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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.

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