Devi (1960)

When I posted on Twitter about the person who’d advised me to not ‘waste my time’ watching ‘silly Indian films’, a Twitter follower pointed out that Satyajit Ray was also Indian. And I had to concur: Ray, in fact, was the first person who came to my mind as a refutation of that ‘silly Indian films’ generalization. His films are works of art. Occasionally ‘silly’ (Goopy Gyne Baagha Byne fits there), but that silliness is on genius level. It takes brains and creativity to be silly in the way Ray was with that film.

But Devi, ‘The Goddess‘, is nothing like that. There is no silliness here, unless you interpret toxic superstition as silliness.

This is a story of which a glimpse is offered even before the action really starts. It begins with a shot of a clay mannequin, the sort that is used to create idols of the goddess Durga. This one is plain, even the features not painted on. As the credits roll, though, the idol develops: the goddess’s eyes and mouth and other features are added. Then she is decked up in jewellery, her finery loaded on. Before our eyes, a mundane, ordinary-looking mannequin turns into a goddess, revered and adored by thousands…

… before she is ceremonially taken to the riverside, and immersed in it. The waters close over the face of the goddess, submerging her.

A symbol of what is to come.

The story is set in the household of a widowed old zamindar, Kalikinkar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who lives in a huge mansion with his two sons, Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee) and Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), along with their respective wives, Harasundari (Karuna Banerjee) and Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore). Doyamoyee ‘Doya’, seventeen years old, has been married to Umaprasad for the past three years, and the chemistry between them is obvious.

When the story opens, Umaprasad is about to leave for Calcutta, where he must give his college exams. He carefully addresses a bunch of envelopes to his address in Calcutta, and hands them over to Doya, getting her to promise that she will write frequently.

Doya, young though she is, is much loved by two other people in the household besides her husband. Taraprasad and Harasundari’s little son, Khoka (Arpan Chowdhury) is utterly devoted to his Kakima: she spends a good deal of her time with the child, feeding him, telling him stories, playing with him. At night, more often than not, Khoka deserts his own bed and comes to Doya’s room, wanting to be told a story and patted to sleep by his beloved Kakima.

Khoka’s mother Harasundari is a bit miffed by this—she obviously does not that her child seems to value his aunt more than his mother—but it is not an irritant.

The other person who regards Doya highly is her father-in-law. Kalikinkar Roy is a deeply pious man who spends much of his day in devotions, praying to the goddess Durga. His piety and beneficence are well-known in the area, and poor alms-seekers come by every other day. One of these is Nibaran (Mohammad Israil), who wanders around with his orphaned grandson, singing for alms.

Kalikinkar Roy is helped in his devotions, his alms-giving, and in maintaining his general well-being by Doya, whom he affectionately calls ‘little mother’.

Then, one night, Kalikinkar Roy has a dream, of the goddess Durga. In his dream, the face of Durga metamorphoses into the face of Doya. Many temple lamps flicker and sway in front of her face.

Kalikinkar Roy wakes up, excited beyond belief: Doya is the incarnation of the goddess! All his many years of devotion to the goddess have paid off and she has finally smiled on him. He goes rushing out, and when he sees Doya, he falls at her feet. Doya’s toes curl; she turns her face away and we see her fingers clutch the wall, scratching it. Taraprasad arrives, wondering what the furore is all about, and follows his father’s example on being given the blessed news.

The next we see Doya, she is sitting, heavily garlanded, in the space where till now has resided the idol of the goddess. Kalikinkar Roy and a clutch of equally devoted servitors are in front of her, prostrating themselves. A priest swings a lamp, lights incense. They sing, they pray to the Mother. An arm rises, brandishing a sword, to slaughter some creature… from ‘little mother’, Doya has gone, within the space of a few hours, to ‘Mother’.

And Doya, looking dazed and increasingly lost, sits there. Above, from a window, Harasundari and Khoka watch her, Harasundari with obvious sympathy. She may not approve of Doya’s hold on her child, unwitting though it is; but she cannot help but feel for how this girl has been forced, willy-nilly, into donning the guise of the goddess. Even when Doya, overcome by the stress, the exhaustion, the clouds and incense and whatnot, faints, Kalikinkar Roy shouts in exultation: the Mother has gone into a trance!

That evening, Harasundari comes to meet a scared Doya. Doya does not expressly say how she feels, but her anguish is palpable. She asks Harasundari to write to Umaprasad, and Harasundari promises to do so.

But first, Harasundari must deal with her own husband. Taraprasad, drunk, stumbles into their room that night, and Harasundari takes him to task: why was he so quick to touch Doya’s feet? Does he also believe what his superstitious, senile father has convinced himself of? Taraprasad becomes maudlin: Father has everything. The house is Father’s, the property and the servants and the goddess… all are father’s.

Harasundari writes to Umaprasad, not explaining what has happened, but telling him to come home as soon as he can.

Meanwhile, in Calcutta, Umaprasad, having attended an evening’s comic theatre [which is what the brief scene in question seems to suggest; I could be mistaken], is returning home with a friend (Anil Chatterjee). In the course of the conversation, the friend reveals that he is in love—with a widow. Umaprasad is surprised, but is quick to note the anxiety underlying his friend’s announcement. But widow remarriage is not unknown now, Umaprasad assures his friend. And if his friend needs help convincing his family, Umaprasad will be there. He knows Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s arguments in favour of widow remarriage inside-out.

Umaprasad, it is obvious, is one of those whom Western education has given a rational bent of mind. He, perhaps, will see what his father cannot, what his father’s many hangers-on, cannot: that Doya is nothing more than a young woman, no goddess.

In the meantime, though, there has been an important development. One day, the itinerant Nibaran turns up, his seriously ill grandson in his arms. The child has been taken to a physician, but there has been no sign of recovery. Only the goddess can cure him now. Only the goddess can save Nibaran’s only living heir.

Kalikinkar Roy is exuberant: put the child at the Mother’s feet. Dribble the charanamrit (water that has been used to wash the goddess’s feet) into the child’s mouth. Pray. Praise the Mother.

And, miracle or whatever, the child recovers. Suddenly, things change, so that when Umaprasad arrives and discovers what has been going on in his absence, he finds himself thwarted by the unlikeliest of people.

Satyajit Ray had used, as the basis for this unsettling film about superstition, a story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee, Devi. It’s a short story, and one that is brought vividly to life onscreen by Ray. There are some differences between the story and its screen adaptation, of course, but what these are and how they work is all part of the genius of Satyajit Ray.

What I liked about this film, and some comparisons:

While I was watching Devi, there was one serendipitous moment, very near the beginning of the film, when I paused the video and just stared. It’s a simple shot, no action, no dialogue: just a view, in the early morning, of Kalinkinkar Roy’s huge baadi. It’s a beautiful shot, with the early morning light and the reflection of the very European-style, colonnaded façade of the mansion in the pool of water in front. But beauty aside, it’s also more: it’s a behemoth, a symbol of Kalikinkar Roy’s standing in this area. Here, his wealth and his stature are unparalleled, and his home reflects that.

How the stature of a man now senile and alarmingly superstitious can wreak havoc is borne out by the story, and by the characters in it. Taraprasad, for instance, doesn’t have much of a say in the household, and the alacrity with which he springs to obey his father’s urging—to touch Doya’s feet—is ample proof, borne out later in his conversation with his wife, of this man’s status. He knows everything belongs to his father; he knows that annoying his father or opposing him may have unpleasant consequences. Unlike Umaprasad, Taraprasad is obviously one of the indolent wealthy; the younger brother’s aim is to study and get a job; Taraprasad, a sad example of the landed gentry, has no such ambition and sees no need to work. Which is why staying in Father’s good books is essential, no matter how ludicrous Father’s demands.

Taraprasad is a minor character, really; but even he is etched well, his motivations coming through compellingly. The others—Kalikinkar Roy, Doya, Umaprasad, Harasundari, in particular—are just as brilliantly depicted, their silences revealing as much as their dialogues do. The fanaticism of Kalikinkar Roy, balanced on the one hand against the appalled reaction of Umaprasad, when he discovers what has happened; and of Doya, suddenly awakening to a glimmer of the power she might wield… all of it is brought out succinctly.

When it comes to similarities with the original text, this is a fairly faithful adaptation, with only minor deviations (Nibaran is not named in the story, his grandchild is not an orphan, etc). The one major change Ray makes is to have Umaprasad away in Calcutta when his father has his dream and Doya is transformed, overnight, into the goddess. In Mukherjee’s story, Umaprasad—who has been planning to go west (perhaps to Bihar, he’s not sure)—is very much at home when the dream happens. To me, having Umaprasad, a rational and educated man, away from home and therefore unable to nip this idiocy in its bud, makes sense.

Incidentally, while on the topic of Umaprasad, the entire Calcutta sojourn, as well as the friend in love with the widow, is missing from the story. This too is, therefore, Ray’s brainchild, and I think it works well to underline Umaprasad’s attitude, his progressive thinking.

There is loads more to love about Devi. The commentary, for instance, on superstition and how it waxes and wanes. The insight into how power can corrupt. On relationships of different sorts, and how they change, often unbelievably swiftly.

There are the lovely frames, the wonderful interplay of light and dark, the shadows, the close-ups. Seriously: even if you overlook the nuances of Ray’s films, the insights he offers into human nature and so on—you could watch them for the sheer aesthetic appeal of these works.

And there is Sharmila Tagore as Doya. Of course, she is surrounded by stalwarts—Chhabi Biswas and Soumitra Chatterjee, in particular, are superb—but Tagore, just fifteen years old when she acted in Devi, is fantastic. She is compelling as the shy, demure young bahu; as the confused, terrified woman catapulted into a situation beyond her control; as the woman torn between a husband she loves and a position of power so exhilarating, it is too tempting to turn away from.

Not all Indian films are silly.

28 thoughts on “Devi (1960)

  1. As someone who couldn’t connect with Ray because his work is TOO serious and deep and intelligent, I’m hoping that you one day turn the tables on the boor who who rubbished your choices by doing a series on Indian films that really ARE “silly”. Especially because the few I keep thinking of are outside your 60s cutoff, so learning of older ones would be a delightful addition to my watch list.

    Like

    • I would disagree with you on one point: all of Ray’s work is not serious and deep (I leave out the ‘intelligent’ bit because it’s possible to be entertaining and funny in an intelligent way) – if you look at films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Shonar Kella, Chiriakhaana etc, you can see how good he was, too, even when he wasn’t being deep and serious. And with films like Kapurush, he could be brilliantly satirical.

      With Bhabhi ki Chudiyaan and Devi, I just wanted to make a point: that all Indian films are not ‘silly’. The next film I’ll be reviewing is silly, but also hugely entertaining – for me, that is. :-)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that’s what I meant – there are delightful silly films that happen to be Indian, not at all what your ungracious commenter meant when they used the phrase “Silly Indian films”, of course. But repurposing their calumny for one of your Top 10 lists would be poetic justice :)

        Like

  2. Your last sentence says it all. Must be an extraordinary movie as narrated and assessed by you. I feel, it was remade in Hindi too (with a different title) when the parallel cinema movement of the seventies and the eighties was underway. Sharmila Tagore was very beautiful, no doubt. By reading this and some other reviews of her Bengali movies, I am compelled to think that the Bengali directors were (perhaps) able to use her acting talent better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t realized this had also been remade in Hindi. How interesting! The story is something that would resonate with most Indians, I suppose, given our national obsession with religion and superstition, so I’m not surprised.

      I totally agree with you about Bengali directors having utilized Sharmila Tagore’s acting talent better – in Hindi cinema, at least in the 60s, she got slotted into typical ‘heroine’ roles, no nuances, nothing. In the 70s, though, I recall her getting several roles which did show what a good actress she was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sharmila could make a difference even in a 5 mt cameo. Khushboo (1975) is totally Hema’s film. But Sharmila in that cameo totally outshone her. That being said, could you do a post about the important cameos by stars in Hindi cinema?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A great film and a wonderful review !
    I must have seen the movie 4 – 5 times and have written its detailed review in Gujarati some time back at webgurjari.in
    The imposing mansion where Kalikinkar Roy lives is Nimtita Rajbari near Murshidabad in West Bengal, now in utter dilapidated state. Satyajit Ray’s ‘ Jalsaghar ‘ is almost entirely filmed there. In fact, Tarashankar Bandhopadhyaya’s novella ‘ Jalsaghar ‘ had this Rajbari and it’s owner Upendra Narayan Chaudhri’s life in mind while writing the story !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reading this gave me goosebumps. I haven’t seen the film, but the premise is all too realistic, even today. Almost makes one despair of society. But if there are “observers” like Ray who can, from the outside, depict so sensitively what is happening, all cannot be lost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very well said, Meena. Yes, while this film is set in 19th century Bengal, the situation isn’t all that different today, and I’m pretty certain there must be instances of other women (even little girls) being ‘elevated’ to avatars of goddesses. Superstition runs rife here. :-(

      Like

  5. I have seen this film just once. While I remember it as being wonderfully made, I just have not had it in me to go back and watch it again – something I often do with films that I like.
    Sometimes one would like to enjoy a film just for how well it is made and try and stay detached from the story – but that defeats the whole point of what good cinema is, doesn’t it. It is supposed to draw you in – and I just did not enjoy where this film took me. You used the word “unsettling” and that is EXACTLY how I felt at the end.
    In this case, I want to revisit it to focus on Sharmila because I missed out on her acting the first time, since I was focused on the storyline and the other characters. I saw her as the object of the film rather than the subject – strange considering the film is called “Devi”. I have a copy of the film – all Ray films actually – so should just just get myself to re-watch it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree with what you’ve written, completely. This was just too unsettling and disturbing to rewatch. There are Ray films, ‘serious’ ones too – like Mahanagar or Kapurush, even Charulata – which I would happily watch again just to savour the brilliance of his film-making. Not this one; there’s a predatory-ness (if you know what I mean…) to the story, which I find deeply unsettling. Of course, memorable too.

      But yes, Sharmila Tagore is worth watching again if you couldn’t focus on her the first time – it’s hard to believe she was so young then!

      Like

  6. So you finally got around to watching this! Am so glad you did. And you echo so much of what I felt about the film.

    In my review, I wrote: 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. But what is even more horrifying about the film is that it is so beautifully framed – somehow the horror intensifies as you realise the ugliness that lies beneath.

    I echo what Stuart wrote above: please review an entertaining ‘silly’ film too! I feel the need for one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You said that so well, Anu – yes, indeed. The horror definitely intensifies as the ugliness beneath comes through. That bit near the end, when Kalikinkar Roy does a volte-face… it gave me the shivers.

      And yes, the entertaining ‘silly’ films are coming up! One this weekend, and hopefully one more after that. :-)

      Like

  7. Saw the film. I think, the final scene is escapist. Ray has given us much better films. Karuna is as usual the best actress. Worship of Mother Goddess is widespread all over India and even the Christian World worships Mary. What is he trying to say ? Is he not debunking Ramarushna Pramahamsa and Bankim? Have you seen Anand Math, starring Prithviraj Kapoor? Faith is a good thing. As the Gospel says, “woman ! do you really believe that I can cure you ? “. When the woman says ‘yes’, Jesus says ‘Arise Woman! Your faith has cured you’ ” . Though superstition is bad, it is faith that keeps our crores of common suffering people going strong in the of face the terrible hardships in life with total surrender.
    Bengali directors are a class apart. ..Ray always gives more importance to photography than the theme and story line. Long back, I saw. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. ( Guru Dutt). (Meena Kumari). Later I saw the Bengali version also. Surprised to find that Guru Dutt gave a better treatment to the novel by Bimal Mitra.

    There are thousands of fake godmen and godwomen all over our country. It would have been better if a film had been made on exposing them.

    There are some real cases in history, when a young woman feels instinctively to have an inner divine voice. It comes of deep religious background. Saw Joan of Arc ( Ingrid Bergman) recently.
    May be auto-suggestion.

    Another thing.. Why any fairly decent Hindi film always has a Bengali director ? Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukerji, Ashok Kumar, Amiya Chakrabarthy , to name a few? Even Guru Dutt belonged to Bengali environment. I suggest that you review some rare ‘non-silly’, Hindi films, without the usual romance, song and dance and so-called comedy and focus on the eternal heroes .
    Ashani Sanket of Roy had greater social relevance.
    And this film is unbearably dragging.

    Like

    • Given that I feel very differently about this film than you do (I don’t find it dragging, and I feel it is about superstition rather than faith), let’s agree to disagree on that.

      “There are thousands of fake godmen and godwomen all over our country. It would have been better if a film had been made on exposing them.”

      – Yes. Ray made Mahapurush, which is about a fake godman.

      “I suggest that you review some rare ‘non-silly’, Hindi films, without the usual romance, song and dance and so-called comedy and focus on the eternal heroes”.

      – Yes. I reviewed Bhabhi ki Chudiyaan the week before I reviewed Devi.

      Like

  8. Faith is good, blind faith leads to tragedy – that’s the message here. I agree with your views about the film. The first time I saw the film was in a Ray Retrospective in Calcutta. It’s eeriness was what impressed me. Ray was not very happy about the music by Ali Akbar which is why this is the last film in which he collaborated with maestros. Criterion has done a superb restoration. Why don’t we restore our own films? Except for NFDC no one seems to be preserving our film heritage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very true, it’s such a shame that nobody here except the NFDC seems to be doing anything about film preservation or restoration. And the Criterion collection is truly fabulous – a treat to watch. I think all the Ray films I’ve seen have been the Criterion versions.

      Like

  9. I have seen a few Bengali films, majority of them being Satyajit Ray’s.
    I totally concur with your views here.
    Had seen Devi years ago and had found it both fascinating and disturbing.
    The latter part of the film, in fact, had acquired a feeling of a thriller film, though I was a bit disappointed with the end. As the film progressed, I had somehow expected that something would happen related to Khoka, considering his attachment to Doya.
    I am not a big fan of Sharmila Tagore. Often found her artificial in many of her 60s movies, though I do like her in many of her 70s movies and the ones with RK, where she played substantial and well-etched characters.
    But, I must say, that she did a brilliant job here, effectively covering the entire spectrum from a shy daughter-in-law to a terrified and confused Devi.
    Just wondering if there was any uproar or protest when the movie was released, considering the topic is sensitive and I would say, relevant even today despite all the developments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the end was left a little ambiguous, wasn’t it? It’s not absolutely clear what happens to Doya. In the story, though, it’s clearly spelled out: she commits suicide. I don’t if, because I knew what happened in the story, I couldn’t decide what Ray was trying to say at the end, and whether a viewer who hadn’t read the story might interpret the end as something quite different…

      I agree that Sharmila is very good in this (actually, in all the Bengali films I’ve seen of hers so far). In Hindi cinema, she got slotted as the standard beautiful but otherwise inconsequential heroine of the 60s, though the 70s saw rather more interesting roles come her way. In this film, she really shows what she was capable of!

      Like

  10. Thanks for introducing this one. Sounds very interesting with such a complex yet rooted narrative. Also I have seen Sharmila Tagore only in Hindi entertainers. Would love to see her in such a challenging role.
    I have added it to my must watch list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do hope you enjoy this! Sharmila, I think, was just another pretty face in Hindi cinema (except for some films in the 70s, when she got rather better roles); you have to see her in Bengali cinema to appreciate what she was capable of.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.