Devi (The Goddess)

Set in the 1860s, Devi (The Goddess) revisits the milieu of the Bengali zamindar (landlord), a theme Ray had earlier explored in Jalsaghar (The Music Room). However, unlike the decadent despair and decay of Jalsaghar, Devi is a tale of religious superstition and orthodoxy set against the backdrop of the Bengal Renaissance. Kalikinkar Roy (Chhabi Biswas in yet another formidable role), an aging Bengali zamindar, is convinced that his daughter-in-law, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), is the goddess Kali, who is worshipped all over Bengal. The narrative then sets the stage for the confrontation between the religiosity and orthodoxy of Roy and the rational ideology of his son, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), who is exposed to western thought.
Based on a short story by Bengali writer Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee in 1899, Devi can be decidedly termed as Ray’s most ‘Hindu’ film, and as Ray’s biographer, Andrew Robinson points out, “one whose impact depends greatly on atmosphere and suggestive details – which can make it difficult (for) those unfamiliar with Hindu rituals and practices.” (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye) Ray himself was aware of the film’s limitations, especially in the context of the western audience. Writing in 1982 in Sight and Sound, he remarked,

“The western critic who hopes to do full justice to Devi must be prepared to do a great deal of homework before he confronts the film. He must read up on the cult of the Mother Goddess; on the 19th century Renaissance in Bengal and how it affected the values of orthodox Hindu society; on the position of the Hindu bride in an upper-class family and the relationship between father and son in the same family. All the turns and twists of the plot grow out of one or more of these factors. The western critic who hasn’t done his homework will pin his faith on the rational son to save him from the swirls and eddies of an alien value system; but even here the son’s ultimate helplessness will convince him only if he is aware of the stranglehold of Hindu orthodoxy in 19th century Bengal.”

Understandably, the film did not receive a favorable response from western critics – while some termed the story ‘dauntingly alien’, others found it ‘an exquisite bore.’ For the London Times, the film seemed ‘more a matter of uncluttered story-telling than of atmosphere and the loving accumulation of detail – always Mr. Ray’s strong points.’ Moreover, Doyamoyee’s predicament and the helplessness of her husband seemed incomprehensible to most. Film critic Eric Rhode, writing in Sight and Sound, wondered: ‘Would an intelligent girl like Doyamoyee – and in Sharmila Tagore’s performance she comes over sharp as a pin – allow herself to be deified, even a hundred years ago? And would a husband as shrewd as Soumitra Chatterjee makes Umapada [Umaprasad] allow himself to be so easily checked?’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)Even for critics like Pauline Kael, who appreciated Devi, misreading was inevitable due to the film’s reliance on the finer nuances of Bengali culture and familial structure. For Kael, the scene of Doyamoyee massaging her father-in-law’s feet was implicit with ‘Freudian connotations’, but as Ray explained, ‘Padaseba [foot massage] is a conventional Hindu conception and swasur padaseba [foot massage of a father-in-law] would be considered a very admirable thing for a daughter-in-law to do. You can read a sexual element if you want to, but it wasn’t in my mind.’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Like his earlier adaptations of literary works, Ray also infused Mukherjee’s short story with his distinctive touch. The confrontation between the orthodox Kalikinkar Roy and his son emerges as more powerful – a marked departure from its literary counterpart where it was considerably latent. As Ray later mentioned, ‘The son’s character is very much developed in this film according to my feelings for dramatic reasons. I was full of sympathy for him. I believed his arguments were much stronger than the father’s arguments, because of the irrationality involved.’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

Released in 1960, a little more than a year after the theatrical screening of Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), Devi repeats the on-screen coupling of Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore. Tagore, who later became a Bollywood star in the 1960s-70s, attributes her haunting portrayal of the child-woman, Doyamoyee, to Ray: ‘Devi was what a genius got out of me, not something I did myself.’ Ray recalls how during the film she would complain that he was not directing her to the same extent as in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), ‘I had to tell her I felt she was doing it all right. “Why should I direct you when you don’t require any direction of that kind?”’ (Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye)

The music for Devi was composed by Ali Akbar Khan, a renowned Indian classical musician. Though Khan composed haunting music for the film, his relationship with Ray was strained. As the director would later recall, “It was rather an unpleasant experience.” Working with Ravi Shankar for the Apu Trilogy and Vilayat Khan for Jalsaghar (The Music Room) had convinced Ray that in spite of their talent, classical musicians could never really mould their art to the demands of the film. Moreover, unlike Ray, they seemed reluctant to include western classical music in the soundtrack. For Devi, Ray himself chose the western elements in the film’s music, such as a loop consisting of the ninth to twelfth bars of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”, which he used to highlight Doyamoyee’s turmoil. He also composed two songs, his first for a film. Devi would be the last Ray film where another music director was credited; from henceforth, the music in all his films was composed by Ray himself.

In spite of Ray’s attempt to defend his work as an attack on religious orthodoxy, and not on Hinduism itself, Devi was initially perceived as critical of Hindu religion and there was a determined attempt to prevent its release abroad, though it was eventually awarded the President’s Gold Medal by the Indian government in 1961.

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