Rini Bhattacharya Mehta

“Melancholia and Melodrama: Approaching Indian Film History through Cinematic Lives of Devdas

In my presentation “Melancholia and Melodrama” I will trace the history of the dominant genre (melodrama) in Indian popular cinema through filmic adaptations of a 1917 novel, Devdas by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Nearly a dozen films in multiple languages have been based on this novel, starting from a 1928 silent version to the 2002 Hindi version that was the first Indian film to première at Cannes, and a post-global adaptation entitled Dev D. (2009). The eponymous character of the novel feels alienated from society, and after his childhood love interest (Parvati) is married off by her parents to an older widower, he eschews societal connections, and eventually becomes an alcoholic. He befriends a prostitute (Chandramukhi) but is incapable of forming a longtime bond with her. He dies alone, away from Chandramukhi, trying to reach Parvati’s village, to keep his promise to her that he will visit her before he dies.

What explains Indian cinema’s obsession with the story of Devdas? What are the links that connect the ‘Devdas theme’ to melodrama? These are some of the questions I hope to answer, and offer a historical grounding of Indian cinema’s emotional excesses.


Rini Bhattacharya Mehta is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mehta works on the evolution and synthesis of modernity; nationalism, religious revival, cinema and the post-global nation state. She has published two co-edited anthologies: Bollywood and Globalization: Indian Popular Cinema, Nation, and Diaspora (Anthem Press, 2010) and Indian Partition in Literature and Films: History, Politics, Aesthetics (Routledge, 2014). She is currently working on a monograph on Indian Cinema.