By Prithvijeet Sinha
Devi, the title of this Satyajit Ray Bengali classic, acts as a decoy to pull in the viewer and engage his/her mind with a host of viewpoints appertaining to religion and the cult of individuality.
‘Devi’ is suitable to describe the doe-eyed gentility of Sharmila Tagore’s movie oeuvre since that honorific status has more or less settled down and crystallized to form the nucleus of her most affecting melodramas. Take a trip down memory lane and you will realize that director Shakti Samanta had taken strides of almost epic dramatic proportions to characterize her saintly comportment as the archetype of female representation. She was the woman wronged by decrees of an unjust society who rises above her ranks to eventually be hailed for her integrity and untainted honor, be it in the midst of complex values (Aradhana) or definitions of virtue (Amar Prem). Where Aradhana went a little too far in prioritizing her as the fountainhead of invincible motherhood, in Amar Prem, Tagore sailed through murky waters with a sentimental yet nuanced take on her silent struggles. She was the motherhead with an uncompromising purity of being in a soul-stirring screenplay that attacked hypocrisies running deep in every society’s veins. The term ‘Devi’, thus, was a prominent dialogic mainstay to bring her persona closer to reality in these celebrated retro milestones.
On closer inspection, Devi‘s script is one founded on tenets of myths and superstitions. But Ray’s masterful sleight of hand uses this blueprint to stark and realistic effect, where myth-making and the ardour of blind faith precipitates and in turn necessitates the movement of plot. The setting is 19th century rural Bengal and Chhabi Biswas (who gave a definitive performance in Ray’s Jalsaghar) is promising as Kalikinkar Chaudhari, an elderly zamindar devoted to the worship of Goddess Kali, the purveyor of divine powers of destruction and life force, long visualized as a tornado tipped between poles of good and evil.
His spiritual reawakening, a quality inculcated by those at the cusp of dotage, is intercut with beatific scenes of a happy married life of his son Uma Prasad (Ray favourite and mainstay Soumitra Chatterjee) and his young wife Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore). As their names suggest, Umaprasad is a liberal Bengali bhadralok with educational dawn (Uma) of rationality as his firm principle, while Dayamoyee is the traditional homemaker. Compassion (Daya) and care are cornerstones of her existence. Taking stock of her qualities, her father-in-law dotes on her and her sister-in-law’s son, nicknamed Khokha, is the cradle for her natural role as a nurturer and playmate since she is herself sixteen. Lest I forget, let me add that her sister-in-law is played by the formidable Karuna Banerjee who essayed the role of Apu’s mother Sarbajaya in Pather Panchali and Aparajito. The volte face appears in the form of an expertly crafted dream sequence in which Kalikinkar (note the inclusion of Kali and its conjunction with his full name) views a pair of eyes, an exact reproduction of Goddess Durga’s powerful countenance. The only difference lies in the fact that those eyes belong to none other than Daya and this propels him to accord the event with earnestness of divine intervention. Convinced Daya is an incarnation of the Goddess herself, he ensures she is ordained as one, thrusting the innocent girl into a whirlpool of psychological and emotional crises of conscience.
Subrata Mitra’s sepia-toned photographic credits and the editor, Dulal Dutta’s nifty touch assist Ray’s virtuoso vision. The trio let sequences flow with a trickle of unnerving tension and this gets fused with the audience’s interpretive credibility, in the process throwing open floodlights on some fundamental human struggles.
This premise, in my view, is timeless in the sense that such concerns have not died down with the march of civilization. Isolated instances of religious/spiritual extremism continue to taint the fevered fabric of our beliefs to this day and age, cutting across lines of nationality, creed or orientation of any kind. One of the most impressive slants that the movie launches with tactful sensibility is towards idol worship. In fact, the beauty of Devi lies in its ability to initiate discussions amongst film buffs, casual viewers, and cinephiles. This befits an opportunity to satiate our aesthetic tastes too, starved as we often are for a breakthrough as this one.
Ray’s reputation as a towering figure of world cinema is visible in a number of scenes. You have to note the image of Daya holding this absurd, supposed pride of place in the Thakurghar with a garland around her neck and a bevy of priests chanting. This image of a helpless young girl forced to bless her coterie of worshippers who abide by her powers of healing and miraculous touch reminded me of Sharada Devi, spiritual leader of eminence and fellow kindred Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s wife whose images, along with Swami Vivekananda, adorn Ramakrishna Maths around the world. A similar model of spiritual singularity is seen in Dayamoyee/ Devi. However, as one of my friends brilliantly pointed out, she sits with her head stooped down, in a frail show of her imminent human tendencies and patterns. There is nothing to remotely suggest a halo of Godliness around this ordinary young lady. Divested of food or proper care to uphold her larger than life core, she crumbles under pressures heaped on her.
Her husband’s sense of bewilderment is palpable in Soumitra Chatterjee’s pitch perfect performance. His enlightened calls of reasonable doubts fail to dispel the halo around his wife’s stature. In one startling scene, Tagore’s aptitude at understanding the storm within is realized perfectly. As she escapes with Uma, she views a Durga idol in the river, thus implying her conviction in her role as a DEVI.
The play of chance and fate keeps inviting dual contours as the arcs of a fakir’s dying son and a personal tragedy within the Chaudhuri household retain an uncertain edge. These posit Daya’s presence as a lonely ghost sleepwalking through her overnight metamorphosis or as a carrier of catharsis for Kalikinkar and his ilk. What strikes me in the film is how the vestiges of zamindari system impose covert indignities of exploitation, particularly on women. In Daya’s forced salvation, Kalikinkar hopes to absolve his past misdeeds. But ultimately, it’s the woman who buckles under a man’s wish or vision. It’s like a disturbingly inverted Pygmalion scenario. In a nutshell, this one is drawn on a precarious platform, where the cult of individuality is consecrated or desecrated on the basis of changing mores.
Devi is an eye-opening, sensuously potent, sometimes harrowing, and ever so unconventional film. It sidesteps mawkish sentimentality to conjure up the ways of the mind, hitting hard at our deepest fears. At a time when alleged ritual killings in Delhi and Kerala have claimed lives, it’s a potent work to understanding our contemporary pathology.
Prithvijeet Sinha has completed M.Phil. in English from the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow, India. He writes on poetry, popular culture, music, and cinema on Wattpad and on his blog, ‘An Awadh Boy’s Panorama: Tracing words on these filigreed, discerning fingertips’.
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