The Opulence and Arrogance of ‘Devdas’

Why did we love the Sanjay Leela Bhansali magnum opus with massive sets, expensive costumes, and overacting galore? We revisit the film on its 20th anniversary.

Snigdha Sur

July 12, 2022

The Opulence and Arrogance of ‘Devdas’
Aishwarya Rai as Paro (Devdas)

When Devdas Mukherjee (Shah Rukh Khan) returns home after several years studying abroad in London, everybody in the Mukherjee household knows — not least because his mother has been screaming the news from the top of her lungs. Before you know it, the large household is singing a Bengali song, the neighbor Sumitra (Kirron Kher) is over to deliver sandesh, and her daughter Parvati — affectionately called Paro (Aishwarya Rai) — is dancing with a diya, a representation of her undying love for her childhood friend.

Thus opens filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s opulent Devdas (2002), about the titular romantic hero who doesn’t get the girl and dies due to his drunkenness, the most expensive film ever to be made in Hindi cinema at the time of its release. It was the 13th direct film adaptation of the famed 1917 novella by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay — though, notably, the first Hindi remake in color. There was a lot riding on the movie. Devdas was Bhansali’s third film, and critics and fans alike wondered if he could repeat the magic of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), also allegedly based on a Bengali book. As a Gujarati, Bhansali had a firm footing in his second film, which centered a Gujarati family, but he was not as intimately familiar with Bengali culture as filmmakers P.C. Barua and Bimal Roy, great auteurs who preceded him in telling the tale in Hindi. 

But Bhansali added magic to the familiar story, earning over $34 million against a $10.2 million budget at global box offices and becoming the must-see theatrical release of the year for many in the South Asian diaspora. His Devdas (2002) also brought together three of the biggest stars — and two of the best dancers — in Hindi cinema at the time: Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, and Aishwarya Rai. The movie premiered at the famed Cannes film festival and was India’s submission to the Oscars for Best International Film. But, even back then, critics called the dialogue “anachronistically melodramatic.” And, with a runtime of over three hours, Devdas can feel extremely slow. On rewatch, 20 years later, it’s easy to poke holes: the ridiculous depiction of a “poorer” neighbor with a palatial glass home, the addition of two songs nearly back to back in the third hour, the creative license that turned a psychological story into one filled with villains and overacting and joyful dances. So why did we ever fall in love with Bhansali’s Devdas anyway?