Director: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Bose, Chhabi Biswas,
Devi (1960), chronologically the sixth film in Satyajit Ray’s prolific career, is an important milestone in the maestro’s film-making. Before embarking on this project, he had already completed acclaimed features like the Apu trilogy, Parash Pathar and Jalsaghar. In Apu trilogy he had sensitively traced the evolution of a poor boy’s life from childhood to youth to adulthood. In Parash Pathar, he had tried his hand at social satire and in Jalsaghar he had shown the crumbling feudalism and its desperate attempts to remain relevant.
In Devi, Ray was far more direct in his social commentary than any of his earlier efforts. Based on Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee’s short story by the same name, the film is one of Ray’s finest.
It is 1860. An aged landlord (Chhabi Biswas) is the village’s most influential voice. So there is practically no one to question him when he animatedly proclaims that he has had a revelation in a dream that his seventeen year-old daughter-in-law (Sharmila Tagore) is actually a reincarnation of the Goddess Kali! The young girl is now treated like a living deity. A coincidental ‘miracle’ cure of a dying child then furthers that belief. The landlord’s mansion turns into a temple, thronged by worshippers coming from near and afar.
The girl’s husband, the landlord’s younger son (Soumitra Chatterjee) has gone away for a college exam and is unaware of this whole drama. His sister-in-law, the elder ‘Bahu’ (Karuna Banerjee) and the only sceptic in the household, calls him back. On his arrival, he is shocked to see his wife sitting in the midst of worshippers. He argues with his father but finds him to be a stubborn believer. Then he tries to make his wife see reason and even proposes to elope. But the teenaged girl, confused beyond her wits, loses her nerve at the last moment.
What will it take to make people realize that she is no Goddess reincarnate? Will it ever happen?
As is his wont, Ray unhurriedly unfurls the story, etching every major character with a distinct personality. Chhabi Biswas’s senile patriarch feudal lord is a typical fanatic traditionalist, who is over-eager to take a mere dream as a divine sign to consider his daughter-in-law as Goddess. In his debate with his son, he momentarily questions his own sanity but his unflinching faith then quickly washes away that doubt.
Purnendu Mukherjee plays the landlord’s elder son, who is an alcoholic rejected by his wife. He is a useless weakling, totally in awe of his father. Even when he is not fully convinced of his father’s so-called revelation, he has no qualms in accepting his diktat.
Karuna Mukherjee, playing the elder daughter-in-law, is perhaps the only person in the household with sense and spine, but even she is helpless to stop this relentless juggernaut of misplaced faith.
Soumitra Chatterjee, playing the landlord’s younger son, is the typical ineffective intellectual, who knows everything is wrong, who debates and discusses the matter; who even tries to surreptitiously take away his wife but who finally lacks guts to confront the system.
Sharmila Tagore plays the seventeen year old innocent girl, the dutiful daughter-in-law, who mutely accepts all patriarchal commands. At one level, she knows that she is no Goddess but still fears what would happen if the revelation is true!
Adorned with superb black-and-white cinematography and many memorable performances, Devi is Ray’s none-too-subtle attack on silly and ultimately dangerous religious superstitions. He shows how easily the masses blindly lap up the so called miracles in the name of religion, while the gutless intelligentsia just engages in meaningless dissenting debates!
Like all true classics, the sociocultural issues this film raises are still equally if not even more relevant in today’s world. At the time of its release, Ray had received flak and even threats to his life for ‘hurting religious sentiments of public’. More than fifty years on, the reactions to similar themed movies have not changed much!