“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 theme 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.
★★★★

Notes:
  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.

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