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‘Debdas’ – Richmix, Saturday 15 June.
Last Saturday night saw Susen and me heading to Richmix, near Shoreditch High Street. For me this was going back to my old stomping ground of East London – one I had left back in 2001. Stepping out of the station, I was struck by the transformation of the area – from slightly run down with a gritty urban creative undercurrent, to now uber-trendy with new blocks of upmarket flats amid the new expanding creative and media industries. Richmix was right at home there – a charity / social enterprise with a huge variety of arts, music and cultural events. I had to smile to myself on the train going over there, overhearing a conversation between a young couple. He was asking her whether they would be able to buy alcohol in Brick Lane (probably – though not the first place that would come to mind, it being a Muslim Bangladeshi area). She replied she didn’t know, only that Brick Lane was ‘cool’. That’s the transformation: an inner city area, home to one of the largest Bangladeshi communities outside Bangladesh, and one of the poorest in the UK – now transformed into somewhere that is ‘cool’.
We were there to see a performance of ‘Debdas’ (‘Devdas’) in a new stage adaptation by Farrukh Dhondy (former commissioning editor for Channel 4’s multicultural programmes). Based on the original 1917 story by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhay, it is the latest in a long line of film and theatre adaptations – probably the best known version in the West is the 2002 film, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit.
In the original plot, Devdas is from a wealthy Brahmin family who lives next door to Paro in a village in Bengal, a childhood friend from a not so wealthy family. Devdas returns from studying in Calcutta (Kolkata) to find Paro transformed from a girl into a young woman. Love blossoms between them but ideas of marriage are disapproved of by the respective families and Paro is instead married off to an older man, a widower with three children. Devdas runs away and starts to drink heavily, forming a relationship with Chandramukhi, a prostitute. But he never forgets Paro and the story ends with his attempting reunion with Paro when he realises he is dying. But it was not to be and he dies on her doorstep, their lifelong love unrequited. A familiar tale of love versus family duty, the bedrock of older Indian films.
Dhondy’s adaptation takes the backdrop out of 1900s Bengal and into the 60s cultural revolution of flower power, sex, drugs and roll ‘n’ roll. Instead of Hindu West Bengal, the Bengali location is Dhaka in Muslim Bangladesh with Paro, a medical student. Debdas is (wrongly) told by one of the servants that Paro is pregnant by another man. He runs away – to London this time in the midst of the 60s revolution where he forms a relationship with a white English woman, Chloe – a singer immersed in the decadent 60s culture. Years of alcohol and drugs take their toll and Debdas ends up seriously ill in hospital, close to death. Paro, in the meantime, had been married off to an older man but had continued her studies and qualified as a doctor. Her older husband now dead she comes to London for further training, now with 2 children from her marriage. She seeks out Debdas, dying in his hospital bed but a confrontation between Chloe and Paro leads to Chloe pulling out a gun and threatening to kill Paro. The two women, however, reconcile and embrace each other towards the end with the love between Debdas and Paro destined to be unfulfilled.
The audience was relatively small – probably not more than 100 people – in a small theatre venue that reminded me very much of student theatres, or small art house venues. I couldn’t quite gauge the ethnic / age mix – probably around 50/50 Asian / white with mostly a younger audience – some obviously supporters and friends of the actors or musicians.
The stage set up was simple with very few props. The acting was strong, though, which carried the story, accompanied by Bengali music from Amrit Kaur on the Sarangi, an Indian stringed instrument, and vocals from Tanusree Guha. It was also good to see the same Bengali culture encompassing both West Bengal and Bangladesh, with the shift in setting – a reminder of how much much is shared whether Hindu or Muslim Bengali.
The contemporary adaptation was interesting but I found myself slightly frustrated at the continuation of ethnic stereotypes: Chloe portrayed as the immoral white western woman, corrupting Debdas with sex and drugs while Paro the dutiful Bengali daughter – brought up to date as the stereotypical medical student. Can we not now get beyond these? Strong, educated, focused and even dutiful white women do exist in the West, and surely ideas about possible careers for Asian men and women can now broaden beyond medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. Even in the film, it was not Chandramukti (the prostitute or more quaint ‘courtesan’) who corrupted Devdas, but instead his male friend – giving Chloe a corrupting influence beyond the original story.
Susen confessed to being slightly shocked when Debdas and Paro actually kissed (or acted kissing) on stage [never seen in the Bollywood film version]. We both thought the plot was going to take a thoroughly modern twist when Chloe and Paro embraced each other towards the end. Chloe went to kiss Paro on the cheek and I really thought we were going to see our first lesbian kiss and relationship in this version of Debdas. But no, it was just a friend’s hug. We were, after all still in the 60s – which, for all its hippy LSD-fuelled cultural revolution, was still resolutely homophobic, racist and sexist.
Still, really good to see such a low budget adaptation of an Indian classic to counter the big budget Bollywood versions. I’ve a feeling I might be re-visiting my old East End haunts quite a bit more in future.