2002 / produced by Bharat Shah / directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali / starring Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai & Madhuri Dixit / music by Ismail Darbar / lyrics by Nusrat Badr

    First, the confession. 'Devdas' was the film that hooked this reviewer on Bollywood. Imagine: Snagging the last seat in a packed theater, front row center, and quickly forgetting the neck spasms as three of Bollywood's biggest stars fall in love overhead. What movie screen, what popcorn bag? The eyeballs were full of saris and Shah Rukh, his lips about three feet tall.

   If only everyone could watch 'Devdas' this way, because director Sanjay Leela Bhansali didn't make this a TV-sized movie. Big, everything big, starting with the budget -- the most expensive Indian film ever made. The press marveled over the size of the mansions constructed for the sets, and the weight of the jeweled dresses Madhuri Dixit wears for her dances, and finally the opening-day crowds. Big. Bigger. Unfortunately, the disappointment was also huge when 'Devdas' missed an Oscar nomination.

   But frankly, it didn't deserve one.

   Which is not to say the movie is bad. 'Devdas' is one of the first Indian films you should see, if only for a sense of how grandly Bollywood can unfurl itself. It also has the most solidly beautiful soundtrack this reviewer has ever heard, with on-screen performances to match.

   The story itself is pretty simple. In an India of about seventy years ago, a young man named Devdas (Shah Rukh Khan) returns to his rich family after years of schooling in England. He makes a beeline for his childhood friend, Parvati (Aishwayra Rai), for whom the friendship bloomed into love long ago. There is teasing, there is wooing, there is family disapproval, there are the complications of pride. The drama takes off from there. We don't believe in giving away the plot, but for an idea of the movie's tone, consider this comment from one non-Indian during the credits: 'Boy, that was a downer.'

   Funny she said that, too, because 'Devdas' largely comes off as pulse-quickening and richly colorful. Or maybe we're just thinking of Madhuri Dixit, who somehow by playing a prostitute manages to cement her standing as the female icon of Bollywood. From her fabulously minute dance moves to the way she runs her finger down Shah Rukh's neck, Madhuri gives 'Devdas' the lightness it needs to avoid sinking under its own weight.

   Shah Rukh gives a solid performance, but it's best described as restrained — hardly a gushing compliment. Aishwarya Rai shows glimpses of her lovely mischevious side, but when she retreats into her 'mature, refined' shell, her corner of the film grows cold. And poor Jackie Schroff — his loud, yakky role as Devdas' friend is completely unneeded, and several people during the above-mentioned screening loudly told him so.

   Oh, Devdas. You might have the power to reduce Rai's character to a zombie-like state — her blank-eyed 'Devdas' sigh in one scene makes her look like a candidate for a cult — but somehow you don't have the power to make us cry. Is it Shah Rukh? Is it the script? We have no idea. But despite the high-priced drama, the classic story, and even a beautifully done final scene with Aishwarya, the movie leaves the viewer dry and removed.

   'Devdas' is a pull-out-the-stops, show-the-world-what-we've-got, once-in-a-decade kind of movie. We ought to be tangled in it, red-eyed and mussy-haired. No. We stand, calmly, and make a mental note to buy the soundtrack, and say casually to the people around us, 'Well, that was good.'   The money and talent spent on this movie should have bought a way, way better comment than that.

- reviewed by Kaya


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