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.