BOOK EXCERPT

Pramathesh Chandra Barua was the original Devdas, on and off the screen

The actor and filmmaker, whose 65th death anniversary is on November 29, embodied the tragic literary character like no other screen performer.

For the first time in the history of the Indian talkies, Pramathesh directed and acted in and as Devdas, bringing this literary character to life on screen for all time to come. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay became a household name as the littérateur who created Devdas. But it was left to Pramathesh Chandra Barua to give meaning to the character.

Devdas (1935) is an all-time hit. It made Barua a star overnight and revolutionalized the concept of cinema as entertainment into (a) cinema of social concern and (b) literature expressed through celluloid. Sarat Chandra, a then-frequent visitor at the New Theatres studio in south Calcutta, told Barua after seeing Devdas, “It appears that I was born to write Devdas because you were born to re-create it in cinema.” Over time, the character of Devdas became synonymous with the name of P.C. Barua.

Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (1876-1938) wrote Devdas in 1901 at the tender age of 17. But he could not find a publisher for his manuscript till 1917. The rest is history. Sarat Chandra was sympathetic to the woman – repressed at home and tortured outside. He was partial to those who, for no fault of theirs, incurred the disapproval or displeasure of the family or community. The social and domestic atmospheres in Sarat Chandra’s works do not exist anymore. But the story interest keeps the reader hooked, irrespective of the plausibility or otherwise of the narrative.

Pramathesh directed and acted in the first talking verson of Devdas in Bengali. The film’s phenomenal success at the box office spurred him to make a Hindi version. But he stepped aside and cast K.L. Saigal to play the title role because he was not very confident of his Hindi diction. This film too, turned out to be a hit, turning Saigal into the greatest singing actor of the time.

PC Barua.
PC Barua.

Pramathesh used Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel as his raw material, creating his own structure and transforming what was purely verbal into an essentially visual form. Avoiding stereotypes and melodrama, Barua raised the film to a level of noble tragedy. The film’s characters are not heroes and villains but ordinary people conditioned by a rigid and crumbling social system. Even the lead character, Devdas, has no heroic dimensions to his character. What one sees are his weaknesses, his narcissism, his humanity as he is torn by driving passion and inner-conflict. Devdas established Barua as a front rank filmmaker and New Theatres as a major studio.

Both Pramathesh and Saigal were cult figures after Devdas became a hit. The character of Devdas and the film of the same name have “become a reference point in the romantic genre.” Never before had an Indian film won such commercial and critical acclaim. The Bombay Chronicle hailed it as “a brilliant contribution to the Indian film industry. One wonders as one sees it, when shall we have such another.” It ran to packed houses in all the major cities, people returning to see it over and over again.

The closure of the film was Pramathesh’s original contribution to the story because Sarat Chandra had written it differently. “Had Devdas the film, ended the way the novel did, the audience might not have understood it. It is possible to convey things through the written word that may not be possible to place on screen. So, Barua decided that when Parvati would hear that her Devdas was dying under a tree outside her house, she would run out to see him. But as she would rush out, the doors would begin to close on her. This door is a metaphor for the social taboo against a married woman rushing out to see her former lover, crossing the threshold of her marital home. It was unthinkable in those days. Barua conceptualized this entire scene. It was not there in the novel. When Sarat Babu saw the film, he was so moved by it that he told Barua that even he had never thought of ending the novel the way Barua had done,” informs Jamuna Barua [the director’s third wife].

Chandrabati Devi as Chandramukhi and PC Barua in ‘Devdas’.
Chandrabati Devi as Chandramukhi and PC Barua in ‘Devdas’.

Devdas, produced under the New Theatres banner, was released in Chitra Talkies on April 26, 1935. There are several scenes in Devdas that marked the entry of the jump cut to heighten the drama through a new editing strategy. When Devdas vomits blood during his travels, the camera cuts in to show a plate of floral offerings fall off Parvati’s hands, far away in her matrimonial home. In a night scene on the train, as soon as Devdas calls out to Paro, the scene cuts once again to show the doors and windows burst open in Parvati’s room as Parvati screams out in her sleep, in the middle of a nightmare. These scenes set out Pramathesh’s creative imagination in explaining through the language of cinema, the psychological stress his characters were reeling under, as also the telepathic bonding the lovers shared, without reducing these to melodrama or using sentimental dialogue.

According to the late Phani Majumdar, Pramathesh’s best performance is in Devdas. He describes, in particular, the scene where Devdas, after his beloved Parvati has been married to another, wanders aimlessly, drinking and shooting down birds at random. A friend of Parvati who spots him from a distance while carrying a pot of water back home, is scared to cross his path. But Devdas merely comes close to the girl and asks her how she is. This building a scene to an unpredictable anti-climax in a film spilling over with dramatic twists and turns and human tragedy is an example of how Pramathesh had gained both command and control over the medium of cinema. As an actor, Pramathesh abhorred melodrama. He kept his face almost deadpan, used minimum body language and left it to his audience to read from his emotions and from the total mise-en-scene.

A scene from ‘Devdas’.
A scene from ‘Devdas’.

Devdas has been reincarnated time and again within Indian cinema in different languages and varied presentations. Devdas is immortal, indestructible. This image of a man who surrenders all problems of his life to his addiction for the bottle and to the maternal affection he finds in the loving arms of a prostitute weaves a dream so attractive that we just cannot, from the bottom of our hearts, let go of it. So writes Ashish Nandy in his detailed study on the suicidal hero Pramathesh Barua. Barua did not create Devdas – he was Devdas. So powerful was the impact of Pramathesh’s portrayal on screen, so close it grew to his private life, that to the Bengali audience, Devdas was synonymous with the actor who played the character. By the time the film was released, Pramathesh became aware that he had contacted tuberculosis, and, drawn inescapably to the bottle like his screen parallel, wasted himself away slowly and surely, to die an untimely death barely 15 years after he had lived the character of Devdas on screen.

Excerpted with permission from Pramathesh Chandra Barua: The crownless prince, the eternal Devdas, Shoma A Chatterji, Wisdom Tree.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
__('Sponsored Content') BY 

London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

Play

For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.