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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Devi" is one of Satyajit Ray's most compact films. At 93 minutes,
is his shortest feature, and the story is one of his simplest to describe.
In the 1830's young woman, Doya, lives in a mansion with her father and
extended family. Her husband works far away, but plans to have Doya move
with him soon. On day Doya's father drops to her feet and proclaims that
she is the reincarnation of the Goddess Kali. At first Doya is skeptical,
but when a sick boy seems to be cured in her presence, she too comes to
believe that she is the Goddess. Despite her husbands attempt to take her
away from the house, she stays. When she is not able to cure a second
boy, her nephew, she cannot handle the pressure, and despite her husband's
pleas, runs away into the mist.
Yet despite the seeming simplicity of the story line, "Devi" is a complex work. Aesthetically, Ray is able to use the space in an incredibly evocative manner. In the beginning of the film the interiors of the mansion are shot in a relatively open manner, and there seems to be a lot of space to move around. As the film progresses, the shots get tighter and there seems to be less space. This contrasts with all the exterior sequences, which are shot using a greater degree of long shots. Yet, this is not a simplistic visual statement by Ray that suggests that the indoor are confining while the outdoors represents freedom. In fact the outdoors too is confining, for along with the open space come oppressive mists and clouds, as well as the tendency to have the characters draped in shadow. It's as if Ray is saying there is nowhere for these characters to go, no escape from their fate.
At the end of the film, when Doya runs away, she is enshrouded in mist, leaving it ambiguous as to what will happen to her, and certainly suggesting that she has not found escape. Although in most plot summaries it is stated that Doya dies in the end, that did not seem to be case with the print that I saw. Perhaps the other writers were thinking of the original story. In any case, by having Doya run away into the mists, Ray makes a more powerful statement than if he were to have her simply die. By dying, we know that although this was the tragic result of her father pressuring her into believing she was the Goddess, she has found some release. By having Doya running away into the mist, Ray creates a much more chilling conclusion, for we know that Doya might never be able to undo the damage that has been done.
This film was made in 1960. This is interesting because it is highly
doubtful that the same film could be made in India today, in spite of
India's massive film industry. The film does a great depiction of the
crisis faced by people struggling to be modern yet encumbered with the
traditional systems and the specter of having been colonized.
The younger son is ready to walk away from the bondage of traditional and as he sees, the superstition of the traditional life. Of course, he is reaping the benefit of life as a high caste. His young wife becomes the Devi - the embodiment of the goddess. This film also works well for its psychological content for the way we see the father project his desires onto those around him, and the choices faced by each character. In light of the fundamentalism worldwide - Christian, Muslim & Hindu - it is hard to image that this film could be made today in India since it leans to a skeptical view of Darsan and the goddess.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
So evocative are the facial expressions and gestures of the characters
(in both dramatic display and awkward suppression), and so expressive
the use of music and camera angles, that the spoken word seems
necessary only to keep the story moving along. Long periods of silence,
with only stirring music or even just the background sounds of everyday
life, give the scant dialogue secondary importance. It is testament to
the power of the self-contained plot.
At the close of the film, we see Uma (the faithful husband) beholding Doya in an ethereally-sunlit bedroom. She is in despair. We can be forgiven for thinking that he is seeing her ghost, or even that the film is about to take a far-fetched, fantastical turn. But no, the director is simply bombarding us with flooding light: the film ends moments later with Doya's panicked flight into the mist.
As a climax to gradually-escalating tension through the film, the ending feels both open to interpretation, whilst also having a dark, sobering finality. In fleeing, Doya may succeed in liberating herself from her situation and regaining her individuality. On the other hand, it could be a crazed act of desperation condemning her to inescapable turmoil and suffering, now irreparably damaged by the effects of her 'deification' - the religious superstition and fanaticism set in motion by her father-in-law, but which has spread so quickly through the community.
This film, in its slow-paced but mesmerising simplicity, is sublime. In 2001, forty-one years after its release, the lead actress Sharmila Tagore discussed the film (in an interview with Nasreen Munni Kabir):
"I was only fourteen when I acted in Devi, so we did the filming during my summer holidays. Sometimes the lighting took a long time to set up, and dealing with the physical tiredness of sitting still, I found myself fitting into the character. I BECAME the character. The key to that kind of performance is not to think: it is to suspend thought, and just to be. I had to empty my mind of everything and just allow Doya to take over. She is not a thinking person, but a feeling person. It is all filmed in close-ups, so the face begins to haunt the viewer.
"Something once happened on set when we were filming in a studio in Calcutta. In a scene where the girl is sitting there, everybody worshipping her as Devi, a very old man came and prostrated himself before me. It was such a strange, eerie experience. I immediately understood how Doya must be feeling.
"To accept it all as real(istic) you have to understand nineteenth century Bengal. Patriarchy was paramount. Orthodoxy and superstition were also very deeply entrenched. At the same time though, rationalism was just beginning to raise its head, but it was too timid to confront the strong orthodoxy: the father was the head of the family. Nobody could question him. ("Please your father and you please the gods", remarks the brother in law.)
"All Ray's films are culturally specific, and yet they have a timeless quality. You can watch Devi in any era and relate to it, depending on your own experience and your own evolution. I watch the film now and still see things I missed then.
"I would say that it is one my best performances. It was a complex role to play, a challenge. It definitely remains my favourite film."
"Devi" (Hindi, 1960): Directed by Satyajit Ray, and banned in India until the intercession of Nehru, this is the story of a lovely 17 year old wife, who is suddenly labeled as a "Goddess" (while her husband is absent to complete his final exams in college), due to a dream ("vision") by her father-in-law. What follows is a fascinating, multi-angled look at the transitional Indian culture (and MOST cultures, frankly). Is this any different, any worse, or any more desperate than seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich or the grain of a wooden door? Is her overnight change in status unique? Are the people who have confused motives, hopelessness, or malleable minds any less vulnerable here and now? The quality of the video copy I viewed was rough a copy of a copy of a copy yet even then, the power of Ray's vision shines through. This is a serious, beautiful, insightful, tragic film. (It has something of a "cousins" relationship to the film "Anchoress".)
In 1860's Bengal, wealthy, powerful, yet mentally fragile landowner
Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas) dreams that his daughter-in-law Doyamoyee
(Sharmila Tagore) is the avatar of the Goddess of destruction, Kali. He
falls to his knees in front of her, claiming that she embodies the
living spirit of the much-feared deity. When his son Umaprasad
(Soumitra Chatterjee) returns from Calcutta after his school exams, he
is horrified to see that his wife is being worshipped by floods of
people that have travelled to pray. He is unable to convince his father
of his folly, and Kalikinkar's influence eventually manages to convince
Bengali director Satyajit Ray's sterling film shows the danger of idol worship, and how easy this influence can spread to people in need of escapism. When a dying child is brought to her, the small boy miraculously awakens apparently healed, convincing everyone apart from her husband and the women of the household of Doya's power. The women remain unconvinced, but as Kalikinkar is head of the household, they have no choice but to worship, exposing Indian's heavily matriarchal society, and women's role as the 'Mother'. Kalikinkar refers to Doya as 'mother' before his dream, and a beautiful song is heard from outside, singing of adoration for the mother.
The standout scene of Devi (meaning 'The Goddess') captures Umaprasad's utter horror at the sight of Doya, fitted out like a deity and confused at the new role flung upon her. There is little to no dialogue in the scene, but Ray understands the power of silence in film. As Doya, Tagore is so beautiful that you could almost mistake her for a goddess, and she carries her performance (at aged just 14 at time of filming) with remarkable maturity. As Umaprasad enters the room and sees her for the first time, they converse with their eyes, and Doya gives a simple and subtle shake of the head. With fundamentalism so commonplace amongst most religions these days, Devi is perhaps more relevant than ever, and with that heartbreaking and memorable final shot, still as powerful as it ever was.
After watching Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959), which are
now my favourite films of all time, I was looking forward to watching
Devi, the next film Ray directed after The Apu Trilogy. Although I
couldn't feel the same kind of emotional connection with the characters
in Devi that I felt in The Apu Trilogy, this film was thought-provoking
and very intriguing to watch.
Devi dealt with a serious issue in Bengali society at the time in a mature manner and Ray's direction and cinematography for this film was just as superb as The Apu Trilogy. It starred Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore once again as a married couple, like in Apur Sansar (the final part of The Apu Trilogy). However, whereas it was Soumitra who played the lead role in Apur Sansar, this time it's Sharmila who plays the lead role in Devi. Her performance was very subtle for the first half but her delusional performance towards the end was very convincing. Overall, I'd highly recommend this movie to any Satyajit Ray fan.
'Devi' is so good I went out and bought the whole 'Apu Trilogy.' Which was
expensive, and I'm poor. 'Devi' is so good that I've watched it enough
to be able to mouth along to it in Bengali, and I don't speak Bengali.
"Khoka khotay?" "Aaaa... cheko ta." (I'm now learning Bengali because I
this movie so much!)
There is such an intricate web of relationships between the characters, that it reminds me of Macbeth. The story is very specifically about the Indian culture (it's revealing investigation into Hinduism could have happened nowhere else) but its tale of strife between generations is something anyone can understand and feel.
If you would like to talk about this film, please email me! "Namoskar." (I'm pretty sure that means 'goodbye!')
WARNING -- PLOT DISCUSSED -- Umaprasad is a modern man. He argues with his wife, Doyamoyee, about the value of a modern education when she asks him not to leave her at home for his college in Calcutta. (Doyamoyee is 17 and the two have been married for four years. They seem still to have the attraction of newlyweds for each other -- yes, it can happen, even with an arranged marriage!) Why do you need to go away for this kind of education, she asks him. Umaprasad's father is a good and learned man; he never needed that kind of an education and he has always done his duty to his family and to god. Doyamoyee and the father, a widow, have great regard for each other and while Umaprasad is away in the metropolis, the father's regard for his young daughter-in-law grows, slowly, to what we might consider an extremely pathological level. Is there some sexual tension behind this astonishing behaviour? It's always possible. But don't be misled; this film is not in any way about sex or perversity. All the outward manifestations of affection are very proper and correct in a Bengali context. (A foot massage given by a young wife to her father-in-law is not considered an erotic act, rather a dutiful one.) This film is about the nature of devotion and duty. The father's level of devotion becomes dangerous to everyone in the household -- for Doyamoyee, for Umaprasad, and for Umaprasad's elder brother Taraprasad and his wife Harasundari and their child. Umaprasad doesn't agree with his father, Taraprasad probably doesn't, Doyamoyee probably don't either. But what can be done? The father's devotion is perfectly logical in the context of tradition. How can Umaprasad speak against it? It will take courage. But courage to do what, destroy his own father? There is a complex web of duties involved. How will Umaprasad do his duty to his father? his wife? Has the childless Doyamoyee failed in her duties to her husband? How will Harasundari do her duty to her father-in-law as well as to her husband and to her young son? All these questions are implied. As usual, director Satyajit Ray applies a subtle hand -- given an extraordinary situation, what would you really do? How would you really behave? To westerners, Umaprasad's reaction to his father's actions may be unbelievable. This is perhaps a difference in place in time. Put yourself in his shoes -- devotion must be respected and duty must be done.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Satyajit Ray is remembered for his profound humanitarian look in his motion pictures. Devi is another example of his masterful direction and screenplay. In old days Indian social system was full of superstitions and various religious malpractices. The cast system, sati,child marriage, illiteracy and torture in the name of god darkened the sky of India. Women were the worst victims. Parda was maintained and none of them were allowed to go to school. The idea of humanitarianism was shadowed by the falsehood of spiritualism made by the priests for their own interest. Bengal was not an exception. this is the social background of the movie. Dayamoyee was married to Umarasad,son of Kalikinkar Roy. Kalikinkar was a zamindaar also an orthodox worshiper of Goddess Kali. He liked his daughter in law very much and often called her Maa(mother). The story took interesting turn when one day Kalikinkar dreamed that Doyamoyee is the incarnation of Goddess Kali. In ancient social system these dreams were treated with utmost religious importance. Everybody believed him and started to worship her. News was spread about her holiness and supernatural power. And gradually she lost all of her social relations. Umaprasad returned and tried to save her but failed. Eventually when a child in the family became ill instead of proper treatment family members took the child to Doyamoyee in this misbelieve that she might save the child by her divine power. But the next day the child died. Mother of the child blamed Doyamoyee for her loss. Atlast Doyamoyee became psychotic and lost her life. A simple story which described the dangerous and futile perspective of religious fanaticism. Today Hinduism is one of the modern religions with the principle of tolerance.But we can not ignore the past and many people in all over India suffered a lot because of religion. Satyajit described it properly. A very significant parallel cinema. must watch.
Devi is one of those that reaches out through the screen and smacks you in the face hard. It forces you to question your beliefs on religion and the supernatural, without giving any answers of its own. The premise is simple yet intriguingly complex at the same time - an old devout religious man deems his young daughter-in-law to be an incarnation of a goddess and begins worshiping her. The movie follows by describing the opposing reactions of the various family members including delving into the inner turmoil the protagonist herself goes through. The biggest strength of the movie is that refuses to preach a solution or depict an objective truth. When you are dealing with religious faith and mysticism there is no objective truth...the truth is simply what you believe in...hence the movie forces you to question for yourself what do you believe in? There is no denying that Satyajit Ray is a master at capturing emotions and relations on film without dramatizing the moment, relying on silence and subtlety to convey the message. A dialog in the film by the protagonist epitomizes the essence of the movie - "I don't think I am a goddess...but what if I am?" Watch this movie to answer the question for yourself...not simply for mythical elements but for all answers that we humans have not yet found the answer to..
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