Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Met with controversy upon release in its native country of India, Satyajit Ray’s spellbinding Devi squarely lays the blame on superstitious religious belief for the dissolution of a family. As the film opens in late-19th-century Bengal, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), a young student, is departing his teenage bride Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) to return to his university studies in Calcutta. While Uma is away, Doya remains on a large property living with Uma’s father, brother, sister-in-law, and kid nephew. The widowed father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas) is a devoutly religious man, and seems a bit unstable, but is blithely fond of Doya (calling her “mother” as a term of affection).
One night Kalikinkar encounters a vision in his dreams that convinces him his daughter-in-law Doya is the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali. Shaken, the old man informs Doya of her divine status and positions her at an altar at the steps of his house, where the townspeople may come to worship her. Many are skeptical of Kalikinkar’s ravings, including Doya herself (note her scrunched toes in the image above) and her concerned sister-in-law, who keeps a watchful eye on Doya’s imposed conversion to goddess; meanwhile, the staunch rationalist Uma is stunned and angry with his father when he finds his wife objectified as a deity upon returning from Calcutta. These skeptics are challenged, however, when Doya’s “divine” presence appears to revive a peasant’s lifeless son from the dead, before everyone’s eyes. Even Doya begins to believe in her divinity, though she cannot quite say if she feels any differently inside when questioned by her husband (“Don’t you feel that you are human? Aren’t you my wife?”). It takes a tragedy within the family to expose the fallacy of Doya’s “healing” powers, and by this time many of the relationships between the central characters are irreparably damaged.
Satyajit Ray is an acclaimed master of realist filmmaking, his best loved films being perhaps the Apu Trilogy (1955-9), which took inspiration from Italian neorealism to chronicle the life of a young man growing up in South East India. A departure of sorts from the director’s realist roots, Devi proves Ray is equally adept at insinuating an atmosphere of the supernatural on film. Though we are eventually persuaded to dismiss Doya’s divinity, Ray earlier succeeds in clouding our judgment of the situation by inviting us to behold Kalikinkar’s arresting vision of Doya as the three-eyed mother goddess Kali, and by subsequently refusing to explain the apparent resurrection of the young peasant boy. There is also a spine-tingling scene set on a deserted beach – and scored with swirling, ominous music by Ali Akbar Khan – where a wide-eyed Doya, transfixed by the image of a broken down altar stuck in the sand, intuits the potentially harmful consequences of rejecting her divine calling. Here and elsewhere, Ray expressively blurs the boundary between piety and madness, confusing even the objective viewer.
This isn’t only a tale of superstitious versus rational belief, however; Ray is also concerned with mining the fraught territory of the generation gap in India, where the traditions upheld by the aged Kalikinkar clash with the modern-minded (in truth, increasingly Westernized) values embodied in his son Uma. Not surprisingly, the one who suffers most in this conflict is Doya, who essentially becomes an object of dispute between Uma and Kalikinkar, with each in his own way claiming rights to her. Critic Richard von Busack contends that “[Doya] is literally a battleground between the old and the new India”; fully cognizant of this fact, Ray locates the ineluctable tragedy of the story in the frazzled countenance of the young girl. Doya’s final, ghostly retreat from the household becomes the film’s truest vision of the uncanny: an image fit to haunt both traditional and modern India.