Devdas: India's Emasculated Hero,
Sado-Masochism and Colonialism


Poonam Arora

University of Michigan, Dearborn

Copyright (c) 1997 by Poonam Arora, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

    I want to help the Black man to
    free himself of the arsenal of
    complexes that has been developed
    by the colonial environment.

    Frantz Fanon

    [Colonialism] creates a culture in
    which the ruled are constantly
    tempted to fight their rulers within
    the psychological limits set by the

    Ashis Nandy

    Sexuality must not be thought of as
    a kind of natural given which power
    tries to hold in check...It is the
    name given to a historical
    construct...a great surface network
    in which the stimulation of bodies,
    the intensification of pleasures,
    the incitement of discourse, the
    formation of special knowledges, the
    strengthening of controls and
    resistances are linked to one
    another, in accordance with a few
    major strategies of knowledge and

    Michel Foucault


    1. One of the most enduring icons of the Indian film oeuvre is the aristocratic, lovelorn, sexually impotent, politically disengaged, and ultimately tragic hero named Devdas. Derived from a popular Bengali novel, written in 1917, by a teenage writer--Sarat Chandra Chatterjee--the Devdas narrative was first adapted into a silent film in 1928. While not much is known about this first Devdas film, its subsequent appeal across gender, class and regional lines is attested to by many remakes: a Bengali version in 1935; two Hindi versions in 1936 and 1955; two Telegu versions in 1953 and 1974 and a Malayalam version in 1989. Not only has the narrative become a "mythological reference point for Hindi melodrama" (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 244), but the Devdas persona has become incorporated into the various Indian languages and therefore has become an integral part of South Asian culture. The pathos of this doomed hero of Indian cinema was effectively captured by Eric Barnouw and S. Krishnaswamy, when, in their first edition of Indian Film (1963) they wrote: "And virtually a generation wept over Devdas " (80).

    2. In this essay I will read the cathexis of pre- and post-Independence Indian audiences with the Devdas narrative, as a symptom of what Fanon calls that "arsenal of complexes that has been developed by the colonial environment" (30). I will establish that the contours of the Devdas narrative discursively construct a prototypical colonial male subjectivity which is doomed to function within the psychological limits set by the latter [the colonizers]" (Nandy, my emphasis, 3). These psychological limits compel the Devdas character to both desire independence from, and seek the recognition of, an absent master. By deconstructing the psychic violence implicit within the narrative and the mise-en-scene of sexuality in the various Devdas films, I will establish how their eponymous hero became emblematic of the ideal of masculinity in the South Asian imaginary during the first half of this century, and why his lack of political and sexual agency continues to affect a "collective catharsis" (Fanon, 145) among these audiences to this day. It is my contention that by displacing the social and political conflicts between colonizer and colonized onto the psycho-sexual dynamics of a sadomasochistic relationship between a man and a woman, the melodramatic narrative may have elided the real ideological tensions and contradictions of colonial and neocolonial India, but it has also obliquely and repeatedly opened up a space of resistance for the text's audiences, throughout this century.

    3. Drawing from Hegel's dialectic of control in the master/ slave relationship, and extending Jessica Benjamin's now famous psychoanalytic argument on sadomasochistic violence, I am going to establish that the "arsenal of complexes" that is condensed in the Devdas narrative is an index of the Indian masculine subject's primary narcissism; his failure to differentiate himself from the feminine (a discursive space to which he has been relegated by the dominant colonial ideology); and following this failure, his resorting, eventually, to "erotic domination" over the Other as a desperate means of organizing his masculinity.

    4. Two important disclaimers are in order here: First, in counter-distinction to the infantilizing discourse of the orientalists on the Bengali babu [1], my intent is not to perpetuate this demeaning discourse, but rather, to understand why the otherwise terminal psychic processes of early childhood--separation and individuation--recur in a magnified form in the subject's adult life and, more importantly, how, when a society is caught in new, extreme and symbolic forms of domination and submission, these processes take on a specific social pathology. The Devdas films provide this cultural critic with the opportunity to read the prevailing conditions of psychological, political, cultural and economic domination/submission in the colonial context as these are condensed in the familial and conjugal life of the protagonists of a popular text, and as these conditions ultimately erupt as the dis-ease of their bodily and sexual functions.

    5. The second, and more problematic, disclaimer has to do with my use of the psychoanalytic paradigm to analyze the processes of social change as these are indexed in germinal cultural texts. On the one hand, I am in complete agreement with proponents of trans-cultural psychiatry who believe that "psychoanalysis as constituted today is largely an elaborate ethnopsychoanalysis of Western man," (Roland, xxv) and that the trajectory of individuation that it charts is parallel to the teleology of Western bourgeois society in this century. This makes psychoanalysis as constituted today somewhat unsuitable for understanding the psychic processes of non-Western societies as they struggle to formulate their own paradigms of modernity. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that profound though these civilizational differences between societies may be, that each can be so tidily essentialized as to call for an altogether different psychoanalytic methodology. It would have been convenient to draw from an a priori comparative and transcultural psychoanalysis to explicate the psychic negotiations of subjects caught in the interstices of high modernity, but unfortunately such a mature comparative methodology does not exist. In some modest manner my study of Indian cinema's founding myths aims to formulate just such a comparative psychoanalytic paradigm. What I am calling the "social pathology" of colonialism within the larger comparative methodology should not be read as a prognosis of "abnormality"; rather, I intend it to function as a descriptive term for the complex and unstable "libidinal politics"[2] between colonizer and colonized, master and slave, sadist and masochist, man and woman. Finally, the (vicious) circularity of my argument should be read as the failure of any pre-existing language and theoretical paradigms to adequately carry the burden of our collective historical and psychic experiences, rather than as a symptom of my confusion.

      The Story of Devdas

    6. The story of Devdas goes as follows: a young, sensitive boy from a feudal Bengali family is sent to Calcutta to acquire an education befitting his class. Devdas is distraught at the separation from his mother and his female playmate--Parvati. When the grown-up and considerably Anglicized Devdas returns to his rural context he is unable to relate to his childhood sweetheart. Parvati, meantime, has steadfastly loved Devdas through all the years of his absence and wishes to continue the childhood friendship as a romantic relationship leading to marriage. When Parvati's family proposes her marriage to Devdas, the latter's family rejects the alliance outright, supposedly on the grounds that marriages within the kinship group (in this case the village) were discouraged, but more importantly because her family's lower social status makes her ineligible for the match with Devdas. I should clarify that even diegetically these arguments appear flimsy; for though Parvati's family is not as rich as Devdas's, she is from the same caste as Devdas, and in the feudal Bengal of the early twentieth century, it was not uncommon for a rich man to marry a beautiful, though relatively poor, woman.

    7. Taking umbrage at the rejection, Parvati's family proceeds to arrange for her marriage elsewhere and Parvati, risking the appearance of impropriety, visits Devdas at his home in the dead of night. A shocked Devdas reprimands Parvati for the scandal she might cause. Parvati declares that since she is about to lose all that she deems valuable in her life, desperation has driven her to surrender herself to him. Devdas protests feebly about his family's honor and his duty to his parents, but finally it is he himself who is unable to "take" Parvati that night and is eventually unsuccessful either in persuading his family or disregarding its wishes.

    8. Unable to face Parvati thereafter, Devdas escapes to Calcutta from where he writes as follows: "It has never crossed my mind that I desire you." (I will return to the "narcissistic object-choice" implicit in this statement.) Parvati, of course, reads this as a callous rejection and has no choice but to agree to the match her parents have arranged. When Devdas tries to apologize for his betrayal, the slighted Parvati accuses him of being arrogant and narcissistic. She declares that her parents have made a wise decision in arranging her marriage with an older man, one who is not impetuous and fickle like Devdas. Incensed at Parvati's accusations, Devdas hits her on her face, leaving a mark on her forehead, which he claims would always remind her of him. After a tender reconciliation the lovers part.

    9. Parvati leaves for her husband's home and in an inter-cut sequence Devdas enters the salon of a prostitute--Chandramukhi. The former takes up her responsibilities as the benevolent mistress of a vast feudal estate (thereby crossing class lines) and Devdas falls into a degenerate and purposeless life in the city. Parvati wins the love of her step-children, who are as old as herself, and the respect of her husband, with whom her relationship remains celibate and amicable. The husband apologizes for his initial lustful designs on Parvati, who is young enough to be his daughter, and withdraws to a retired life by abdicating the running of his estate to her.

    10. Though grateful for the company of a patient and devoted woman, Devdas initially despises Chandramukhi for her sexual promiscuity and refuses to sleep with her. Chandramukhi falls in love with Devdas precisely because she idealizes his chastity. Hoping, at first, that by reforming her lifestyle she may become acceptable to Devdas, Chandramukhi gives up her profession as a prostitute. Later when she lacks the resources to take care of his failing health, she renews her activities in a spirit of altruism. Grateful to Chandramukhi for saving his life, but still in love with Parvati, Devdas comes to loathe himself for his inability to defy social conventions.

    11. Despite their markedly different social standings Chandramukhi and Parvati function as mirror images of each other. In every version of the film the physical resemblances between the actresses playing the roles of the two women in Devdas's life are unmistakable. Nor are these resemblances lost on Devdas!

    12. Meanwhile Devdas's father dies, his mother retires to a life of sanyas [3] and his brother tries to swindle him of his share of the family inheritance. A dejected and lost Devdas becomes a vagabond and an alcoholic. Hearing of his sorry situation, Parvati visits Devdas a second time and offers herself to him once more. Quite predictably, Devdas refuses her again but dares Parvati to run away with him. Knowing that Parvati would be unable to relinquish her social responsibilities as a married woman, Devdas's dare equates his psychological limitations with Parvati's social limitations. Each agrees to respect the other's limitations, at least for the time being. When Devdas promises to visit Parvati at least once before his death, there is a tacit understanding between the lovers that they have merely deferred but not ultimately abandoned the possibility of their union. This deferral functions as the motor of the narrative.

    13. When the enervated and consumptive Devdas finally arrives at Parvati's doorstep, ready to claim her, there is a classic role reversal: it is Parvati's turn to accept Devdas's submission. Disregarding her social position as the mistress of an influential feudal estate and her familial responsibilities as a wife and mother, Parvati rushes to accept Devdas. Her family, which has hitherto been unaware of her secret love for Devdas, cannot permit such an infraction and literally locks her within the gates of the family estate, thereby preventing the lovers' reunion and forever cloistering Parvati in a life of chaste respectability. Meanwhile, in an equally melodramatic scene the chaste Devdas dies at Parvati's doorstep.

      Barua as Devdas: The Prince as Anti-Hero

    14. The first significant film adaptation of the literary text was the Bengali version of Devdas made in 1935. It was immensely successful at the box office. The film was directed by P.C. Barua, an already established star of Bengali cinema and a standing member of the Assam Legislative Assembly, who also played the lead role of Devdas. Not unlike the persona of Devdas, Pramathesh Chandra Barua was himself a handsome young prince and heir to the kingdom of Gauripur (Assam) in the Bengali Presidency. Barua left his native Assam and came to study at Presidency College, Calcutta, a premier institution of higher education established by the British in order to train a burgeoning Indian middle class to serve as intermediaries between the British administration and the Indian populace. However, unlike other graduates of Presidency College, Barua did not pursue a career in the colonial Civil Service, and instead went on a European tour, where he became interested in film-making. He got informal training at the Elstree Studio in London and after purchasing film-making equipment in Europe, he returned to Calcutta where, in 1931, he set up his own production studio-- Barua Pictures Limited (Barnouw & Krishnaswamy 77-82). Barua had wanted a large- scale studio to compete with British Dominion Films and New Theatres, but his father, angered over his involvement with cinema and the decadent lifestyle that it implied, refused to finance the venture. Barua's small studio of course did not survive the competition from the large studios in Calcutta, and three years later Barua became associated with New Theatres, a studio committed to such progressive social reform issues as the emancipation of women, widow remarriage, and the abolition of child marriage.

    15. I mention these details of Barua's life to reinforce the parallels between his life and that of Devdas, the fictional character. Both belonged to aristocratic families; were educated in Calcutta; adopted Western life-styles; had a falling out with their respective families; and suffered from a tragic despondency.[4] These parallels are important for my ensuing argument, namely, that in making Devdas Barua wanted to refute the colonialists' construction of Bengali youth as effeminate and degenerate. A sympathetic portrayal of the babu was directed at another set of critics: Indian nationalists who saw the babu as straying from the social and religious values of Hindu orthodoxy. Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century and well into the first quarter of the twentieth, the anglicized Bengali man had been the object of scathing social satire in the vernacular press, and in Indian folk paintings, theater, songs and films.

    16. Even though it is important to remember that this discourse on "Bengali 'effeminacy' [intersected] with contemporary discourses about the regulation of sexual practices and sexual identities in Britain" at the turn of the century (Sinha: 1995, 18), its real ideological power in India lay in the colonial administration's ability to offer the Bengali's lack of "'manly self control"' (ibid 19) as material proof of the babu 's incapacity for psychological self-determination and, in the long run, for political self-rule.

    17. I have argued elsewhere that the British policy on film censorship, which was purported to be part of its larger "civilizing" mission throughout the colonies, sought to keep Indian audiences from watching Western (mainly Hollywood) films on the grounds that sexual themes were unsuitable fare for the already sexually overactive, and alternately degenerate Indian male (Arora, 38). In this essay I will consider what effect the colonialist charge of effeminacy, degeneracy and emasculation levied against the Bengali babu had on the latter. It was not that the babu believed the charge, but rather that he failed to understand its ideological thrust. In assiduously and earnestly refuting the charge, the babu inadvertently internalized it--a classic example of Fanon's proposition that colonialism creates a culture wherein the ruled are tempted to fight the ruler within the terms set by the latter. If Devdas gets caught in the conundrum of having to withhold his sexuality in order to prove his psychological and political coming of age, audiences sympathized with Devdas rather than condemned him for his lack of agency.

    18. Elaborating on Jessica Benjamin's essay, "Bonds of Love," in which she explains the role of erotic domination and sadomasochism in the development of gender identity and gender domination in Western culture, I will extend Benjamin's thesis on the child's "yearning for mutual recognition" from the domain of individual psychology to that of group psychology under colonial rule. The Devdas narrative resolves the contradictions inherent in the condition of the colonized subject; namely, that he must attain independence from, and yet seek the recognition of, the colonizing master through the pacifying economy of melodrama. By (con)textualizing that which has been repressed/marginalized by the narrative, I am trying to demonstrate how the Devdas films work out the processes of attaining political selfhood and agency within the colonial regime, in distinctly psycho-sexual terms.

    19. In this context it is interesting to note how the discourses of fictional melodrama and Gandhian civil disobedience fed into each other at this historical juncture. Erik Erikson, in his psychoanalytic biography of the mahatma --Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence --discusses how the political leader transformed his "sexual self-disarmament" into a tool of active political resistance and "prided himself in being half man and half woman."(403). I do not mean to imply that Devdas and Gandhi are comparable in any overt fashion, or that Erikson's interpretation of the mahatma is definitive. Rather, I want to suggest that the discursive confluence of sexual abstinence and political resistance was very much a part of the Indian nationalist ideology of the time.

      Redefining the Babu

    20. If Barua's direction of the 1935 Bengali version of Devdas in which he also acted the role of the protagonist was so successful at the box office, why did he not act the role of Devdas in the 1936 Hindi version as well? Why did Barua instead choose the minor role of Parvati's step-son in the 1936 Hindi version, which was expected to appeal to a pan-Indian audience? I will offer two reasons for this textual variation: the first, more obvious and meant to serve a didactic function diegetically; the second, more conjectural, perhaps, but one that gets to the very heart of the arsenal of complexes that, I believe, the film addresses.

    21. When audiences saw Barua first as Parvati's lover and subsequently as her step-son in two successive versions of the story, released less than a year apart from each other, there was a very definite suggestion that something was not quite right. This inter-textual referencing had the impact of de-naturalizing the otherwise socially acceptable practice of men marrying women young enough to be their daughters. The sequence wherein the newly married Parvati welcomes her daughter-in-law to the household as her step-son (played by Barua) admires Parvati's selflessness, while she endures her own sex-less marriage with her aging husband, must have made audiences re-think the social practice of child marriages if not condemn its injustice to young women outright. This theme was dealt with in other films of the period, such as Duniya na Mane (The Unexpected , 1937), was the centerpiece of the social reform movement of the time and was championed by the progressive urban elite of Bengal.

    22. The second reason why Barua did not play Devdas in the Hindi version of 1936 and instead chose a very different actor to play the role has to do with dissociating the Bengali feudal male subject from the dominant colonialist discourse of effeminacy, while foregrounding the babu's traits of nobility, urbanity, and most importantly, chastity.[5] Thomas Babington Macaulay's oft-quoted and defamatory description of the Bengali is pertinent here, if only to give the reader a sense of what Barua was reacting against when he chose another actor to play Devdas:

      The physical organization of the Bengalee [sic] is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds (quoted in Strachey, 449-50).
      These "men of bolder and more hardy breeds" of India were the Manichean opposite of the Bengali babu . Kundan Lal Saigal, the actor-singer, who was chosen by Barua to play the part of Devdas in the Hindi remake, was just such a figure. On the one hand, his regional identity as a Punjabi (a people known for their peasant hardiness), his caste affiliation as a Kshatriya (warrior/kingly caste), his strong physique, and his "fair" complexion (believed to be closer to the Aryan race as opposed to the "dark" complexion of the aboriginal, Dravidian race) countered the charge of feebleness, effeminacy and ineffectuality typically levied against the Bengali babu . On the other hand, Saigal's understated and eventually trendsetting acting style, the sonorous voice in which he delivered the film's rather sparse and deliberate dialogue, and the low crooning voice in which he sang the songs, all contributed to the hero's quiet dignity and strength, without compromising the pathos and romantic nihilism of the role. It is this tenuous balance of dignity and pathos that made Devdas so appealing to the women in his life and to Indian audiences at large.

      Redefining Devdas

    23. So powerful was the appeal of the Devdas persona for successive generations of actors and audiences that while the former became inextricably linked with the role, the latter passionately debated the relative strengths of each actor's interpretation of Devdas. Writing four decades after Barua's rendition of Devdas, film journalist Rinki Bhattacharya has claimed: "Devdas (has been to the Indian actor) what Hamlet is to his western counterpart" (15). Bhattacharya has also located the supreme irony of the cult of Devdas in Indian film culture when she writes: "The hero of Indian cinema was ushered in by, perhaps, the best known anti-hero of all times--Devdas" (15).

    24. The fact that from the late 1920s to well into the 1970s audiences have persisted in empathizing with Devdas, the antihero, and actors have become inextricably linked with the persona, belies a social and psychological reality that merits understanding. For Bengali audiences in the 1930s Barua the prince and Devdas the character were virtually interchangeable. As the dying Barua, in 1951, himself commented:

      Devdas was in me even before I was born, I created it every moment of my life much before I put it on the screen and yet, once it was on the screen, it was more than a mirage, a play of light and shade and sadder still, it ceased to exist after two hours (quoted in Ramachandran, 50).
      When in 1946, K. L. Saigal, not unlike the fictional Devdas, serendipitously died of alcoholism at the young age of forty-two, his fans throughout the subcontinent regarded the actor and the persona as merging together perfectly. Upon his death, radio stations throughout India obsessively played the tragic and soulful songs that Saigal had sung in Devdas and many other comparable melodramatic films, for many days on end, in what came to be recognized as an unofficial mourning for a "national" hero. For two decades Saigal's interpretation of Devdas reigned supreme--setting the standard both for an understated acting style and a particular tonal quality of playback singing that was emulated by many other singers of the Indian film industry.

    25. The Bengali and the Hindi versions of 1935 and 1936 were virtually identical, with the exception of Saigal playing Devdas. However, a comparison of the 1936 and 1955 Hindi versions reveals some interesting differences. The highly regulated film industry of colonial India was transformed after Independence in 1947. Many new studios were established; the infusion of private investment resulted in considerable technological progress; the highly restrictive (British) Cinematograph Act of 1918 was amended; the entertainment tax on films was raised considerably by state governments, thereby changing the demographics of film audiences. Resulting from these transformed modes of production, the old anti-imperialist values of the film industry needed to be revised. Bimal Roy--the cameraman for Barua--attempted another remake of Devdas , this time played by an already established star of the Indian film industry--Dilip Kumar.

    26. Dilip Kumar (born Yusuf Khan) was a Pathan--a sturdy mountain people from the Northwest Frontier Province of India--and in this respect he was, not unlike Saigal, associated with the "martial races." Kumar's "filmic identity offered a complex cultural/psychological terrain displaying the anxieties of Independence and the nostalgias of a pre-Partition childhood" since he had previously been cast in the role of "an innocent loner caught in and destroyed by conflicting social pressures"(Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 123). So perfectly did Dilip Kumar embody the contradicted persona of Devdas that the post-Independence generation of filmgoers "swore Dilip was born to play Devdas" (Bhattacharya, 15). What is more, so entrenched was Dilip Kumar in the mythology of Devdas and so detrimental was this to his self- image, that shortly after he played the role, Dilip Kumar "decided to change to a more swashbuckling image . . . apparently on [the] advice of his psychoanalyst" (Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, 123).

    27. Even though Devdas (1955) established its own visual style and bore the imprint of the production values of the studio system, the persistence of the Devdas myth dictated that audiences establish the continuities and disjunctures of this text vis-à-vis earlier versions of Devdas. A debate ensued in the popular press wherein film critics and buffs alike passionately argued the relative merits of Barua's, Saigal's and Dilip Kumar's rendition of Devdas. Bhattacharya writes that the "release of the remake made nearly everyone wickedly nostalgic, comparing sly notes on all three Devdases" (15). No consensus was possible; the generation that came of age in the pre-Independence days preferred either Barua or Saigal whereas the post-Independence generation overwhelmingly preferred Dilip Kumar.

    28. While Chakravarty has claimed that in 1955 "the Devdas character no longer captivated the popular imagination," (141) Rajadhyaksha and Willemen have stipulated that "the new approach provide[d] a more resonant historical background to a story usually focused almost exclusively on Devdas's psychological obsessions" (318). This shift from the psychoanalytic underpinnings of the narrative to the pressing socio-political implications of the Roy production are reinforced by the lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi--the legendary love poet of the film industry and a Devdas type in his own right.[6]

    29. The existential angst of the protagonist is interpreted by the post-Independence generation of Devdas fans as an expression of the latter's sense of betrayal at the hands of an indifferent state bureaucracy and political leadership which failed to address widespread unemployment among urban educated men, political corruption and a distinct lack of idealism among the young.

    30. Nor is Dilip Kumar alone in reinterpreting the Devdas myth in a post-Independence culture. Other stars of the Indian film industry such as Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Bharat Bhushan displaced Devdas's psychological neuroses onto a profound disillusionment with the Indian nation-state. In 1959 Guru Dutt directed India's first cinemascope film--Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers )--in which an idealistic film director fails to realize his ambition to make yet another version of the Devdas story. In drawing attention to the marginality of the Indian artist in the project of nation-building, Kaagaz ke Phool reinterpreted Devdas, once the prototype of the noble but ineffectual colonial subject, as an atavistic icon of a failed idealism in a neocolonial culture, and Parvati not as the legendary beloved, but rather as an opportunist star of the Indian film industry.

      Sex, Age and Ideology In British India

    31. I am arguing that Indian cinema has immortalized Devdas and Parvati not so much for their devotion to each other as for their mutual chastity, and to a lesser degree for their defiance of societal codes. In order to understand the psycho-social implications of the lovers' sexual chastity and Devdas's chastity vis-à-vis Chandramukhi, one must locate this chastity within the larger gender ideology of colonialism.

    32. Even though throughout the second half of the nineteenth century the British had claimed that they were committed to a policy of non-interference in the social and religious life of Indians, by the 1930s the purview of this "uncolonized space" had been steadily shrinking. In 1891 the Age of Consent Act (according to which sexual intercourse with unmarried or married girls below twelve years of age, with or without their consent, was to be treated as rape) had been passed, despite overwhelming protest by Indian nationalists. However, fearing social unrest the Viceroy had issued a subsequent executive order "that made it virtually impossible to bring cases of premature consummation of child marriage for trial under the Consent Act" (Sinha 1994, 138). In spite of this corrective measure, the psychological impact of the Consent Act on the Bengali babu was far reaching indeed! For between the legal binding of the Consent Act and the impossibility of its implementation, there opened up a chasm of vulnerability. As Sinha argues:

      The Consent Act humiliated the Bengali husband without being of much use to the Bengali child bride. . . . [D]espite its liberal and humanitarian rhetoric, it became the focus of the colonial disdain of Bengali masculinity and of the Bengali male's attempt to reclaim his masculinity (1987, 223).
      While maintaining the facade of "non-interference," this legislation permitted the British to champion the cause of Indian women's welfare while at the same time insulting Indian men by insinuating that the latter were promiscuous, dishonorable, and most damaging of all, unmanly. Even though the Consent Bill controversy had far-reaching and complex ramifications for the British, Indian nationalists, Victorian feminists and the orthodox Hindu and Muslim leadership in India, my concern with the controversy in this essay is limited to its impact on the bhadralok (feudal and urban upper classes) of Bengal. The babu , though not held strictly culpable for his sexuality, nevertheless felt himself to be under the intense scrutiny of the bhadramahila (upper-class Bengali women) who had supported the Bill and the colonialists who had challenged the babu 's masculinity one more time. It is this anxiety that is at the core of the melodrama of Devdas ; and the narrative's ability to relieve this anxiety, I believe, explains its persistent appeal for Indian audiences.

    33. Because audiences' critical attention to the Devdas films has focused almost exclusively on the male protagonist, the shifts in the representation of the female protagonist have gone largely unnoticed both by film theorists and by audiences. Jamuna, who played Parvati in both the 1935 (Bengali) and in the 1936 (Hindi) versions, was a girl of delicate frame and constitution. In her quick and effortless transition from the bold, impetuous and adolescent Parvati who dares Devdas to take her sexually, to the asexual and mature house-holder, Jamuna's rendition of Parvati came dangerously close to the British understanding of Bengal's child brides that presumably had prompted the Age of Consent Act of 1891. However, we must remember that it was not the injustices of child marriage per se that were the target of British reformist zeal, but rather the "barbaric" practices of the "unmanly and effeminate Hindu male" who consummated marriages with girls as young as ten or twelve years old.

    34. While the reformist agendas of these pre-Independence films condemned the practice of old widowers (such as Parvati's husband) marrying young girls and valorized "manly self-control" (as exemplified by Devdas), scant attention was paid to the fate of the child-bride herself. Thus, even though the choice of Saigal as Devdas is revisionist in intent, no comparable revision in the image of Parvati was deemed necessary in the 1936 Hindi version of the film. It was not until the post-Independence version of the narrative that a distinction was made between Devdas and Parvati as children (played by child actors) and later in the film as played by Dilip Kumar and Suchitra Sen. The buxom figure of Suchitra Sen, then in her mid-twenties, was clearly a departure from the earlier pubescent Jamuna as Parvati. Even so, frequent flashbacks from Devdas and Parvati's childhood and the parallel editing of a song sequence connecting their childhood and their blighted affair in their adult lives do not let the viewer forget entirely that the relationship had its origins in Devdas and Parvati's shared childhood where they were playmates and siblings rather than lovers. If the charge of promiscuity and effeteness which compelled Devdas to abstain from having sex with the woman he desired originated from the British, this charge lingered on even after the British had departed. The neo-colonial state, after all, is known to perpetuate preexisting relations of power with a different cast of characters.

    35. There are other historical reasons for why the colonialists' indictment of the babu 's masculinity escalated to new heights in the 1930s. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Bengali men who because of their college education had come to challenge the monopoly of the British over high-ranking Civil Service jobs were characterized by the British as, one, lacking in manly self control, and two, acutely intelligent but physically effete. According to this argument the babu was unfit to be the equal of the educated Englishman and was therefore deemed incapable of self-rule. What is more, as Sinha convincingly argues:

      [T]he contours of colonial masculinity were shaped in the context of an imperial social formation that included both Britain and India. The figures of the 'manly Englishman' and the 'effeminate Bengali' were thus constituted in relation to colonial Indian society as well as to . . . the emergence of the 'New Woman'; the 'remaking of the working class'; the legacy of 'internal colonialism' and the antifeminist backlash of the 1880s and 1890s (2).
      These complex social forces, however, could not be accommodated onto the canvas of Indian literary and filmic melodrama which was painted in rather broad brush-strokes. Despite the fact that the Bengali press and social reformers had challenged the dominant discourse of colonial masculinity, there is considerable evidence to prove that by the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Bengali educated middle class had not only internalized the stereotype of unmanliness but was engaged in consciously overcoming it through training in elaborate regimens of physical exercise, reforming the traditional Bengali diet, and emulating British social etiquette. All these efforts were directed at rehabilitating the image of the Bengali as manly, but even more urgently as civilized.

    36. Under these circumstances it is easy to see why, despite other minor variations, every version of the Devdas narrative begins with the protagonist being sent away from his rural context to Calcutta: the cultural capital of the British empire in India. The more the adolescent Devdas resists the separation from his mother and his childhood playmate, the more adamant are his father and older brother that he be sent away. The family is afraid that the rural context may make Devdas an "undisciplined" and "soft" man. While the narrative makes no direct connection between his childhood pranks (in which Parvati is his ally) and the family's anxiety over his potential softness, there is an indirect suggestion that Devdas needs to be in the company of other young men. Indeed an important part of the educational project in Calcutta is the father's plan that Devdas join the company of other aristocratic young men.

    37. It is interesting that even though the family members are unanimous in their desire that Devdas acquire a taleem , an Arabic word meaning education in its broadest sense, none of the films shows Devdas attending any educational institution. Instead the emphasis is on Devdas acquiring the fripperies, social etiquette, and to some extent the values of the urban elite of Calcutta.

    38. In the 1936, Hindi version of the film, Devdas is at first the object of derision in the city when he arrives there clad in dhoti-kurta --traditional male attire. The film represents Devdas's transformation through a change in his style of dress. When he returns to his village, Devdas is dressed in a well tailored western-style suit and bowler hat (the essential signifier of colonial authority) and sports a somewhat redundant walking stick in hand. Parvati remains singularly unimpressed by Devdas's urbanity and rebukes him for this transformation by commenting, "You have become like the rest of them!" More importantly, this first meeting between the anglicized Devdas and Parvati takes place in front of a small temple where Parvati is engaged in a religious ritual and Devdas stands awkwardly outside this space, fidgeting nervously with his walking stick.

    39. Thus even though in the film's narrative the opposition to Devdas marrying Parvati had ostensibly come from the orthodoxy of his own family, there is reason to believe that his guilt at his inability to act as a free agent stemmed from his own recently acquired Western-style education. As O. Mannoni argues in his classic study of colonial relations, Prospero and Caliban , Western education for the colonial subject is the "road from psychological dependence to inferiority."

    40. Parvati, who did not receive a western education, was under no pressure to refute any orientalist construction of her gender position. It is no surprise that it was she who took the bold step of suggesting that the couple force the situation by making public their love for each other. Devdas, who was unwilling to take the cue, claimed that he could not defile the honor of his family. The fact of the matter is that as a colonized subject Devdas is compelled to choose between the social ideal of manly self-control and his desire for Parvati.

    41. According to the cultural logic of colonized India, Devdas is a hero rather than a coward; he is successful in refuting the negative construction of him as a morally and physically effete man by maintaining his chastity. This makes Devdas a text of colonial resistance; it is a narrative which creates a discursive space wherein a colonial subject attempts his self-determination albeit in the terms dictated by a colonizing, imperial discourse.

    42. Two aspects of gender ideology run concurrently in the Devdas narrative. The first one--a condemnation of the social practice of marrying young, beautiful girls from poor families to rich, old men--was championed by Indian reformist social groups and subsequently taken up by progressive film studios such as New Theatres, under which Devdas (1935 & 1936) were made. Parvati's marriage to an old man with children as old as herself to whom she must play the selfless mother, addresses an issue that was at the very heart of progressive reform among educated Indians throughout the latter half of the nineteenth and the first quarter of the twentieth century. The films condemn the practice and depict Parvati's husband as apologizing to her for his initial lustful designs on her. However, the appeal of the Devdas narrative cannot be ascribed exclusively to the narrative's moralism. Couched in the melodramatic narrative is the more sensitive aspect of gender ideology which was prevalent in colonial Bengal, namely the domestic sexual arrangements of couples who are compatable in age. Parvati's endurance of a sexless marriage which gains her the admiration of her husband, step-daughter and step-son also permits her to remain faithful to her true love--Devdas. There is no mistaking the fact that it is the chastity of Devdas and Parvati rather than the celibate nature of Parvati's marriage which is central to the narrative and which elevates the film to its epic status.

    43. The opening sequences of each of the Devdas films focuses on the friendship between Devdas and Parvati as children. These sequences are marked by the innocence of the children's pranks and their petty fights; all of them employ idyllic, rural settings. There is considerable ambiguity as to when exactly Devdas and Parvati ceased being playmates and fell in love with each other. In the 1956 version, when Devdas leaves for the city, Parvati is consoled by itinerant entertainers who sing of the divine lovers--Radha and Krishna--thereby suggesting that Parvati and Devdas were more than friends. On the other hand, in each film there is a conversation between Parvati and her girlfriend in which the latter specifically asks Parvati the age of her betrothed. The issue is further complicated by the fact that Parvati thinks she is being asked Devdas's age whereas the girlfriend is referring to the man to whom she eventually gets married. Whatever the diegetic confusion, the ideological stance of the 1936 version was to drive home the point to the colonial Censor Boards that Devdas is 20/22 years of age. This is important because according to the British it was precisely the early sexual maturation of the Bengali male which led to his effeteness, promiscuity, and degeneracy.

    44. Devdas, the colonial subject, must reject the woman he loves and who offers herself to him more than once; he must vehemently condemn the sexuality of those who frequent prostitutes, and despite his deep friendship with a prostitute, deny himself any sexual gratification with her. In doing so, Devdas establishes his manhood and his honor. In the films, chastity between two consenting adults becomes an overdetermined site for the constitution as well as the undermining of colonial ideology.

      The Fantasy of Erotic Domination

    45. Regardless of the minor differences between the various Devdas films, one climactic scene is central to all of them. Devdas meets Parvati a day before her wedding and attempts to make amends. Parvati, hurt from the rejection, tells Devdas she is glad her parents have arranged her marriage with a mature and responsible man. What is more, she knows her own worth now--she knows she is beautiful as well as wise. Devdas, by contrast, is narcissistic and lacking in moral stature. He is incensed by Parvati's comments, since the charge echoes the preexisting orientalist discourse on Bengali masculinity and Devdas's own inferiority complex. Accusing Parvati of supreme pride which must be tamed, and comparing her beauty to that of the perfection of a full moon which is marred by a scar on its face, Devdas hits Parvati on the forehead with a stick (a distinctly phallic object in the film's mise-en-cadre ). Parvati is instantly subdued. Devdas proceeds to break and throw away the stick and immediately to bandage Parvati's bleeding forehead. He tells Parvati that in the years to come this mark that he has left on her face will remind her of him. (In later scenes Parvati does indeed caress the scar when thinking of Devdas.) It is interesting that in a subsequent shot wherein Parvati receives a letter from a friend telling her that Devdas has returned to the village where he whiles away his time shooting birds, the sequence is inter-cut with a shot of Devdas re-visiting the bank of the river where he had inflicted the sexual wound on Parvati and idly sporting another stick.

    46. The original scene, wherein the erotic and the violent get conflated, is obliquely repeated throughout the narrative. Even though Devdas does not literally possess Parvati, he nevertheless "leaves a mark on her." If, in Devdas's mind, Parvati's beautiful face is comparable to an unsustainable state of perfection, he claims his right to be the first to sully it, and she, in turn, is almost complicitous in permitting this violation. It is no accident that this scene of "ritual violence" is enacted on the bank of a river, a space where women come to draw water, and where Devdas in a trespasser. The presence of the water pitcher on Parvati's waist, whose open mouth initially faces Devdas (in a point-of-view shot, faces the camera) and from which the water subsequently gushes out as Parvati falls to the ground, further reinforces the sexual undercurrents of the scene.

    47. When Parvati's mother notices that her daughter's face has been scarred on the day before her wedding, she exclaims in horror and panic. There is a suggestion, in the mother's response, that the scar is a signifier of her defilement or perhaps a violation of her chastity. It is worth remembering that in India there are strong injunctions against a virgin moving about freely just before her wedding, as she is believed to be especially vulnerable at that time.

    48. Later in the story Devdas decides to return to Parvati only when he throws up blood--a sure sign of his impending death. This scene is inter-cut with another in which Parvati falls to the ground (just as she had done when Devdas had hit her) and bleeds from the scar on her forehead. The emission of Devdas's vital bodily fluids is equated with the bloody effusion from Parvati's sexualized scar. This co-mingling of the lovers' blood sublimates the sexual union of the lovers at a meta-textual level.[7]

      Story of O/Devdas

    49. When South Asian film enthusiasts talk of Devdas, it is with a marked sense of reverence for the suffering of the protagonist and a nostalgia for a collectively lost innocence. When cultural theorists, feminists, psychoanalysts or readers of sado-masochist literature talk of Story of O--the classic text of sadomasochism--it is with either a sense of subversive irreverence for bourgeois sexuality or a sense of outrage at the flagrant victimization of women in Western societies. What, besides shaking Devdas fans out of a maudlin complacency, do I hope to gain by comparing these two narratives? I believe that while the Devdas narrative is by no means comparable to the overt and explicit elements of sadomasochistic violence for which Story of O is in/famous, it nevertheless manifests distinct though repressed aspects of sadomasochism. Despite their differences each text is centrally concerned with the pathology of failed differentiation, and it is this pathology that the texts' readers/viewers are interpellated through. I do not mean to imply that the pathology of failed differentiation in Story of O and Devdas may be rooted in comparable socio-political contexts; the former remains outside the purview of my argument, except in as far as the psychoanalytic underpinnings of Story of O enable me to establish a causal relation between the political economy and the psychology of colonialism.

    50. In her analysis of control and submission in Story of O , Jessica Benjamin argues as follows:

      The fantasy of submission and rational control is perpetuated by the splitting of the two basic postures, male and female, in differentiation. One posture, traditionally male, overemphasizes self boundaries, and the other posture, traditionally female, the relinquishing of self. The splitting of these postures is the most important boundary of all (1985, 45).
      Returning to the tenets of Freudian psychology, Benjamin argues that a child discovers his/her own identity by gradually differentiating from the not-self: the (m)other. The process of establishing one's autonomy, however, is reliant on the Other affirming and validating this autonomy. The transition from dependence to independence entails a "tension of simultaneous sameness and difference." The masculine posture is stabilized through an over-emphasis on boundaries and the feminine through the relinquishing of boundaries and extending of the other to the self.

    51. As Benjamin herself implies, the masculine and feminine postures among adults are not coterminous with male and female, they are not limited to heterosexual relationships, nor are they fixed or stable. In fact these postures have to be continually reinforced. "Autonomous selfhood develops, and is later confirmed chiefly by the sense of being able to affect others by one's acts," although if these acts completely negate the Other, the Self loses the recognition that is essential for differentiation. The failure of the tension between differentiation and all-encompassing wholeness can result in the Self resorting to "ritual violence".

    52. Even though the above précis obviously does not do full justice to Benjamin's argument, I hope that it will enable me to locate the babu as floundering between his desperate attempts to differentiate himself from the all-encompassing feminine posture and his being continually relegated to the feminine by a persistent and dominant discourse on Bengali masculinity (or lack thereof).

    53. According to the logic of sado-masochism "one person maintains his boundary, and one allows the boundary to be broken" (Benjamin, 285). The pathology of failed differentiation implies that "together the partners form a whole--the tension in which the assertion and loss of self are united" (ibid). While in Story of O the masculine and feminine postures are definite though in constant need of re-inscription, in Devdas the masculine and the feminine postures alternate. When the one advances, the other recedes. It is in keeping with this logic that Devdas may submit to Parvati at the end (giving into the feminine), but Parvati may not accept his submission (thereby ascending to the masculine). This paradoxical relationship of control and submission must either exhaust the dynamic through death or suicide or it must transcend the inertia/momentum of the context.

    54. While it may be fair to say that Devdas and Parvati's repressed sexuality reached a climax in the scene where he scars her, extremes of domination and submission between the lovers persist from their childhood and recur throughout the narrative. Even in the final sequence of the 1955 film when Parvati attempts valiantly to get past the gates that separate her from Devdas, she cannot help her finger getting caught in the door and bleeding profusely. I have tried to argue that the origins of this repressed though unmistakably sadomasochistic sexuality may be traced not to an inter-personal sexuality alone, but to the more pervasive gender ideology of colonialism, within which these dynamics of domination and submission operated.

    55. Devdas is perceived as heroic rather than pathetic because he has continually striven to demarcate the boundary between himself and the feminine. Not only does he reject first Parvati, then Chandramukhi, but towards the end he has to fight the temptation of returning to his mother. Likewise when he writes the fateful letter to Parvati he states: "It has never occurred to me that I desire you." Parvati interprets this as his rejection of her, but there is some suggestion that Parvati is not sufficiently different from him to be an object of his desire.

    56. Devdas's masculinity inheres in his ability to resist the merger with the feminine. Parvati and Chandramukhi weaken this resistance. In repeatedly surrendering themselves to Devdas they work at cross-purposes from Devdas's instinct to differentiate. Early in the narrative, for instance, when Parvati confides in a friend that she is going to ask Devdas to marry her, the friend asks Parvati if as a woman she wouldn't be embarrassed at proposing marriage to a man. To this Parvati confidently replies:

      What embarrassment? If I have not felt embarrassed telling you--my best friend--about it, why would I feel any differently with Devdas. After all, he and I are not separate (my translation).


    57. The babu of colonial India sought to self-organize his masculinity by acquiring a western education; by distancing himself from the values and practices of rural, "indigenous" India; and by adopting the Western values of "manly self control". Even though the colonial regime professedly encouraged the babu 's efforts at adopting Western values, it could not afford to accede to the babu 's masculinity unqualifiedly. After all, the British official was engaged in a comparable attempt at organizing his own masculinity. Instead of differentiating himself from British woman, the former sought to coerce the babu into taking the feminine posture. Unable to intervene in the sexual politics of the British, and unsuccessful in refuting the latter's pervasive and dominant charge of effeteness, the babu was compelled to violently differentiate himself from the feminine within his own cultural context. As Benjamin reminds us, "male domination is rooted in a struggle for recognition between men in which women are mere objects or tokens: the prize"(55). The problem with Devdas is that even though he deserves and covets the prize, he believes that the greater glory is in resisting the prize than in accepting it!

    58. In delineating the psycho-sexual dynamics of the Devdas narrative, this essay has tried to articulate the subjectivity of the colonial male subject. The enduring appeal of the Devdas narrative inheres not so much in its ability to represent the "weak" hero of Indian cinema but in its subversive potential for indirectly opening up the space for a (tragic) resistance to imperialist gender ideology. It is through the latter that Devdas has become an ur-text of twentieth-century Indian culture.


    1. The babu was a term the British used to refer to the educated Bengali male who often functioned as an intermediary between the colonial administration and the Indian populace. Back

    2. I am borrowing this term from Kaja Silverman's study, Male Subjectivity at the Margins .Back

    3. A state of retirement from active social and familial life spent in religious service and meditation by devout Hindus.Back

    4. Barua fell in love with and married the actress Januma, who played the part of Parvati in Devdas . Despite the fact that he was married to two women who, as rumor has it, lived in adjacent households in Calcutta, "happiness eluded Barua." Back

    5. It is interesting that Barnouw and Krishnaswamy, even half a century later, are not exempt from the discourse of effeminacy that informed the Bengali babu . For instance, in describing the lifestyle of Barua they write: "In his native Assam he (Barua) had already bagged several dozen tigers, a rhinoceros and innumerable boars--although it is said he blanched at the sight of a cockroach" (77). Back

    6. D. Raheja and J. Kothari describe Sahir Ludhianvi's legendary status as a love poet whom women were crazy about, the fact that he was a life-long bachelor and one who eventually became "immensely dissatisfied with [post-Independence] Nehruvian politics."Back

    7. According to the Hindu world-view a person is composed of seven bodily fluids or vital essences, the balance of which is essential to his/her physical and spiritual well-being. The essences are arranged in a hierarchical order, with semen being the most refined and concentrated form of blood. Thus, for Hindus blood and semen are integrally related. For more on the subject, see Joel Paris, "Dhat: The Semen Loss Anxiety Syndrome".Back

    Works Cited

    Arora, Poonam. "'Imperilling the Prestige of the White Woman': Colonial Anxiety and Film Censorship in British India." Visual Anthropology Review 11:2 (1995) 36-50.

    Barnouw, Erik & S. Krishnaswamy. Indian Film . 2nd edition. New York: Oxford U P, 1980.

    Benjamin, Jessica. "The Bonds of Love." The Future of Difference . Eds. H. Eisenstein & A. Jardine. New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1985.

    ---. "Master and Slave: The Fantasy of Erotic Domination." Pleasure and Danger . Ed. Carol S. Vance. Boston: Routledge, 1984.

    Bhattacharya, Rinki. "The Actor Dies So The Hero May Live." Super December (1977) 13-15.

    Chakravarty, Sumita S. National Identity in Indian Popular Cinema 1947- 1987 . Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1993.

    Erikson, Erik. Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence . New York: Norton, 1969.

    Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin. White Masks . Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

    Hegel, G. W. F. "The Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Master and Slave." The Phenomenology of Spirit . Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1952.

    Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism . Delhi: Oxford UP, 1983.

    Paris, Joel. "Dhat: The Semen Loss Anxiety Syndrome". Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review 29: 2 (1992) 109-118.

    Raheja, Dinesh and Jitendra Kothari. The Hundred Luminaries of Hindi Cinema . Bombay: India Book House Publishers, 1996.

    Rajadhyaksha, Ashish and Paul Willemen. Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema . London: BFI Publishing, 1994.

    Ramachandran, T. M., ed. Seventy Years of Indian Cinema, 1913-1983 . Bombay: Cinema India International, 1985.

    Reage, Pauline. Story of O . Trans. Sabine d'Estree. New York: Ballantine, 1965.

    Roland, Alan. In Search of Self in India and Japan: Toward a Cross-Cultural Psychology . Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988.

    Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins . New York: Routledge, 1992.

    Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The 'Manly Englishman' and the 'Effeminate Bengali' in the late Nineteenth Century . Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

    ---. "Gender and Imperialism." In Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity . Ed. Michael S. Kimmel. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1987.

    Strachey, John. India, Its Administration and Progress . London: Macmillan and Co, 1911.

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