The latest Bollywood extravaganza to get mainstream release in Britain, this is based on one of India’s most beloved novels, filmed at least 10 times since the first silent version in 1928. It’s a big, bold, colourful romantic epic that’s not exactly easy to grab onto. Devdas (Khan) is a young man just home from boarding school in England, where he is reunited with his childhood friend Paro (Rai) after 10 years apart. Their love has burned brightly, but their marriage is forbidden due to class differences. So Devdas hits the bottle, seemingly with a vow to drink himself to oblivion. And in a brothel he meets a kindly courtesan (Dixit) who becomes his doting guardian angel, even though her social status, even farther below him than Paro’s, prevents her from ever having hope of a real romance. While Paro and Devdas pine for each other from afar.
You figure out early on that this is not going to end happily, and the story bursts at the seams with tragic emotion. It’s all rather longwinded and repetitive, as Devdas keeps coming home for more familial fireworks before hitting the skids yet again. But at least it’s filled with vibrant costumes, a cast of zillions, elaborate sets (that look like they were built yesterday) and lots of singing and dancing. Normally I think the music detracts from these films, but this time it’s what saves it from being a dull plod. Khan is as stony and beefy as ever, while the rest of the cast take on their complex roles with gusto. Yes, it’s all much bigger than life, blessed with cheesy Bollywood production values that keep you agog from start to bitter end. And the complex plot is actually jammed with meaning and relevance, which director Bhansali makes sure we understand clearly.