“Charulata” - Satyajit Ray (1964)

Charulata (1964) is thought by many to have been Satyajit Ray’s finest film, and indeed Ray himself said that it was his personal favorite of all his works. Certainly it is one of Ray’s most polished and aesthetically ambitious efforts. It seems to me that it is with this film that Ray fully asserted his own personal artistic dominance. He mentioned at the time that he decided with this production to take his time and get what he wanted.  So he wrote the script and storyboards, composed the main musical themes (although he used some existing songs, including some written by Rabindranath Tagore), helped design the sets, and for the first time personally took over control of the camera [1,2].

The story of the film is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest, 1901) about a neglected wife in a wealthy Bengali milieu.  In that story, the young cousin of a wealthy Bengali aristocrat comes for a visit and strikes up a friendship with his older cousin’s young wife.  Although Indian wives have always been expected to have limited contact with men outside their families, much closer associations with cousins and brothers-in-laws have always been accepted.  And in the wider, extended family context of India, cousins are considered to be essentially “brothers” and are even referred to as such.  So the visiting “cousin-brother” in the story strikes up a close friendship with his cousin’s wife, which gradually begins to stretch the limits of acceptable intimacy.  In the end it leads to the “broken nest”.

What has always fascinated Indians about this story is that  it seems to reflect Tagore’s own personal experiences [3].  When he was growing up, Tagore was very friendly with his older brother Jyotirindranath’s child bride, Kadambari Devi.  Rabindranath was twelve years younger than Jyotirindranath, but he was only two years younger than his sister-in-law, Kadambari Devi, so the two youngsters spent a lot of time together and became close companions, with common interests in poetry and art. However, shortly after Rabindranath had an arranged marriage at the age of 23, Kadambari Devi committed suicide, and it has always been assumed that her close relationship with Rabindranath Tagore figured into this tragic event somehow.  Indeed when Satyajit Ray managed to examine Tagore’s actual manuscripts for Nastanirh, he noticed Tagore’s marginal notes connecting the story’s main character with Kadambari Devi.  However, because of the great reverence with which Tagore is generally held in Indian society, these personal associations and their implications have always been a delicate issue, in fact almost considered off limits for artistic treatment.  Nevertheless and despite these issues of social propriety, Ray went ahead and developed a carefully nuanced treatment of the story.  And he did not avoid the Tagore association; by setting the film in 1879-80, he placed it at a time that roughly matched Tagore’s youthful experiences.

But adding to these personal complications here is a further speculative layer associated with Ray’s own rumored relationship at this time with his lead actress, Madhabi Mukherjee.  These personal ingredients, however, are not really my focus.  My primary interest is the work of art as it stands by itself and what it means to us today.  Charulata has several interesting thematic layers that make the film much more than a culture-bound love story.

One obvious theme that attracts the most discussion about the film is the role of women in modern society, particularly Indian society. To what extent were educated Indian women expected to conform to a restricted domestic role? And to what extent was their intellectual independence to be encouraged? Charulata’s intellectual development in the story directly relates to these questions.

Another, more subtle, theme in the film concerns the degree to which one can communicate deep aspects of human experience by means of the written word.  It was Ray’s belief that the crucial moments in life go beyond words, despite the fact that the main characters in Charulata are very much concerned with crafting words correctly [4,5].  But by summoning up their poetic gifts, the two main characters in the film seem to be trying to express things that are outside the normal scope of textual expression.  So the success of his film very much depended on his actors’ dramatic talents of expression that went beyond the spoken word – that is, in terms of facial expressions and gestures.  Fortunately, he had a cast that responded to his direction by giving outstanding performances in this regard.

There are really only five characters of interest in the film.  But that doesn’t mean the film is limited in its scope – as with many of Ray’s films, we get a multi-perspective views of all these characters with multiple focalizations.
  • Bhupati Dutta (played by Shailen Mukherjee) is the wealthy 35-year-old Bengali aristocrat whose primary interest is the success of his newly launched and politically liberal newspaper.
  • Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee) is the would-be poet and first cousin of Bhupati.  But he is treated (in accordance with Bengali tradition) like a brother-in-law of Charulata (i.e. like a brother of Bhupati).
  • Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee) is Bhupati’s young wife.
  • Umapada (Shyamal Ghoshal) is Charulata’s older brother.
  • Manda (Gitali Roy) is Umapada’s wife.
Most of what we come to know about these characters is not through what they articulate, but through their facial expressions or idle remarks. This is especially true with respect to Madhabi Mukherjee’s wondrous performance as the title character. Her emotive facial expressions, particularly her worried frowns, drive the film and give life to what otherwise would be static scenes. Soumitra Chatterjee, too, is superb, as usual, in evoking the natural compassion and wonder of his character.

In addition to the two themes I have so far mentioned, perhaps the most significant theme of the film lies at the philosophical level.  It corresponds to notions treated by Soren Kierkegaard in his treatise Either/Or – the conflict between the aesthetic existence and the ethical existence.  According to some interpretations of Either/Or, Kierkegaard was suggesting a progressive movement from the aesthetic to the ethical, but I don’t think it was that simple. In my view, what Kierkegaard discussed concerned a tension that is never fully resolved.  It is this aesthetic/ethical tension that fully emerges in the fourth and final phase of the film.

The story of the film passes through four phases:

1.  The Lonely Wife
The film begins showing Charulata idly wandering around the interior of her wealthy mansion looking for something to amuse herself. Her husband Bhupati is preoccupied with his newspaper business and barely notices her. At his dinner, Bhupati talks noisily with his mouth full of food and not attending to the delicate courtesies of social interaction. We get the impression that Charulata was a child bride and that their relationships is cordial, but not close. Later on there is a shot showing Charulata looking wistfully at a servant woman holding a baby and presumably pondering her own childless, and hence unfulfilled, state. 

Ray uses a visual motif here, by showing Charulata looking at the world through her opera glasses.  She may need to do this on account of near-sightedness, but the opera-glasses symbolize Charulata’s non-involvement with the world.  She is only a spectator.  Since (we later learn) she is very intelligent, she spends much of her time reading the leading novels of the day, notably those by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who was a prominent romantic novelist and Bengali nationalist.

To lighten his work load, Bhupati invites Charulata’s good-for-nothing brother Umapada and his wife, Manda, to come live with them hoping that will make the household more interesting. Umapada is entrusted with the financial operations of the newspaper, leaving Charulata and Manda at home together. But Manda’s tastes and educational background are rather crude, and her presence does not reduce Charulata’s boredom.

2. Cousin Amal Arrives

Interrupting this slow, languid setting at about the 20-minute mark of the film, a rainstorm suddenly brews, and seemingly along with it a human rainstorm appears, too – Bhupati’s cousin-brother, Amal.  The 23-year-old Amal has finished his college studies and has arrived for an extended stay.  His interests are not in practical affairs, but in poetry and literature, interests he shares with Charulata.  The contrast between Bhupati and Amal is striking. Bhupati is orderly, logical, and methodical.  He’s interested in the practical problems facing modern Indian society.  Amal, on the other hand, is a free spirit interested in the eternal mysteries of life and art.

On one occasion in the large bed chamber, Amal discusses with Charulata and Manda a contemporary topic – the New Woman versus the Traditional Woman. The two roles depicted may not seem that different from our modern perspective, but it is interesting that the question of the proper role of women in society has never left us. We are still trying to work that out.

3.  Amal and Charulata
The next phase concerns the deepening relationship between Amal and Charulata.  Amal has been tasked by Bhupati to relieve his wife’s boredom by encouraging her literary interests.  In the early scenes Amal appears rather self-obsessed and given to theatrical poetry recitations and song recitals.  But when he and Charulata go out into the estate garden, the richness of nature seems to open up their horizons.  There is then a justly famous 11-minute scene telescoping events over a period of time that shows them discussing poetry in the garden.  Charulata spends her time joyously swinging on a swing hanging from a garden tree, while Amal lies on his back nearby trying to dream up inspired verse worthy of his ambitions. 

Charulata so treasures these moments that she urges Amal not to publish the verses he composes in her company. She wants those words to belong to just the two of them. This is not just a trivial request. When words are exchanged in discourse, there is always a contextual bond between the sender and recipient that cannot be decontextualized without losing something vital. For Charulata, Amal’s composed words are her words – they were sent to her and written into a personalized notebook that Charulata had prepared for Amal. 

Her feeling of satisfaction with this sense of personal engagement is somewhat weakened, though, when she realizes that Amal’s encouragement of her writing was apparently done on the instructions of her husband.  And much further to Charulata’s consternation, Amal then goes ahead and publishes his poetry in a literary magazine anyway.  He is thrilled, because it is apparently his first publication, but Charulata is disappointed with his apparent self-involvement and betrayal of their private discourse. So we are left to wonder whether the swing scene represented real movement towards freedom or merely back-and-forth stasis [6].

Charulata’s only option now is to play that public game, too. She struggles to write something of her own, and after numerous false starts, succeeds! She gets her memoire published in an even more prestigious magazine than the one that published Amal’s work. Now she and Amal are equals and truly engaged on the interpersonal plane of things. But this level of engagement is leading to stress-inducing feelings of love. Seeing Amal’s dilapidated slippers, she gives to him the hand-made slippers she had been making for her husband.  Finally, in a moment of emotional weakness, she breaks down and momentarily embraces Amal.  This passionate gesture was about as far as Ray could go within the moral conventions of Indian cinema at the time.

4.  Ethical Concerns
Meanwhile Bhupati’s world of progressive political engagement is moving forward, too. He and his fellow Bengali Brahmo progressives are thrilled when the British Liberal Party wins the  election back in England, which portends a more liberal attitude towards their Indian colonial activities. While they are celebrating with a concert party, Umapada robs Bhupati’s safe and secretly departs the estate with Manda. We subsequently learn that Umapada had been mismanaging Bhupati’s funds since his arrival and that Bhupati’s newspaper is now bankrupt.

Amal and Charulata are blithely unaware of this treachery, as they now engage privately in a witty alliterative game involving only words that begin with the letter ‘B’.  But Amal is starting to worry about the larger implications of their relationship.  When Bhupati tells him about Umapada’s perfidy, he says that what really disturbed him, more than the material loss, was the idea that someone close to him would blatantly cheat him right under his nose.  For Bhupati, meaningful life entails living according to higher ideals.  He says:
“If a man I put such trust in shows not the slightest respect . . . then what have we got?  How do we go on living?” . . . . Is there no honesty?  Is it all just sham and lies?"
Amal silently takes it to heart. He realizes that he has undermined Bhupati’s trust, too, and has unintentionally gone down a path that will destabilize Bhupati’s marriage with Charulata. Amal hastily packs his bags and departs the estate, leaving only a cursory good-bye note on the table.

Charulata is crushed by Amal’s departure, but she tries to conceal her disappointment.  She returns to using her opera glasses, signifying that she has gone back to being a spectator rather than an active agent.  Bhupati eventually finds out about his wife’s disappointment and finally realizes that he has not only lost his newspaper (his political life), but also his wife (his domestic life).  He goes out in his carriage to contemplate.  When he returns, the frowning Charulata is there to tentatively receive him.  She reaches out her hand, and the film ends with a freeze frame showing their hands not quite touching. 

Ray used a variety of aggressive cinematic techniques to tell the story of Charulata. This was facilitated by the fact that almost the entire film was shot in the studio [7].  In addition to his restless tracking camera that prowls about through all the interior scenes and gives visual movement to the character interactions, there were numerous relatively tight closeup reaction shots showing the three principal characters (especially Charulata) worried about how things will play out.  To focalize on a character, particularly on Charulata, there were a number of full-facial tracking shots following her as she moved forward (the camera tracking backward at pace) through a room.  These tracking closeups included shots of Charulata’s face on the swing, as she swung back and forth – her face remains in closeup as the background shifts wildly to the to-and-fro, thereby conveying Charulata’s joyous liberation..

However, the final freeze frame of the film doesn’t work at all, as far as I am concerned. It has been compared to the final freeze frame of The 400 Blows (1959), but there is a smooth transition and buildup to that final shot in Truffaut’s film, whereas the final shots in Charulata are awkward and look like jump cuts. Ray apparently intended to convey a relationship that was hanging in the balance, but that particular maneuver failed to deliver.

As I mentioned at the outset, many critics regard Charulata as Satyajit Ray’s greatest film, while others dismiss it as too slow and languid.  Your appreciation will depend on whether you tune in to what I consider to be the real philosophical theme of the film.  It comes back to the philosophical duality evoked by Kierkegaard. While Amal and Charulata represent Kierkegaard’s aesthetic focus (the “Either”), Bhupati represents the ethical side (the “Or”).   Underlying this is a cognitive duality – the tension between (a) creativity and (b) mechanical, logical analysis.

In this respect Bhupati is a decent, ethical man.  He tries to follow the rules.  He means well, and he strives for a world in which justice prevails and the common good thrives.  His concerns center around how practically to build a world that achieves these aims.  By deliberately and rigorously following such a path, he believes that a progression towards a better world can be achieved.

However, though Bhupati and Charulata are both good people, they are not a good match – they are not soulmates. The possibilities of higher fulfilment lie in the direction of the relationship between Charulata and Amal. Though they would not deny Bhupati’s aims, Charulata and Amal seek something beyond Bhupati’s just world. This is a world where human creativity rises above the mechanics of ethical rules. The world they seek is a mystical union – one of love, but not just carnal passion.  However, Amal comes to see that in his present circumstances, he cannot go further without compromising the larger concern of social harmony.  He makes his compromise and abandons Charulata.  But this compromise in this instance is a tragedy, and this is fathomed individually by each of the main characters at the end.

  1. Ray’s takeover of the film camera apparently led to an eventual break with his customary cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, who only worked on one further Ray film after Charulata.
  2. Whether or not the director/auteur watches the action through the camera lens (and so only sees what is within the frame) must have a significant influence on the cinematic outcome.  I remember seeing distinguished Italian director Ermanno Olmi remark in an interview that he always operated his own camera, in contrast with Federico Fellini, who he claimed never looked through the camera lens.   Is your favorite director an Olmi or a Fellini?  It would be interesting to catalog which directors are like Olmi and which are like Fellini.
  3. Clifton B. Seely “Translating Between Media: Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray”, Keynote Address, The Twelfth Annual Tagore Festival (2000), Champaign-Urbana, IL, USA.
  4. Andrew Robinson, “Ray on Charulata”, Charulata, The Criterion Collection, 2013.
  5. Moinak Biswas, “Writing on the Screen: Satyajit Ray’s Adaptation of Tagore, Forum Media 6, November 2003, .
  6. Neel Chaudhuri, “Charulata: The Intimacies of a Broken Nest”, Senses of Cinema, April 2004, .
  7. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 180-185.

“Torment” - Alf Sjöberg (1944)

Ingmar Bergman’s first feature-film credit was for his screenplay for Torment (Hets, 1944), directed by Alf Sjöberg.  Bergman was also the assistant director for Torment, and in fact directed the final sequence of the film on his own while Sjöberg was busy on another assignment.  In addition to Ingmar Bergman’s debut, it is notable that Torment also featured the screen debut of 19-year-old Mai Zetterling, who went on to become a major actress and film director in her own right. Interestingly, her involvement with sexually explicit roles, which began in her debut, continued throughout her film career.

The story of Torment concerns the anguished experiences of a young man in his final months at a Swedish gymnasium (senior secondary school).  Although the film starts out as an account of the rather dreary authoritarian atmosphere inside the classroom, it eventually careens over to more lurid matters of illicit sex and apparent murder.  This led to multiple critical responses to the film.  Some people seemed to see Torment as an exposé of the stultifying conditions inside Swedish secondary schools, while others saw the film more as a coming-of-age passage for a young man (I would definitely side with this latter perspective).

Nevertheless, the gothic, expressionistic elements are all there, and they are what make the film rather fascinating.  Much of the film is shown in dark or starkly lit interiors and with dramatic shadowing, conveying a threatening feeling of enclosure on the part of some unseen forces. In fact much of the visual imagery in the film seems to harken directly back to the German Expressionistic tradition.  This heavily theatrical staging may have come from Sjöberg’s and Bergman’s involvement with dramatic lighting for the stage (they were both heavily involved in theater productions throughout their careers). 

One such theatrical effect (not really expressionistic, but interesting nonetheless) was a classic “mirror shot”.  This is when the viewer sees someone (in this case Mai Zetterling) looking at herself in the mirror.  The viewer (i.e. camera position) is placed at an oblique angle from the axis created by the actress and the mirror, and so we see both the person looking and the reflected image of the person in the mirror.  But if you think about it, if you see the actress’s image in the mirror, then if the actress is looking into the same mirror, she would not be able to see her own reflected image, but instead would see that of the camera/viewer.  Since we are so accustomed to these shots in films, we don’t question them.  In any case the mirror shot shown here, typical though it may be, did stick in my memory as a particularly arresting example.

The story of Torment progresses through four phases.

1.  Schooldays
In the beginning we are introduced to the formalized patterns and policies of the Swedish gymnasium.  There are three students of particular note: the timid, bespectacled Pettersson; the cynic Sandman; and the protagonist Jan-Erik Widgren.  They are all intimidated by their domineering Latin teacher, who is only referred to as“Caligula” (after the Roman emperor regarded as an insane tyrant). Since there are only a couple of months before graduation, the students are all desperately hoping that they can just manage to “pass” Caligula’s class.  Consequently Jan-Erik is clearly traumatized when Caligula accuses him of cheating on his latest Latin assignment. 

After class Jan-Erik and Sandman stop by a tobacco shop, where Sandman flirts with the pretty salesgirl, Bertha (Mai Zetterling). That evening, when Sandman and Jan-Erik go out and take in a movie, Sandman espouses typical youthful cynicism, while Jan-Erik expresses his idealism – although he is currently romantically unattached, he believes in true love, and he says his aim is to devote his future to writing and playing the violin.

2.  Bertha’s Affairs
Afterwards on the way home, Jan-Erik sees a drunk girl on the street, and it turns out to be the salesgirl, Bertha. Earnestly and innocently concerned about her welfare, he takes her back to her apartment. Though inebriated, Bertha is smitten by the young man, and she manages to seduce him. But she also tells him that she is afraid of some unnamed man who has been tormenting her and making her afraid.

Back at school, there are further instances of Caligula lording it over his bullied students – so much so that Pettersson is too terrified even to come to class and is charged with truancy.  An elderly senior teacher who serves as the truant officer bawls out Caligula for being too domineering towards his students, and Caligula confesses that he has been suffering from some unnamed illness.  Actually, it seems to this viewer that Caligula has a bipolar disorder and is unable to control himself when he feels threatened by disrespect or insubordination.

Meanwhile Jan-Erik takes up with Bertha and spends all his free time with her, at the consequential expense of his studies. We also surmise that Bertha’s mysterious tormenter is Caligula, himself, although this is not known to Jan-Erik. For some reason Bertha has had some past relationship with Caligula, and the man maintains a hold on the poor woman by continually threatening her.  Since Bertha presumably has an unsavory reputation, she has no adults to fend for her.

3.  Breakup and Death
One day Jan-Erik goes to Bertha’s apartment and finds her drunk again.  Seeing her in such a dissolute state, Jan-Erik feels she has abandoned him, and they break up.  Now Jan-Erik is even more distraught than ever and is unable to respond properly in Caligula’s class.  He eventually faints and is taken to his home and seen by the family doctor.  The doctor here delivers a speech (which presumably reflects the author’s views) to Jan-Erik’s conservative parents about the dismal state of school education which overworks the students with pedantic, narrow, and meaningless exercises of no good purpose.

On his sickbed, Jan-Erik has an expressionistic nightmare in which both Caligula and Bertha appear and speak to him. Bertha calls to Jan-Erik to save her. After she departs, Caligula (still in the dream) says he will murder Jan-Erik.

When Jan-Erik recovers and later runs into Bertha on the street, he coldly rejects her and tells the desperate girl that it is all over between them.  But later, he worries about her and rushes over to her apartment.  It is too late, though, and he finds her dead.  As he is leaving her apartment, he sees Caligula hiding in a closet, and he rushes out to tell the police.

4.  Inquest and Departure
Caligula is duly arrested, but he is released when the autopsy reveals that Bertha died of a heart attack.  There is no official murder case, but in front of the school headmaster, Jan-Erik and Caligula accuse each other of effectively killing the girl.  The result is that Jan-Erik is expelled from school and cannot be graduated. He and Sandman are the only townspeople to attend Bertha’s burial. There is a scene showing all the schoolboys joyously celebrating their graduation, with Jan-Erik looking on forlornly from the outside.

Given the strict and unsympathetic atmosphere cast by Jan-Erik’s parents, he decides to leave his home and go live temporarily in Bertha’s’ now empty apartment.  Before he finally departs, though, his school headmaster comes to him and lectures him about not cutting himself off from society. He assures Jan-Erik that he will try to help him find a job. 

After the headmaster has left and as Jan-Erik departs the apartment, he sees Caligula on the stairs.  Caligula asks him for forgiveness, but Jan-Erik evidently feels there is no real contrition on Caligula’s part and takes his leave as the film ends.
The originally edited version of Torment, before it was officially released, had the film end with Jan-Erik seen as an outcast glumly watching the students graduate, with Caligula looking on with satisfaction.  However, audience reactions to pre-screenings complained that the ending was too gloomy. So Bergman was given the task of shooting the final scenes showing the headmaster giving Jan-Erik a pep talk about not cutting himself from the world. Unfortunately, this supposedly more upbeat ending, which was Bergman’s first experience as a director, does not fit with the tenor of the rest of the film.  So in my opinion Bergman’s additional scene weakens the overall effect of the film.

Even with that weakened conclusion, though, the general mood conjured up by the film is quite dark. In fact given the severely expressionistic mise-en-scene and dramatic lighting of Torment, one is tempted to see the film as essentially a horror story about a sadistic and sinister teacher who terrorizes young people – some even to death.  In addition, given the year of production and the proximity of Nazi Germany, one might view the Caligula character as an ominous and threatening fascist prototype.  From this perspective, Caligula would represent a dangerous social obsession with order and obedience to rigid authority.

But I think such interpretations offer an overly externalized picture.  I see the film as primarily an internalized nightmare on the part of the young protagonist, Jan-Erik.  When you are young and impressionable like Jan-Erik, the world seems to have an overabundance of threatening characters like Caligula. Actually, the Caligula character, while objectionable, is not all that unusual – you have probably run into many instances of people of his type. These people are troublesome, but they are usually not monstrous ogres, and anyway there are just too many of them. Here, it is true that Caligula’s insidious hectoring of the alcoholic and vulnerable Bertha contributed to her heart attack, but, regrettably, there are many such people, and we do not have grounds for having them all arrested. We have to deal with them in a civil way and carry on with our higher pursuits.  This is what Jan-Erik has to do at the end of the film. So, yes, Torment is essentially a mood-piece about the traumas of youth.

“Devi” - Satyajit Ray (1960)

When Satayajit Ray’s Devi (The Goddess, 1960) was first released in India, it aroused a storm of protest about the film’s alleged anti-Hindu bias, which led some parliamentarians to argue that the film should be denied an export license [1,2]. But actually the film is much more than just a criticism of religion – it is a many-layered and haunting examination of
  • religious mysticism, 
  • modernist versus traditionalist cultural conflict,
  • fanaticism,
  • psychological obsession, and
  • feminine mystery.
The specific controversy about religious criticism of Hinduism may have been exacerbated by the Ray’s familial background of Brahmoism, which is a reformist Bengali Hindu movement begun in the 18th century that has sought a more refined form of Hinduism released from some of its more archaic customs, such as belief in avatars (human incarnations of the gods). Although traditionalist Hindus have customarily viewed Brahmos with suspicion, Ray was always somewhat agnostic about specific religious doctrines and was not a staunch follower of Brahmoism.  Interestingly, though, there is a further Brahmo connection to this story.

Ray’s script for Devi was based on a story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherji written in 1899 and which was apparently, itself, based on real events in connection with an innocent young woman who was thought to be an avatar of the Hindu goddess Devi [3]. The great Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, himself a Brahmo, had been interested in writing a story about these events, but hesitated because he thought his own Brahmoist connections might lead to controversy. So Tagore suggested the story to his friend Mukherji, who was a Brahmin and therefore above reproach [3]. 

Probably in order to provide some safe distance from existing cultural issues and potential backlash, Mukherji set his story to take place a century earlier, in the 1790s.  When Ray rescripted Mukherji’s story, he advanced the setting forward to the 1860s, which was still in the safely remote past, but which could incorporate India’s colonial confrontation with modernity and the resulting calls for social reform.  This time shift also conveniently enabled Ray to retain Mukherji’s opening statement that the story to be told was set a century ago.

The cast of Devi featured a number of key performers from Ray’s earlier successes, Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958), and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959):
  • Dayamoyee (“Daya”),  the ill-fated young girl, was played by Sharmila Tagore (Apu Sansar), who also happens to be the great-great-grand niece of Rabindranath Tagore;
  • Umaprasad (“Uma”), Daya’s husband, was played by Soumitra Chatterjee (Apu Sansar);
  • Kalikinkar Choudhuri Roy, Daya’s father-in-law, was played by Chhabi Biswas (The Music Room);
  • Harasundari, Daya’s sister-in-law, was played by Karuna Bannerjee (Pather Panchali and Aparajito).

They would all appear in later Ray films, as well.

In connection with Devi’s religious theme, it should be mentioned that Hinduism’s variegated and multi-stranded theology is complicated by any standard.  Of particular interest here is the notion of Shakti, which is the agent of creation and change and, according to some traditions, the Supreme Being.  The female form of Shakti is Devi, the ultimate goddess.  Among the more embodied manifestations of Devi are the goddesses  Durga and Kali.  Durga is a warrior goddess who represents the destruction of Evil.  Kali, often represented as the consort of Lord Shiva, is generally a darker side of Devi and is the symbolic representative of time (and hence change), as well as death.  In some stories Durga and Kali work together to combat evil forces.  In Satyajit Ray’s Bengal, Durga, known as the “mother goddess”, is particularly popular.  The Durga Puja is the principal annual religious festival and concludes with the ceremonial immersion of Durga idols (life-sized manikins representing the goddess) in the river, symbolically bidding farewell to the goddess for her annual return to her Himalayan home. 

So Shakti, Devi, Kali, and Durga are all connected and they all represent the mysterious female energy of the universe. This does not represent static perfection; instead it is associated with dynamism and change – the unknowable future that may portend ecstasy or annihilation. Although this representation of feminine mystery has been worshiped, it has also been feared. If the tide turns against such a mysterious female form, she can be reviled and charged with witchcraft.

Ray’s Devi touches on these themes and at the same time places the action in a very human setting involving the young married couple, Uma and Daya.  The story passes through three phases of Daya’s progressive suffocation in religious confinement, which are punctuated by Uma’s attempts to exert his influence.

1.  Marital Bliss
The opening sequence shows Uma, Daya, and their five-year-old nephew Khoka witnessing the celebrations of the Durga Puja.  They live in the luxurious estate of Uma’s father, Kalikinkar, who is a feudal landlord.  Later we see Uma and Day in bed, in one of Ray’s captivating scenes of connubial bliss, evoking memories in my mind of similar loving affection between the same two performers, Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore, in Apu Sansar. In both cases the scene is modestly portrayed, but the amorous attachment is beautifully evident. The two of them are shown discussing Uma's upcoming departure to depart to Calcutta to take up university studies and how Daya will cope with being apart from her beloved husband for several months. Uma comforts her by telling her to look after his little nephew, Khoka, who is a favorite of Daya's. Uma then slyly tells her that in the future there will be other little Khokas around, which induces a warm blush out of Daya. This is about as close as you could come in this genre to depicting romantic passion.

After Uma’s departure, Daya dutifully attends to her father-in-law, rubbing his lame foot in the evening in the fashion of a devoted daughter-in-law.  In fact Daya is so loving and affectionate that she animates and charms the entire household – from Kalikinkar, to Khoka (who always wants Daya to tell him another bedtime story, much to the consternation of his jealous mother), and even to the family parrot (who keeps repeating her name).

2.  A Goddess is Discovered
Kalikinkar is a devout, indeed fanatic, follower of Devi (Durga) and never misses his regular prayers to her in the household shrine devoted to the goddess. One evening after being particularly charmed by Daya’s care-giving attentions, he dreams of Kali/Durga and imagines  Daya’s face merging into an image of a statue of the goddess. The decorative bindi on Daya’s forehead is superimposed on the matching third-eye on the statue, symbolizing Kali’s divine insight. Kalikinkar awakens at once with the conviction that his daughter-in-law must be an avatar of Devi. 
This scene is particularly memorable and presents the core visualization of the mysterious hypnotic connection between the feminine and the divine [4].  Indeed, when I watched this scene I was reminded of Sadegh Hedayat’s evocation of this mystery in his mesmerizing novel, The Blind Owl (1937) [5].

Kalikinkar immediately orders his older son, Taraprasad, to join him in worshipfully bowing down at the feet of the newly discovered goddess now in their midst.  Soon the household staff is ordered to isolate the young woman in a separate room and to treat her like a deity.

Daya is terrified but submissive.  She is only seventeen-years-old and ill-equipped to deal with the fanatic storm enclosing her.  So she demurely withdraws into a shell of modesty and tries to avoid offending the worshipful crowd around her.  She sits in front of the relentlessly chanting worshipers and tries to keep still.  But when she is finally overcome by the rampant incense fumes and faints, Kalikinkar triumphantly affirms that his daughter-in-law has gone into a holy trance.

Daya’s heretofore envious sister-in-law, Harasundari (who is Taraprasad’s wife and Khoka’s mother), is horrified by the mindless idolatry she sees developing around Daya, and she writes a letter to Uma to return from Calcutta and see what is happening.

Meanwhile, Daya now attracts locals who long for a holy presence. One peasant comes to her and asks Daya to use her magic powers to cure his sick child.

Uma returns and hesitantly challenges his father about what he is doing. Their conversation is a classic encounter between blind tradition and modernists reasoning. But Indian domestic culture was imbued with filial submission, and Uma tries to maintain a respectful posture towards his religiously impassioned father. His arguments are interrupted, however, by shouts from outside their room announcing that Daya has performed a miracle and cured the sick child.

Uma rushes to Daya and arranges for them to escape the estate by boat.  But when they reach the river, Daya sees an abandoned idol from the Durga Puja on the beach and shrinks back from continuing their flight.  She fearfully tells Uma that maybe she is possessed and that she is afraid their departure will bring on a curse.  Uma, not wishing to force his beloved to do something against her will, reluctantly returns her to the household.

3.  The Departure of Reason
Daya is now increasingly isolated and further retreats into her shell.  Khoka doesn’t come to her anymore. The only being she can still relate to is the parrot.  Meanwhile Uma retreats to Calcutta and talks to his modernist college professor, who inspires him to stand up and fight for what he believe in. 

But back at the rural estate, Khoka suddenly becomes seriously ill. When his mother, Harisundari, summons a doctor, she is informed that a mere doctor’s efforts are minuscule compared to those of a goddess – she should take Khoka to Daya for a proper cure. This gives worried, but up til now skeptical mother, pause, and now even the she begins to wonder if perhaps Daya really does have divine powers.  Khoka is brought to Daya and placed in her arms for the night.

The next day Uma returns from Calcutta, only to discover that Khoka has died – he is told that the goddess has “taken him”. Everyone is questioning why the “Mother” has done such a terrible thing. Uma now has the courage to speak his mind and thunders at his father’s blind beliefs in his own dreams. Then he rushes to Daya, but he finds that the intense psychological pressure on her and lack of sleep has taken its toll. She has lost her mind. 

Fearful of demons, or perhaps charges of witchcraft, she tells Uma that they must flee for their lives.  The closing shot shows her fleeing into a meadow and disappearing from sight.

The cinematography in Devi, under the joint supervision of Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra, is superb and shows the further development of their skills in cinematic expression. Throughout the film there is the subtle use of small camera movements, atmospheric compositions, and ambient sounds to maintain an almost expressionistic feeling of psychological closure and oppression.  This atmosphere is further enhanced by the musical composition and sarod-playing of Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan. 

The penultimate shot showing Uma coming upon the deranged Daya in her room has a harsh, overexposed backlighting to it arising from having the stage lights directed into the camera. Evidently Mitra was opposed to this way of lighting the scene, but Ray insisted on it. I think the shot works, giving the scene its peculiarly spectral quality [1].

Also outstanding is the acting in the film, particularly that of Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Chhabi Biswas, and Karuna Bannerjee.  Each portrays a believable character having his or her own believable psychological motivations and perspectives. Even the extreme character of Kalikinkar, as played by Chhabi Biswas, is comprehensible, and we can empathically follow his actions. He becomes enamored of his beautiful and gracious daughter-in-law, Daya, but certainly not in a physically lustful manner.  Since he is such a devout follower of a religious path, his sublimated passions of human desire are transformed into that of worshipful devotion. Thus these four principal players provide the multi-layered human context that enriches the drama with multiple perspectives and elevates it above a simple conceptualization.

It is interesting to know that originally, Ray’s original plan was to have Daya shown drowning in the river at the end of the film [1]. But that shot was ruined and apparently could not be re-done.  In its place, Ray then had a final scene showing Daya mysteriously dying by the river bank just as Uma rushes up to reach her. But prior to the film’s screening at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Ray removed that final shot, too, and left the film as it stands today – with Daya disappearing into the meadow. I think Ray made the right choice. Her disappearance this way is even more apparitional and in accordance with the film’s eerie tenor.

It is interesting to compare Devi with Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943).  Both films brilliantly convey an innocent young woman overwhelmed by a superstitious community looking for people to whom they can attribute causal powers and therefore find simple explanations (and cast blame) for the mysteries around them. But the two films evoke contrasting feelings. Dreyer’s film is funereal, and there is a feeling of dread, with a dry and abstract aura of doom penetrating the proceedings. In contrast, Ray’s film is more embodied, and therefore more ambivalent and more mysteriously equivocal. At the end we are left wondering what it is about the unknowable and intoxicating feminine persona that has mystified mankind for so many millennia and has led to such errant attempts to force an unobtainable answer.

  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 150-160.
  2. This kind of chauvinistic fault-finding of one of the greatest film directors was hardly new – Ray’s earlier masterful “Apu Trilogy” (Pather Panchali, 1955, Aparajito, 1956; Apu Sansar, 1958) was similarly criticized by narrow-minded Indians for supposedly dwelling on poverty.   
  3. Dilip K. Basu, “On Satyajit Ray's Film Adaptation of The Goddess", Zoetrope: All-Story, vol 8, no. 3 (2004).
  4. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Sing, “From Flesh to Stone: the Divine Metamorphosis in Satyajit Ray’s Devi”, Journal of South Asian Literature, (1993), vol. 28, no. 1/2, pp. 227-249.
  5. “They were slanting, Turkoman eyes of supernatural, intoxicating radiance which at once frightened and attracted, as though they had looked upon terrible, transcendental things which it was given to no one but her to see.  Her cheekbones were prominent and her forehead high. Her eyebrows were slender and met in the middle. Her lips were full and half-open as though they had broken away only a moment before from a long, passionate kiss and were not yet sated.  Her face, pale as the moon, was framed in the mass of her black, disheveled hair and one strand clung to her temple.  The fineness of her limbs and the ethereal unconstraint of her movements marked her as one who was not fated to live long in this world.  No one but a Hindu temple dancer could have possessed her harmonious grace of movement.”
    from The Blind Owl (1937/1957), by Sadegh Hedayat, English translation by D. P. Costello, Grove Press, New York, pp. 26-27.

“Mahanagar” - Satyajit Ray (1963)

Satyajit Ray’s early films may have led viewers to expect from him thoughtful dramas set mostly in the past and removed from our current hectic lifestyle. But with Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), he shifted his external focus into the noisy, cluttered world of modern urban life. However, his characteristic inner focus on the evolving feelings and understandings of the main characters remained. Ray based his script on two stories by Narendra Mitra, “Abataranika” (“Descent”, 1949) and "Akinchan” (“Desire”, 1954). But with Mitra’s approval, Ray made some alterations, notably changing Mitra’s pessimistic ending into an optimistic one [1].

With the opening shots, we see low-level businessman Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) on a crowded city bus returning home from work. At home in his dingy lower-middle-class apartment, we are quickly introduced to his crowded household.  There are his wife, Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), his five-year-old son Pintu, his teenage sister Bani (Jay Bhaduri), and his parents. Since his father, a former schoolteacher, is now retired, Subrata’s job at a bank is their only source of income, so they are all dependent on him.

From this opening sequence it appears that the story will be about Subrata and how he manages things under these conditions and in the face of possible difficulties.  But in fact the story turns out to be primarily about his wife, Arati, and how she adapts to the events that she encounters. As such, the story turns out to be one of the more thoughtful and sensitive examinations of a woman’s place in society (particularly Indian society), and I think the film represents one of Ray’s finest achievements. The film also displays an array of Ray’s masterful use of cinematic techniques to tell his story.

Although the events in the narrative jump around among the adult characters and appear to be somewhat episodic, there is a progressive four-part structure to the narrative.  In it everything ultimately pertains to Arati’s psychological development and in each of the four phases, there is a presentation of some development on the part of Arati’s situation, followed by a reaction on the part of her various family members.
1.  Arati takes a job
After Subrata comes home, he mentions to Arati that a friend’s wife has had to take a job in order for them to make ends meet.  Arati immediately thinks of her own family’s stressed circumstances – they don’t even have enough money to replace the lost eyeglasses of Subrata’s elderly father, Priyogopal (who is always referred to as “Baba”).  So Arati determines to get a job in order to support the family. Subrata is reluctant and offers the traditional response to Arati, “a woman’s place is in the home”. But eventually he acquiesces to his wife’s enthusiastic commitment, and soon she manages to get a job as a door-to-door saleswoman.

Despite the good fortune of getting a job, though, the family is resentful and stages a “cold war” against her going out of the family to work. Baba and his wife feel that the family has been humiliated by having a woman work on the outside (and so presumably be exposed to potentially compromising situations). Pintu, too, is upset that his mother is no longer around the house all day to attend to his needs.

2.  The working woman gains confidence
After some initial false starts, Arati soon becomes proficient at selling her company’s knitting machines door-to-door to upperclass households.  In the process she makes the acquaintance of other salesgirls for the company, which expands her social perspective, increases her confidence, and apparently gives her a sense of psychological independence. One of her new co-worker friends is Edith (Vicky Redwood), an Anglo-Indian woman who dresses and acts in a thoroughly Western fashion but whose family finances are just as precarious as Arati’s. Along the way, we see that Anglo-Indian people like Edith are not socially accepted by the British or the “pure-bred” Indians of class, so they generally have a rough time in society.  
When Arati comes home with her first paycheck, she still meets continued family resistance.  Baba  is reluctant to speak to her, and now even Subrata, feeling threatened by his wife’s newfound confidence, demands that she resign from her job. 
3.  Setbacks
Just when the coerced Arati is about to reluctantly hand in her resignation letter, she hears that there has been a run on Subrata’s bank, and it has collapsed. Subrata is now jobless, and so Arati has to hold onto her job. In fact since Arati’s effective work is well appreciated by her boss, Himangshu, she manages to secure a fifty percent pay increase when she asks for it. In addition Arati’s new friend Edith gives her lipstick and sunglasses to make her look more fashionable for her upperclass sales environment. These developments and glossy accoutrements make the increasingly insecure Subrata even more disturbed, but he is now helpless. 

Meanwhile Baba, who has been running around town seeking to borrow money for new eyeglasses from his former students who are now successful, suffers a heart attack. Though Baba survives, his behavior presents a further humiliation for the chastened Subrata.

4.  Movement to freedom
Fishing around for job prospects, Subrata now pays a visit to Arati’s boss, Himangshu, who turns out to be very cordial because they were both raised in the same district.  He says he has connections and can find something for Subrata.  A bit later Arati comes to the same office and learns that Himangshu, who is prejudicially scornful of Anglo Indians, has just fired Edith for allegedly slacking off.  Arati is distraught by this injustice and emotionally demands that her boss apologize to Edith.  When he refuses, she resigns on the spot and walks out.

When Arati meets Subrata on the street, she tearfully confesses that she has stupidly resigned from her job, and now they are both out of work. Subrata silently realizes that her resignation has killed his own job prospects with Himangshu, but he praises his wife for her courage to stick to her principles. Arati is thrilled that her husband is so understanding, and they embrace. They both realize that though their material situation is dire, they live in “the big city”, which is full of opportunities.  She is sure that they will survive and prosper.

The ending of Mahanagar reminds me of O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), in which an impoverished married couple separately ruin their only material assets in efforts to buy gifts for each other.  In that story, though the couple is now more destitute than ever, they realize that, more importantly, their love for each other is boundless, and they are happy.  Similarly in Mahanagar, Subrata and Arati realize that their mutual love is more important over the long term than the specifics of their current lost employment.  After all, they live in the “big city”, where something good may be just around the corner.  Thus this is one of Ray’s most positive and optimistic story endings.

There are a number of interesting cultural elements that Ray includes that embellish the story.  I have already mentioned the issue of Anglo-Indians and their uncertain place in Indian society. The more wealthy Bengalis apparently regarded these people as immoral opportunists, perhaps on the prejudicial grounds of “compromised blood”.  Also among other themes in the film was the concern for the changing situation of elderly parents in the evolving Indian society. After a lifetime of sacrifice, elderly parents increasingly found themselves displaced and less respected in the turbulent conditions of the modern world. A symbol of this turbulence was the uncertain prospects of the proliferating banks of that day (a problem that is still with us).  In fact the year in which the film is set, 1955, was one during which there was a big bank run in Kolkata (Calcutta ). 

Ray manages to convey the subtleties of these issues by means of his adroit mise-en-scene.  In the context of confined living quarters, Ray has many well-composed shots in depth that capture the multiple activities in one shot.  Also, throughout the film there are excellently sequenced visual closeup and medium shots used to  sustain our awareness of characters’ feelings.  This included fine-grained and slow forward-tracking shots that unobtrusively help maintain the psychological tenor of the scene, suggesting an understated version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s visual choreography [2].  There are also visual motifs that accentuate the mood and issues. Examples include the crisp bank notes that Arati receives (and Edith doesn’t) when she is paid, Arati’s lipstick and her sunglasses.  In addition there are the detailedly (but culturally contrasting) cluttered apartments of Arati and Edith.  On top of those visual elements, there was the atmospheric use of offscreen city noises to convey the nervous energy of the urban environment. 

To make all these themes come together into a coherent narrative, Ray needed a special acting performance, and this is what he got from his lead actress, Madhabi Mukherjee. Her smiles and tears seem so natural and authentic, we feel we are watching real life. She was not the polished, glamorous type, but she had a certain natural, sensual warmth that had its own magnetism, especially when working with Ray. She went on to play the lead in Ray’s next film, Charulata (1964), and it was not surprising to me to learn that Ray and Ms. Mukherjee were romantically linked in the mid-1960s. 

But, of course, the most important theme was that of the woman’s role in society, particularly in connection with the working woman.  This is not an issue that comes up once in society’s historical course and then is settled.  Satyajit Ray’s own mother was a working mom, and the issue persists today in ever-changing forms.  Ray’s Mahanagar treats this theme with a much greater degree of subtlety and modern relevance than does Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House (1879), a modern version of which in an Iranian setting is Dariush Mehrjui’s film, Sara (1992).  Arati in Mahanagar has many different social forces pulling at her.  Most of these things come from people whom we recognize from our own experiences and understand.  Arati’s father-in-law “Baba” is selfishly concerned about his own pride, but he does not impose his views upon her.  Subrata, too, thinks that wives shouldn’t work, but he does try to accommodate her.  Her son, Pintu, wants his mother to be always around – of course, we can sympathize with that. And Himangshu, whose prejudice concerning Anglo-Indians was commonplace, is generally well meaning and cordial; he just bristles when he is accused of malfeasance by a junior employee. These ordinary, imperfect people depicted in the film are not inherently bad people, but they all place conflicting demands on Arati. And she tries to respond by seeking to find some kind of balance in order to keep as many people around her as happy as possible. In the end, with all the various conflicting demands that have been made on her, she comes out of it stronger.  She is still positive, still loving.  That’s what makes this film’s ending beautiful.


  1. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 260-268.
  2. One noticeably awkward piece of cinematography, however, was a very artificial studio shot using back projection and showing Himangshu at the wheel driving Arati home in his car.