“Devdas,” a 2002 Bollywood film directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, tells the story of the title character (Shah Rukh Khan), a man so desperately in love with the girl next door that he becomes an alcoholic wretch when things don’t work out as planned. The story turns into a love triangle when Devdas rushes off to the big city and meets a beautiful prostitute who loves him unconditionally even though he’s killing himself with booze. The story comes from a Bengali romance novel written in 1917, but it shares thematic elements with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Much of the blame for the heartache that infuses the movie comes from class differences among 2 families and the bigotry of the Devdas clan towards the family of Devdas’ beloved Paro (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan).
The story begins in great anticipation as Devdas’ family awaits the return of their prodigal son, who’s spent 10 years in London studying law. Devdas’ mother wants to be the first in the family to see her son, but when Devdas arrives, he bolts straight next door to visit Paro. She’s been living in a state of fluttery anticipation for a decade, waiting to see her childhood sweetheart again. We learn that Devdas didn’t exactly keep in touch with her; he’s only sent a few letters over the years. But when Devdas sees her again, it stirs up a tempest of desire that eventually drives him mad.
Even though everyone in the village can see how much Devdas and Paro love each other, the class system intervenes. Devdas’ father, a prominent lawyer, also owns the property inhabited by Paro’s family. As much as Paro and her mother, Sumitra (Kiron Kher), want a marriage between the sweethearts, it cannot happen because Devdas’ family disapproves for various reasons. Eventually, Devdas argues with his father and runs off without Paro to the big city.
In the city, Devdas meets up with a law school friend, Chunnilal (Jackie Shroff), who exposes him to both alcohol and prostitutes. At a brothel, Devdas meets the beautiful prostitute Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit), who is so impressed by Devdas’ professed love for Paro that she falls also in love with him. She becomes his caretaker and confidant as he spirals down into the depths of alcoholism and depression.
The spectacle of this 185 minute film includes some impressive acting by Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Paro and Madhuri Dixit as Chandramukhi. There’s an incredible amount of family intrigue coming from both families, and some wholly unsympathetic characters. Devdas’ 10 years in London seems to have made him stout and strong, but his family soon proves to be his undoing. The film becomes a memorable case of misunderstandings and the emotional impact of seeing the decline of someone who cannot be saved.