On Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960)
“I’ll convince him! I have all the latest arguments at my fingertips,” boasts the cocky Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), when his friend confesses that he wishes to marry a widow but is afraid of his father’s disapproval. Throughout Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960), Umaprasad’s assurance and his ‘enlightened’ distance from his own religious father, Kalikinkar Choudhuri (Chhabi Biswas), makes him an immediate Indian liberal icon, marrying an Indian sensibility with Western rationality. However, when Umaprasad’s young wife, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), becomes prisoner of Kalikinkar’s deification of her, the young intellectual is powerless to stop his father; the film’s denouement represents the doomed fate of the rationalist, tirelessly fighting against a world steeped in religious primitivism. Or does it?
Modern viewers naturally look askance at this story of an ageing patriarch convinced that his daughter-in-law is the reincarnation of a goddess. If the film isn’t a “subversively modern challenge to the religious orthodoxy and patriarchal power structures”, as the short description on the Criterion release puts it, then it must be as “backward” as its story. However, if the film was the mere equivalent of a bloated Richard Dawkins bluster only with a more powerful narrative, then it would hardly be worth revisiting, barring some strong characters and actors. Fortunately, Ray’s film satisfies the Criterion description while also doing a lot more, both aesthetically and politically.
The opening set of sequences itself indicates Ray’s dialectical approach to this thorny narrative. A plain statue of the Goddess Durga is shown as the credits roll to the melancholic strain of the great Ali Akbar Khan. Through two edits over the course of the credits, the goddess is revealed in her adorned glory, her simple stare suddenly acquiring an arresting sharpness. This might allude to the construction of myth, and Ray then pulls his camera away to reveal the throng of villagers trying to catch a glimpse of the statue amidst the din of festivities. The film then cuts to a medium shot of Kalikinkar, after which we see a bare-bodied man lifting a sword in his hulking hands. His weapon swoops down to presumably kill a sacrificial animal, but at the moment of impact, Ray cuts to a shot of fireworks bursting in the sky, rhyming the ‘barbaric’ descent with an effulgent ascent. The film’s lasting power is in this duality, its existence in the liminal space between rationality and religion, acknowledging the enduring power of myth even as it critiques it.
There is no doubt that Ray’s sympathies lied with Western rationality, as evinced from his interviews and later films on this subject. But he also understood that things aren’t as simple as a battle between liberal “enlightenment” and religious “stupidity”. In pushing the timeline of Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay’s original short story forward by nearly a century, Ray situates his narrative at a particularly transitional period, when colonial values encroach upon the crumbling order of the old world. Through this choice, the floundering myth of the premise suddenly acquires greater poignancy. As the film oscillates between the multiple subjectivities of its characters, they are all nonetheless tied together by Ray’s own confused “objectivity”, therefore unsettling preconceived biases from both sides.
The first set of scenes after the temple procession that opens the film centre on the happy couple, Umaprasad (Uma) and Doyamoyee (Doya), as Uma prepares to leave for Calcutta to complete his studies. After his departure, much of the film unfolds as a chamber drama, establishing the relationships between the characters and their insecurities through wide shots of the expansive hallways and stately rooms of the 19th-century bungalow where Doya lives with her father-in-law Kalikinkar, her brother-in-law Taraprasad, his wife and their son Khoka. These establishing shots, somewhat “objective” in nature, are then disrupted by sudden camera movements and tight close-ups, shifting to a subjective mode of filmmaking as Kalikinkar’s obsession grows. This is indeed the character for which Ray, despite his attacks on patriarchy and superstition, reserves his most dazzling cinematic feasts.
Perhaps much of the director’s interest in anachronistic men could be related to his affection for Chhabi Biswas, and his desire to see this ace actor reveal depths previously unexplored. His performance as Kalikinkar echoes another Ray film where an old patriarch clings to his crumbling order – The Music Room (1958). Yet however great that performance was, Biswas’ turn in Devi allows the actor to lay bare his vulnerabilities like he has never done in any other film. The Music Room was a film about aristocratic arrogance, featuring a man trying to maintain his dignity even as his world collapses. In some sense, Devi is a continuation of some of the former’s themes, employing Biswas as an even older man with declining physical health, enervated to the point of despairing helplessness. But this film strips the more aggressive sentimentality of its predecessor, to deliver a critique that is as nuanced as it is tender. Here, an outdated order ends not with a bang, but an exhausted whimper.
Considering this, it shouldn’t come across as a surprise that Ray opts to show Kalikinkar’s dream of Doya as the goddess. Over the image of the goddess is superimposed the young woman’s face, as she stares down into the camera. Images of ceremonial candles, the sound of bells and the ululations of devotees then come in, forming a powerful crescendo both awe inspiring and frightening in its intensity. A strong dissonance is thus established between the hitherto demure Doya, and the Doya of this vision, her striking gaze and mysterious smile bestowing her a harrowing air of authority. After this dream, Kalikinkar does not immediately react or spring to action; in fact, he initially appears to struggle processing his emotions, until Ray shows him in close-up, opening his eyes wide. The ringing temple bells from his dreams are here replaced by the gong of his western grandfather clock, and as Biswas gets out of bed, he stumbles, clinging for support while he looks at his paintings of the goddess. It’s a strikingly realistic moment, all the more so for coming after a dream, but Kalikinkar isn’t out of his stupor: when he frailly utters the word “Ma” (the goddess revered as a mother), his quavering pleas are tinged as much with devotion as with desperation.
Ray further foregrounds Kalikinkar’s feverishness by showing Doya’s response to her possessed father-in-law falling at her feet, but the damage has already been done. The inadequacy of rationality in the face of overpowering myths forms a major theme of this film after this sequence, with shots alternating between Uma’s and Kalikinkar’s perspectives, interspersed with images of a disconcerted Doya awkwardly trapped in the middle.
Ray’s direction of actors, both in the extraction of great performances and their relation to the camera, has always been stellar, but the mise-en-scene in Devi is particularly evocative in its harnessing of myth and miracle. Many western commentators and supporters — including a certain Pauline Kael — have complimented Ray’s handling of mise-en-scene in a backhanded manner, saying that Ray’s directing embodies simplicity itself. As Adrian Martin convincingly argues in his book, Mise en Scene and Film Style, narrow definitions of mise-en-scene are only to the detriment of film criticism, and different cultures adopt different modes of mise-en-scene; one only needs to look at the staging of the miracle scene in this film to know Ray’s mastery over his craft.
Uma, upon seeing Doya being worshipped, goes to confront his father in the patriarch’s bedroom. As Kalikinkar beams with joy, Uma dismisses his claims and calls him mad. Uma leaves the frame, and Kalikinkar is seen alone, initially transfixed, questioning his beliefs. He then regains his composure and walks towards his son, Uma re-entering the frame as the camera follows Kalikinkar. The father, in the foreground, recites a Sanskrit verse while Uma, in the background, turns his back to him, seemingly ashamed. The camera then moves with Kalinkar as he walks towards a mirror to the left, and for a time, only him and his reflection are in the frame. As Kalikinkar then walks back towards Uma, the son re-enters the frame, rebuffing his father’s words before walking towards the window, leaving his father once again alone in the frame. Through these shots, Ray repeatedly rejects reconciliation, before denying any possibility of future agreement by cutting between each actor instead of following them in one take for the rest of the sequence. Standing at opposite ends of the room, father and son only come closer when Kalikinkar grabs at Uma to stop him from interrupting the procession of desperate believers outside. In that moment, cries of joy erupt off-frame, and Ray cuts to the scene: a sick child, the son of a beggar, has regained consciousness after drinking Doya’s “holy” water. Even as our modern minds refute the idea that she could have anything to do with the child’s recovery on screen, the manic immediacy of the miraculous moment is overpowering, so much so that Kalikinkar’s gushing is, again, emotionally understandable. Ray wisely avoids drumming up the father-son confrontation any further, as any spoken response to this singular moment would be inadequate. Ray and his collaborators here operate at the peak of their abilities, and it is difficult to understand how their complex work could be dismissed — or even faintly praised — as simplicity.
It is in this multi-layered portrayal of religion that we find Ray at his strongest. The director’s ideas do not subscribe to any particular theories, with the material and spiritual on equal footing here. The myth, unlike in a film like G. Aravindan’s Esthappan (1980), does not begin at the lower rungs of society but emerges instead from the highest member of the pecking order. Yet Ray is careful to show the role that poverty plays in this story. Although Kalinkar’s wealth legitimises his home as a shrine to a certain extent, we can see that it is his employees, perfunctorily carrying out their duties, who keep the myth alive. In a similar way, that myth could only be sanctified by the presence of a beggar, the poverty of his life ensuring that he could not afford expensive treatment or adequate food for his son: a miracle is his only hope.
The portrayal of Doya, the unwitting ingénue, as she processes this burden saddled upon her likewise suggests a more complex reality than a mere opposition between religion and rationality. Sharmila Tagore conjures a range of emotions in her unusual state that, to her and Ray’s credit, are difficult to pin down. For the most part, access to Doya’s interiority is restricted, and we observe her only through the impressions and expectations of others. Even as India modernises itself, the woman remains consigned to the role of dutiful wife, demure and caring for her elders, a loving mother to all the male members of the household. She tailors her reactions according to the person she interacts with, and playing true to the archetype, Ray portrays her as the soul of the house, loved by all — including a pet parrot — and even more of a mother to her nephew Khoka than her sister-in-law. It is clear that Doya is at her happiest when she is with Khoka, as playing with him allows her more movement than any of her household duties.
However, her deification paradoxically curtails her freedoms, immobilising her. As a goddess, every one of her actions is now an event, and Kalikinkar cloisters her in the walls of the praying room. In one astonishing scene, Doya wakes up in a different room than the one in which she fell asleep after spending an exhausting day as a goddess. The power she was supposedly granted is nothing more than an empty delusion, but her responsibilities have surged and she is now the mother of everyone.
Doya may therefore seem to be a straightforward victim, the necessary tragic character in a black-and-white exposé of religion’s excesses. In fact, the issue is more than a matter of silly superstition. The freedom movement of India itself involved deifying women as emblems — most notable among them Bharat Mata, with India as a divine mother — while consigning them to motherhood and chastity. The patriarchy intrinsic to these religious beliefs is still manifest in the current Indian socio-political sphere, where women are venerated for their sacrificial motherhood even as their wishes aren’t considered, let alone realised.
The liberal hero of the film, too, though sympathetic to her confusion, doesn’t fully understand Doya. His professor tells him to fight his father for the sake of his own happiness — but what about hers? Uma listens to Doya’s doubts when she gets caught in Kalikinkar’s delusion, but still infantilises her, and fights the injunctions of his father only when his own happiness is at stake.
Ray’s decision to let Doya remain an archetype is a simple but powerful one, her being therefore entirely defined by the impositions and expectations of patriarchal society. Motherhood, chastity and obedience are her only identifiable traits, and even when she is taken captive by her deification, her immediate thoughts go only to her husband and her nephew. The external conflict between rationality and religion is mirrored in her internal conflict between being a goddess and a wife, and the difficulty in penetrating it follows our inability to imagine women as something beyond their prescribed roles.
Even when Doya is unable to save her own nephew Khoka from illness, Kalikinkar’s bubble does not burst — he claims that Doya “took [the child] away.” The film’s original ending involved her subsequent suicide, which would have considerably limited the film’s patriarchal critique, envisioning Doya as a hapless victim upset at her ‘failure’ to fulfil her impossible given role. The film’s actual ending is another stroke of inspired genius, with Doya, afraid of being murdered by those who previously worshipped her, running away from the house while Uma calls after her. Here, Ray imbues the scene of her fleeing with powerful expressionism, as an eerie mist envelopes the fields through which she runs to the sound of Uma’s cries. Doya’s fate is that of a mystical tragedy, one in which she didn’t exist as a person, only as a concept. It is only fitting that she would vaporise in the impenetrable fog of her own myth.