leela bansali

shahrukh khan, aishwarya rai, madhuri dixit

If you've never seen a Bollywood film before, the best way to describe Sanjay Leela Bansali's musical romance Devdas is that this is the film you thought you were seeing when you sat through Moulin Rouge.

Devdas, based on a wildly popular novel, has been filmed nine times since its first movie adaptation in 1928. Bansali's version is the ultimate, though, its US$12 million budget making it the most expensive movie ever made in India, and the first Indian film ever chosen as an out-of-competition screening at this year's Cannes film festival.

It's an instant Bollywood classic, set in a Brit-free fantasy version of the British Raj, among the mansions and palaces of brahmins and artistocrats, where every line of dialogue is likely to turn into a song, every character cries a dozen times a reel, and every set is dressed with billowing drapes, drifts of petals, and fountains that erupt on cue. Standard Indian filmi devices, but the no-expenses-barred aesthetic of Bansali's film sows them richly on the ground, resulting in a kind of hyper-melodrama that makes the teeth ache and the eyes throb with sheer overkill.

If you've a taste for this sort of thing - and the success of Moulin Rouge proves that a lot of people do - the film is irresistible: utterly, splendidly fake and aggressively ravishing. The story is simple enough - Devdas (Shahrukh Khan) returns from school in England hoping to marry his childhood sweetheart, the lovely Paro (Aishwarya Rai). His high-caste family object, cruelly insulting Paro's mother, who brokers a marriage with an aristocrat for her daughter, sending Devdas into a spiral of alcohol-fuelled despair. On the skids, his only solace is Chandramukhi (Bollywood legend Madhuri Dixit), a beautiful courtesan.

There are betrayals and villains and a final wasting illness that sends the story into its tragic finale, but not before a half-dozen giddy musical numbers, each of which is like a single Hollywood musical distilled. The performances are completely over the top - pitched at a level somewhere north of soap-opera hysterical - and absolutely perfect, and as a sprawling, outlandish whole, the film is like gorging on a five-course dessert, and absolutely reccommended.