Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Devdas has been adapted multiple times for the screen . The first one was with K.L.Sehgal in the lead. The most popular one is with Dilip Kumar playing the eponymous hero , which is considered one of the greatest screen performances. There was a Telugu version with A. Nageshwara Rao in the title role and his performance is considered by many to be even better than Dilip Kumar’s. In 2002 , Sanjay Leela Bhansali will concoct his own gaudy, spectacle filled Devdas with Shahrukh Khan playing a Yuppie , NRI Devdas ( perhaps keeping in mind his fan base.)
Then there are a lot of films which is not an exact adaptation of the Devdas story , but more inspired versions , where the film makers took random elements from the original novel. There was Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kaagaz ke Phool which had themes and characters borrowed from Devdas. A few Raj Kapoor films too. In the 1970’s , Post the emergence of ‘Masala’ cinema and Amitabh Bachchan, Director Prakash Mehra will take a stab at adapting the classic to suit both the zeitgeist and star persona of Bachchan. Muqaddar Ka Sikandar released in 1978 was the result . It would become the biggest hit of the decade, second only to Sholay , and solidify Bachchan’s super stardom.1978 was a dream year in Bachchan’s career . He had more than half a dozen releases and every film became super hit.
The film was the third collaboration between Mehra and Bachchan . In total they would make seven Films together. This would turn out to be their best. It has a great ensemble cast with a great screenplay by Laxmikant Sharma and Kader Khan . The themes of Devdas are brilliantly adapted to the masala format. The hero, Sikandar here, is no drunken wastrel, but a self made man, an emperor of his own destiny. A god like figure, who lives and dies yearning for the love of his childhood sweetheart. But the real highlight of the film, as in most of Mehra films, is the extraordinary musical score, Perhaps the best for a Bachchan film, by the duo of Kalyanji Anandji.with soul stirring lyrics by Anjaan & Mehra himself. Just like Mehra’s other films like Lawaaris and Sharaabi, this one is a real musical, where the songs embellish plot and character . The main turning points in the film happen through songs, with the song and tune of ‘O sathi re ‘ becoming a motif . So i thought it best to explore the film through its various song sequences.
Perhaps as a tribute to Devdas, The Five main protagonists of the film are lovers and majority of them unrequited. The trail of love stories is as follows; Dilawar(amjad Khan), the Ruffian loves Zohra(Rekha), the courtesan. Zohra in turn loves Sikandar. Sikandar is in love with Kamna(Rakhee) who in turn loves Vishal(Vinod Khanna), who happens to be Sikandar’s friend. Vishal is in love with Kamna too. Vishal– Kamna relationship will be the only successful one in the film. The rest of the love stories, and the lovers, will end up dead .We can find the parallels with the Devdas characters here. Sikandar is Devdas, Kamna is paro and Zohra is chandramukhi. The other two characters, Vishal and Dilawar, are basically masala constructions. Vishal is the loyal friend and his bromance with Hero Sikandar is a staple of the masala genre. Dilawar is of course the chief antagonist, whom Sikandar had to overcome through the course of the film. Sikandar gets a mythic arc befitting a masala hero. The first half hour of this Three hour film is all exposition detailing Sikandar and Kamna’s childhood, how he adores her, how some misunderstandings happen between them and separate them. A heartbroken and orphaned Sikandar is inspired by an ascetic (Baba played by Kadar Khan) to rise above his poverty and become a very successful man in life , the master of his own destiny.
The adult Sikandar is introduced in a pure masala sequence, where his laugh as a child morphs into him, as an adult, singing the lilting ‘philosophical’ song –rote hue aate hain sab. The song encompasses the life philosophy that the Baba had imparted him-zindagi to bewafa hai ek din tukrayegi,maut mehbooba. hai apni saath leke jayegi. The song also briefly introduces the characters of Kamna and Vishal.
Following the song, we see that Sikandar is a now a very wealthy man , while Kamna and her father are facing hard times. Kamna still treats Sikandar with disdain. But he is still pining away for her.Sikandar strikes up a friendship with Vishal and gets him a job at Kamna’s father’s place. At a function organized to honor him for his charity work, Sikandar pours his heart out in the presence of Kamna and Vishal, by singing the song oh saathi re that Kamna used to sing as a child. It’s one of the most beautiful songs that Bachchan got to sing in his career, with very moving lyrics like har dhadkan mein pyaas hai Teri, saazon mein Teri khushbhoo hai
To cheer Sikandar up ,his friend Pyarelal takes him to Zohra’s kotha. Here a drunken Sikandar joins in her singing, finishing the song that she started. Salaam e ishq Meri jaan crackles with the Bachchan Rekha chemistry. Although Rekha’s role in the film is small, she excels herself in the film and especially in this song sequence which will prove to be a precursor to her famous role (and national award winning performance) in Umrao Jaan.The lyrics(which is credited to director Prakash Mehra), the rendition by Lata and Kishore) is simply fantastic. But the picturisation is even more beutiful, where the camera moves complement the lyrics and rythm of the song.. Check out the portion were Bachchan sings ‘tuu masiihamuhabbat ke maaron kaa hai‘, where he kneels ,in devotion, in front of Rekha, as the camera goes up to a high angle
Listening to Sikandar’s heartfelt rendition , Zohra immediately falls in love with him. She extracts a promise from Pyarelal that he will bring Sikandar back to her place again.
Sikander does come back to Zohra’s apartment. this time chasing one of his enemies. There Zohra confesses her love for him. She has stopped entertaining other men and now she waits only for him.She expresses her emotion through the following song. The news of Zohra’s obsession for Sikandar reaches Dilawar in prison. He breaks out of prison and confronts Sikandar in front of Zohra. In the ensuing fight, Dilawar gets badly beaten up and he runs away swearing revenge.
Meanwhile, Vishal finds out that Sikandar has a secret lover, But he doesn’t know who it is. He agrees to write a love letter on Sikandar’s behalf . The letter reaches Kamna. But Kamna thinks it is Vishal who is professing love for her, as she is familiar with his handwriting and immediately reciprocates. The ensuing song ‘Dil to hai dil, dil ka aitbaar kya kijiye’ , shows both Vishal and Sikandar fantasizing about Kamna. Their fantasies also reflects, how they perceive Kamna. Sikandar imagines them romancing in locations from their childhood. While Vishal fantasies her being this exotic dream girl in a dream Land.
But then Sikandar realities the truth in a heartbreaking moment. through the song pyar zindagi hai. that its vishal whom Kamna is in love with and not him.The song is very gaudily and garishly shot to reflect the point of view of a jilted Sikandar , with Kamna made up to look very artificial in Western outfits
Sikandar had earlier confessed his love for Kamna to Zohra. But Once he realizes that he has lost Kamna forever, he head backs to Zohra. Meanwhile Zohra had promised Vishal that she will never see Sikandar again as her relationship with him is damaging his reputation. So she refuses to see Sikandar. when sikandar tries to force his way into her apartment, she consumes poison and kills herself.. Enraged by Zohra’s death, Dilawar kidnaps Kamna. In the climax fight, Dilawar is killed and Sikandar is fatally wounded.But Sikandar manages to make to the marriage ceremony of Vishal and Kamna . Vishal finds out that Kamna was Siaknder’s true love. but then its too late. Sikander collapses and dies in Vishal’s arms.
We could see how well the themes of Devdas are portrayed in the film. The yearning for a lost love, the alcoholism, The courtesan’s love for the lovelorn ‘shareef’ hero. the tragic end, its all there in the film and yet, it is a proper masala film. Bachchan heroes of the 70’s broke the existing concepts of what a Hindi film hero should be. He played dark anti heroes. but the role of Sikandar is a return to the idealistic romantic hero of the 50’s and 60’s, who sacrifices everything for his love, more like the Rajendra Kumar characters from Sangam or Dil Ek Mandir. of course that’s just an aspect of this character. there is also the star entertainer part of it; with its comedy, action and the drunken scenes. Amitabh Bachchan is , of course, in top form. He was at the height of his powers at the time, knocking out one terrific performance after another.This character requires an actor with a remarkable range, as he he is a mixture of Devdas and a ‘masala’ hero. He should be both a damn good actor to carry off those intense dramatic scenes, as well as posses the aura and talent that is required of a larger than life star ‘performance’. I cant imagine any other actor – ever in Hindi film history – other than Bachchan who could have pulled of every aspect of this character to such perfection. Only he can bring this level of conviction, depth and detailing to a mainstream commercial film role.Which is why i cringe, overtime this or that hero is hailed as a superstar and a successor to Bachchan. There was only one Sikandar, there will only be one Amitabh Bachchan.