Decadence . . . Or When to Dust Off the Old Guillotine

Storm clouds gathering over Versailles
This is a filmi post. But I have to talk about something else first. It's relevant, I promise.

There's something about a freakish show of wealth that gives people violent headaches. Maybe it's an allergy to gold filigree, maybe it's just jealousy of a life dedicated to luxury, maybe it's just anger at seeing massive spaces dedicated to the showcase of status, but in my experience, nothing makes us want to pick up our torches and pitchforks like a glimpse of life in the upper echelons of society.

(Occupy Wall Street could be seen as but a recent and relatively uneventful version of this tendency towards picketing the places of the rich. It wasn't exactly Russia circa 1917, however.)

Like most Americans, I am caught between populist sympathies and bourgeois aspirations. I love a beautiful, civilized, decorative space as much as anyone, but when that space doesn't belong to me . . . when I can't have access to it whenever I'd like . . . I am sometimes stricken with an urge to boycott private property.

That belongs in a museum. Donate it or I will donate you. 
(Then I quickly remember the Bill of Rights and how it works most of the time and I sort of calm down.)

Entrance to the Hall of Mirrors
I don't think I really examined this urge in myself till rather recently, during a visit to Paris. Maybe it was Versailles, or the constant protest marches, or the protest march that shut down all the trains when I tried to get to Versailles and left me sitting in a platform with a view of a garbage heap for four hours . . . but by the time I walked about a mile INSIDE the palace to get to the Hall of Mirrors and the audience halls and multiple bedrooms of the Sun King and his descendants, I was about ready to flip a lid; purely out of historical sympathy with the French revolutionaries, you understand.

Much fuss is made now about how the Palace and the Gardens of Versailles are the property of the people, and are a grand testament to the power of the people. You see it on signs everywhere. Parisians are desperate to proclaim: "Look what we scored from those old royals! What horrible people they were. We will charge you a fee if you aren't French and you can see for yourself what horrors they got up to inside. It was horrible. What waste. Did you see the golden bits? But we will certainly keep spending French Euros trying to restore the horrible gardens to their original horrible glory for the use of the not-horrible French Republic."

The Gardens and Palace of Versailles 1746


I really need someone from the fifteenth or sixteenth century to weigh in on this post (so if you know anyone, hook me up), because I wonder if the inner rage we feel when we visiting places like Versailles is purely a modern, post Enlightenment phenomenon. In the ongoing Age of Revolutions, perhaps we have only a limited tolerance for obvious displays of wealth in physical structures and man-made objects. People can possess as much as they like in the way of jewels and objects and art and cars, but they really shouldn't let anyone know how much they have. Not that showing off these days is illegal, exactly, but it certainly is rude. I guess you can still have your palace, as long as you keep it well-hidden.

All of which leads me to my question of the day: How much is too much in a film/cinematic setting?

In other words, would a less modern audience pick a fight with Devdas (2002)? 

Yet another adaptation of the classic Indian novel named for its protagonist, Devdas was directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali (an auteur with an obsessive tendency to bejewel everything in his reach), and it has both been criticized for its gilded visual style/record-breaking production costs, and praised for its undeniably shocking beauty.

Yes. This house was built for the movie. It did not exist before.
Been praying for 10 years that Devdas would come home to me. Should have prayed that he would stay . . . 

I'm the hero, right? Wait. What is it that heroes do again? You must have heard I'm London-returned. London doesn't have a "School for Heroes." I hear there's one in Jaipur. 
Does this lighting make me look doomed to you? Be honest. 
 The film is also fairly controversial within the Bollywood blogosphere. If you haven't seen it, here are some reviews with both excellent synopses, and a variety of view points (here, here, here, and here,). The PPCC calls it "overwhelmingly opulent," and "shameless" in its "decadence."

The courtesan district must dazzle, no? Oh yeah, this was all built for the film as well. It's not a bigature. 
Now let's be fair. Devdas is not the only film to have literally created a world for its characters to live in. Peter Jackson's LOTR films were also unbelievably expensive, and their production team also built mini-towns all over New Zealand. See the most expensive films adjusted for inflation.

But while LOTR was certainly opulent in a fiscal sense, it did not actually celebrate opulent lifestyles. This may be a key difference. When you're doing a film about the exploitation of women, you have to decide whether or not you are also actually exploiting women in your very depiction of the problem; and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people felt that Devdas blurred the line between depicting empty, wasteful decadence and becoming empty and wasteful in and of itself.

That's probably what a lot of people feel, and I wouldn't blame them. They wouldn't be the least wrong to celebrate the death of the violent, drunk, wretch of an aristocrat at the end. Perhaps in Devdas' character they see a dying aristocracy, and feel both satisfied by his tragic end and angered by his paramour's marital imprisonment.

You people belong in a museum.
I can't argue with either of those reactions. It it certainly fair to watch the film, and say, as I did when walking through Versailles, "Sorry, but your days were always numbered, folks."

That's what the pharaohs said. And Rome. And those pesky Brits? Yeah, maybe you remember making the sun set on their empire, too. 

Yet I don't feel that way. I am moved by Devdas. There, I've said it. Jack's out of the box. It's not just because of the fabulousness of it all. It's not just because the songs are worth multiple viewings (even Filmi Geek agrees . . . and she's a hard sell). Devdas' tale certainly comes off as a morality play about selfishness and stubbornness and the perils of traditional marriage customs, but it's ALSO about wanting more and MORE possessions, and wanting to possess people, and what dark things happen when you get love confused with ownership.

Ye gods. I can't believe they're foreshadowing my ending so early in the film.
I haven't read the book/seen the other film adaptations as of yet (and don't know what's plucked from the original text and what's new here), but what strikes me about this particular film is all the facetious dialogue that is devoted to (A) Gambling, (B) Looting/Thieving, (C) Accounting/Arithmetic, (D) Banking/Usury. That doesn't even count the drama surrounding inheritance, jewelry, bride-price, landlords, and the new-money vs. old-money dynamics. Make no doubt about it, Devdas' family Eats, Sleeps, and Breathes Wealth. It's where their attention goes. It's why Paro is so easily written off as a match for Devdas (even though there is more behind the refusal). She's too expensive (as Paro's family will exact a bride price from Devdas' family upon their marriage), and doesn't come from the right familial background. They're also all paranoid about any little piece of jewelry or inheritance being stolen from them, even as they lose their crown jewel, Devdas, right under their nose.

My relationship with you, sister-in-law is one of the few times in this story that I seem pure or at least guileless. At least you can't call me materialistic.
Sister-in-law wants Paro's bracelet, the only piece of jewelry she CANNOT have that you see here.
Sister-in-law is refused bracelet. Paro must pay, but with Devdas' life. Makes evil sense, does it not?
Sister-in-law cannot take a joke. Also, thinks everyone is stealing from her because she is a thief and that's what she would do. 

Sense and Shameability: 

Next to this family of mercenaries, Paro's family is like a baby bird that just fell out of its nest and has absolutely no concept of how vulnerable it is. A fateful night of hoped-for betrothal shows how quick they are to trust, and how VERY quick Devdas and his family are to take advantage.

Naivete Exhibit 1: Of course Choti-Ma wants Paro to marry Devdas! We are practically family already!

Naivete Exhibit 2: Just because I am dancing for you in the dark, doesn't make me a courtesan. But I know you would never cause me shame and tell someone about this. 
Naivete Exhibit 3: Just because my grandmother was a courtesan doesn't mean I can't do her dance for you. I know you wouldn't try to shame me. 
Naivete Exhibit 4: Devdas will listen if I say no.  I'm not going to get raped tonight. 

The Mixed Up Files of Devdas' Psyche:

There's a lot of commentary that views Devdas as a symbol of a lost generation, a man caught between modernity and tradition. He can't reconcile one with the other, and so becomes inert, unable to live in either world. Delving into that idea further, I would say that Devdas' family brought him up to view everything in terms of possession

But Dev went off to London and read some romance novels and now he also believes in love. It seems like a better deal. He goes home and trivializes the mercenary lifestyle around him, but still continues to reap its benefits. Instead of yearning for shares in the inheritance, like his brother and sister-in-law, he yearns for childhood friend Paro. 

However, he fails to understand the rules of the game. While Paro soon realizes she is nothing but a commodity to be bought and traded and adjusts to this fact . . . 

 . . . Dev holds to his twisted illusion of romantic love. He still treats her like an object OF COURSE,  but stupidly doesn't realize he has to PAY to use said object. In a world where LOVE = POSSESSION, Dev's actions are a constant trespass. Stupidly, he doesn't see that Paro has a price, and that he has tried to use her for free until it's too late. And when someone else buys what he wants, he decides to rough up the merchandise BEFORE it can be passed to its next owner. 

Nice play on the wife's vermilion thing there, Devdas. 

Math is Hard:

Appropriately enough, the running joke between the lovers throughout the film is that Devdas is bad at arithmetic, while Paro improves at arithmetic exponentially in each scene. It IS a nice metaphor for Devdas issues. He really doesn't understand the equation he must follow to get what he wants. 

1. Dev wants X = Possessing Paro

2. But acts as if X (Paro is his) were already true by ignoring:
(A) sexual mores
(B) betrothal rules
(C) parental disapproval
(D) tradition of bride-price
(E) danger of tarnishing her reputation

3. I'm also not very good at math, so I I'm already losing my train of thought here, but basically, X is negated by A-E. 

In an ironic twist, while Devdas is against paying for a bride (but is OK sleeping with her before her wedding to another man), he is completely alright with paying a courtesan to be his sexless companion. The guy really just can't do the math. 

Said courtesan is a whole 'nother psychological study.
I'm Chandramukhi, the goddess, no the REKHA, of courtesans. I can have all the money and sex that I desire . . . 
 ...behold my kingdom . . .
But I think I'd rather watch this wastrel brood and drink himself to death in my quarters. 

Despite her dubious bhartiya nari tendencies, for me, Chandramukhi still manages to be the antidote to the poison in these characters lives. She is not possessed by anyone or anything (except perhaps by her profession). Money is not her motivation, nor is romantic conquest. She loves Devdas, but doesn't try to own him. While everyone else tries to grasp at life, or pine for what they couldn't reach, Chandramukhi gives selflessly, and enjoys the current moment, however painful.

Everyone in this film loses . . . and probably go on losing after the film ends. Everyone except Chandramukhi. Arguably, she never really thought she could have Devdas in the first place. And I'm pretty sure she had enough common sense to move on with her life after his death. Devdas may have devalued her, but I don't think she ever devalued herself (unlike Paro). I also think there's a chance that Chandramukhi goes back for Paro, helps her ditch the emotionally dead husband, and they run off into the sunset, Thelma and Louise style. But even if that doesn't happen, Chandramukhi will be fine. Even as a courtesan, she is the only person in this film that is truly independent, free from the need to possess or be possessed. In Indian cinema, Courtesans and Gurus are only separated by a very fine line.

NEXT TIME, a contrasting look at another film famed for it's decadence. Remember that list of most expensive films of all time? Well, Cleopatra (1963) STILL ranks at 15. And she . . . I mean . . . the film . . . sure looks the part.



  1. Hmmm, interesting post. I'm not sure what I think of it. On the one hand, you've clearly thought about all of this, including Versailles, much more than I ever have, but on the other, I kind of disagree with everything you said. When it comes to needless decadence, I understand how that could make someone angry; however, can you put a price on art? Versailles and Devdas are both very different examples of art and history has definitely taught us that art is very subjective and that humans generally need it in some form in their lives. Look at Van Gogh. No one liked his work until after he died and now his paintings are worth millions, and all for a small picture in a frame. If we were to price things logically then Devdas would cost a crap-load (yes, I definitely looked up how much and it said "crap-load") of money. My point is, you can't put a price to art and out of all the movies in the world that could've had Devdas' budget, a movie about wasteful decadence and is one of the most famous tales in India is probably one of the better choices. I'm not saying spending so much money on a movie, no matter how popular the story is, is right or even entirely makes sense, but then again, I'm sure Van Gogh would have been surprised to see his paintings get sold for millions of dollars.

    I think you have some pretty good insight into Devdas' character, and I respect those opinions, but I also think you were too hard on him. Yes, he made a ton of mistakes and purposely drunk himself to death, but also he's quite possibly the only person in that movie who actively wanted to be good. Chandramukhi, in my opinion, figured that, despite being a courtesan, she hadn't really done anything wrong and made a lot of people happy so she didn't need to be more than that. And while that's all well and good for her, the fact remains that Devdas was the only character who truly wished to be good and, at least in the beginning, strived toward that goal. Of course, once losing Paro he became very guilty and felt the need to punish himself endlessly. Devdas, unfortunately, had the terrible combination of having a butt-load of flaws, mostly due to his nightmarish upbringing with those awful people, and a heart that was good enough to feel guilt over his faults. Basically he had the worst of both worlds. He literally says in the movie that he feels guilty and believes he deserves to drink himself into oblivion. I guess what I'm saying is, for all his faults, Devdas is not the completely terrible person your post seemed to say he was and that he IS deserving of some (only some, mind you) pity. Just look at his life, for goodness sake. He had a horrible, abusive, unloving, self-obsessed family, he was taken away from the girl he loved for many years, she ended up marrying another man, and perhaps the only person to show him real, unselfish kindness was a courtesan; someone he'd always believed was the lowest of the low. Just a little bit confusing. And then he got a deathly dose of guilt dumped on top of that entire mess. Yes, he earned his death fair and square (by, you know, wanting it) but maybe just a little pity for one of the few people to ever have good intentions in the entire film is in order. I think a lot of what you said was very true and you made many good points, but I just don't believe it's as simple as "they all sucked". Some movies, yes, but not necessarily this one. Also, your pictures were pretty. :) Despite my opposing beliefs, I am eagerly awaiting your next post.

  2. "How can you put a price on art?" That's a great point, and a great line. Can I steal it? ;)

    I think that my tone comes off more critical than I mean it to. Like I said, I am moved by Devdas. I am moved by the performances and the visuals and the story and the songs. I just don't know if I "should" be. So this post, and the next on Devdas and Cleopatra, and another mystery film, are just me trying to suss out whether or not the decadence was needed to tell the story.

    I think you may agree with the second half of my post more.

    I think Devdas' character is a great archetype. I love the literary meat in it, and I really think SRK made him just about as loveable as he could be. Watch Satyam Shivam Sundaram, and then decide whether or not I can forgive a deplorable character because the actor playing him is beloved.

    Dev, the character, certainly was brought up to be useless, but expected to be a leader. Who can blame him, then, really, for following his nurture (if not his original nature). He is a character I can't hate, even though I should. Once again, I wonder if this is because SLB created a film experience that immerses you in a place where your brain doesn't work so well anymore ;)I'll probably have to watch some of his other films to see if they leave me similarly detached from my reason, and then get back to you.

  3. i love literature,and if you to think ,get confused ,just watch devdas. and if you are not into art dont watch it.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts