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30 May 2021

Devi (1960)

Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Music: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
Starring: Sharmila Tagore, Chhabi Biswas,
Soumitra Chatterjee, Karuna Bannerjee
Purnendu Mukherjee, Arpan Chowdhury

I’d initially meant this to be a ‘Satyajit Ray Month’, especially since the Criterion Channel was showing most of Ray’s filmography. But life intervened. I thought I should at least end the month with another of Ray’s films, and so, we watched Devi last week. Now, I’d never watched Devi before, so while I had a rough idea what it was about, I was coming in with no preconceived biases.

Set in the second half of the 19th century in Bengal, Devi is, on the face of it, a story of faith and its repercussions. A wealthy zamindar Kalikinkar Roy Choudhury (Chhabi Biswas) who has been a fervent devotee of the Goddess Kali, sees her in his younger daughter-in-law, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) and begins to worship her as a living incarnation of the goddess.


That is the plot, in a nutshell.

But is that all it is?

Devi, as my husband said after viewing it is ‘a terrible film’. ‘Terrible’ in the original sense of the word – ‘causing terror’ from the Latin root terribilis via the French terrerre – 'to frighten'. Based on a short story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee, (in turn based, it is said, on an idea given to him by Rabindranath Tagore), Devi is a horrifying tale of conflict between blind faith that borders on superstition and the vast shadow it casts not just on the life of the believer, but on those he holds dear.

The winds of social reformation were blowing across the land, and a great many traditions were being questioned. But as always, these transformational changes were taking place in urban society while rural Bengal continued a more traditional placid way of life. Hindu orthodoxy was firmly entrenched, and rationalism and reform movements were – as always – finding it difficult to make a headway.

Set against this backdrop, Satyajit Ray focuses on the dehumanisation of women by an all-pervasive patriarchy that strips them of their autonomy. The initial scene during the Pujo celebrations sets the tone for the rest of the film. On the one hand is Kalikinkar, immersed in his devotion to the goddess, and in the background, are the young couple, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) and Doyamoyee for whom the Pujo rituals are part pomp, part revelry.

Ray’s women have haunted me – in a land where women are historically denied their autonomy, culturally, socially, economically, and controlled by religious and social constructs, the women in his films were neither victims nor heroes. They were ordinary people living ordinary lives, but with an agency that allowed them to be complementary halves to the men in their lives. In that sense, Ray was a true feminist – a man who advocated for women’s empowerment without emasculating the men. So, to come across Doyamoyee, a woman who is unwittingly held hostage to an old man’s whims, it leaves me shaken.

Through the tale of this young girl venerated as the embodiment of the Goddess Kali (purportedly a true story), Ray focuses on the dichotomy of women everywhere – if it is the Madonna-Whore conundrum in Western ideology, it is the devi-daayan (goddess/demoness) persona in Indian culture – all roles stripping women of their innate humanity. Indeed, one scene in the film captures Umaprasad seeing his young bride on their wedding night – ‘Devi’, he breathes, quite taken in by her unparalleled beauty – while in another scene, a bereaved Harasundari (Karuna Bannerjee) excoriates her younger sister-in-law as the ‘daayan’ who devoured her son. 

There’s much to unpack in the film – misogyny, patriarchy, faith and superstition, and ultimately, the role of religion in dehumanising women, subjugating them in the guise of elevating them.

If Harasundari is uneasily aware that her acceptance into the Chowdhury household is dependent on her being the mother of the heir, Dayamoyee, easily her father-in-law’s favourite, is no less trapped in a world not of her choosing. 

Suddenly, her world both expands and shrinks – she’s moved from her room, away from all that’s familiar, away even from her husband’s letters. On the other hand, she’s now the repository of everyone’s prayers, the devotees who throng the courtyard praying desperately that by appeasing her, the goddess may turn her beneficence on them.

And when a ‘miracle’ fortuitously occurs, it is not only the villagers that her divinity is cemented. Doyamoyee’s own self-belief is wavering. “Ami jodi debi hoi?” she asks her husband, plaintively. What if she really is the goddess? What if, by running away from her role, she unwittingly causes harm to him? “Jodi ami Debi hoy, tomar jodi kono amangal hoy.” The horror is just beginning.

Her simpering ways in Hindi cinema aside, I’ve always thought Sharmila Tagore a very good actress, especially in films that gave her scope to perform. Here, barely 14 years old (she turned 15 two months before the film released), she turns in a performance that would be the envy of much more seasoned performers. Watch her in the scene where Chowdhury prostrates himself at her feet, proclaiming her the Mother Goddess. (Incidentally, he fondly refers to her as ‘Mother’ even before the revelation.) The young girl cringes, her toes curling, nails raking the wall behind her as if seeking its support. The hunted look in her eyes is just a premonition of the horrors yet to come.

Or later, she is quite literally enshrined as the goddess, she sits limp and listless, shoulders slumped, the cynosure of an almost all-male gaze, an exhibit to be worshipped. Tagore’s expression is a mixture of bewilderment and misery.

There’s the shy smile that spreads across her face when she glimpses her husband which is suddenly stifled when she realises where she is and the reality that is hers. The terrified trepidation that takes its place is heartrending.

In the climactic scene, one can feel the helplessness of the young girl, too timid to have agency, too young to comprehend the nature of what her father-in-law’s beliefs demand of her, too frightened of the repercussions of her own failure.

 

Sharmila uses her demure gaze to good effect, and the image of her unwavering stare in the frenzied scene of thronging devotees, clouds of incense and the loud rhythmic chanting of the priests will haunt you long after the movie is over. As will that final scene where, dressed as a bride, her kohl running down her cheeks, she begs her husband to take her away. . “Paaliye jaabo… noile…era.. amay merey phelbe…” (“We have to run away… or they will kill me.”) That clarity of thought comes too late, and at too great a cost.

Soumitra Chatterjee, who had already assayed the role of Sharmila’s husband in her debut film, Apur Sansar, reprises his role here, though the focus is now on her character. Umaprasad is representative of a younger generation inspired by Western learning and reformatory zeal. Unfortunately, that zeal is not strong enough to stand up to his father’s dogmatic insistence in the truth of his beliefs. Or indeed, to answer his wife’s doubts about her altered reality. When she falters at the river bank during their initial attempt at running away, his counter questions – “Don’t you think that if you were really the goddess, you would be aware of it? Don’t you believe you’re my wife?” – only serve to confuse her further and he unwillingly takes her back home. When, after a discussion with his professor who asks him why he could not fight for his wife’s life, Umaprasad returns, it is to discover that events have spun alarmingly out of control.

And of course, Chhabi Biswas. The veteran actor is a figure of both horror and pity. Classically educated, rich, so much the benevolent despot whose word is law in his own fiefdom. Yet, he’s no villainous caricature. Through him, Ray shows us what blind belief can do to even a man who’s essentially decent. It is his deeply ingrained patriarchy that makes him believe that his actions are for the common good.

He’s both in possession of his senses (as he triumphantly proves when, in response to Umaprasad’s accusation of senility, he proceeds to recite a passage from an epic poem from memory) and completely lacking in any sense, as when he deifies his daughter-in-law. But when his apotheosis leads to multiple tragedies, his utter bafflement is both infuriating and heart-breaking. 

Held hostage by his fervent devotion to his goddess, his inability to see reason causes him to destroy not just two young people, but others whose lives are interconnected with them. When faith triumphs over reason and intellect, when it dictates and constrains the lives of innocents, when it overpowers common humanity, it devours its own. 

Music by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and cinematography by Subrata Mitra emphasise the horror that underlies the beauty of the narrative. Religious superstition and blind faith are not restricted to any one religion and as I watch Devi today, I’m uneasily aware of how relevant the film remains, given the current world scenario. 

I’m equally cognisant of the fact that had Ray lived to make this film today, it may never have been made, considering that the film was met with protests from Hindu groups when it was first released. For, at its very core, Devi stands testimony to the horror that religious dogma can inflict on an individual and on society. The film strongly indicts a patriarchal society that uses religious orthodoxy to disempower women.

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