I think I can safely say that Satyajit Ray all his life tried to fight for individual rights and a critical outlook on traditions. If you have in mind the film Ganashatru (An enemy of the people), where a Western-looking scientist struggles against the forces of bigotry and charlatanism, you see what I mean. Yet in Devi, which was shot in 1960, Ray doesn’t deal his cards as squarely, and the film is shrouded in a more ambiguous light, which perhaps makes it more interesting. It’s the simple story of a young Brahmin couple in 1860 Bengal, who live a peaceful life in the family haveli of all-powerful but benevolent Kalikinkar Roy (Chhabi Biswas, seen in Jalsaghar or The music room). Umaprasad the smart husband (Soumitra Chatterjee) has to leave to pursue his studies, and leaves behind his 17 year old wife Daya (Sharmila Tagore, who was 14 at the time). In the house live her sister and brother in law, who have a little boy, Khoka, that the young aunt dotes on. While waiting for her husband to come back, she busies herself around the house, looks after the parrot, plays with her nephew and occasionally kneads her father-in-law’s ankles while he smokes away and prattles about things she doesn’t listen to.
All this changes when one night Kalikinkar has a dream, a frightful dream in which he sees his daughter in law as Kali the fierce Mother Goddess he’s revered all his life. For him it’s sure, Daya is Kali’s incarnation, and he immediately summons priests and pandits to adore her. She has no choice but to submit to the formidable event that reaches far beyond her own little self. Soon she is seated on the porch, made up, clad in rich garments and offered to everyone’s sight and prayer. Her sister Harasundari (Karuna Bannerjee, who played Apu’s mother in Aparajito) doesn’t believe in the incarnation but this doesn’t dissuade the all powerful and bigoted lord of the House. She writes to her bother in law to let him know what has happened, and Uma comes back to face the patriarch. Of course he tries to make him change his mind, tell him he’s been deluded by a fantasy of his imagination. The old man staggers a little but then reasserts himself and launches into a vibrant recitation of religious hymn:
No one is worthier of respect than a father,
If you would honour the gods, honour your father,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the Sun,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the ocean,
The paternal spirit encompasses heaven and earth…
(lyrics with acknowledgment to this excellent review)
And unfortunately for poor Uma, a “miracle” happens. Bad luck, coincidence or spiritual event: a little boy placed in front of the Devi recovers, and everyone sees in this event a confirmation of the goddess’s power. Now Uma knows that he won’t change his father. His only hope is to persuade Daya herself.
So one night he manages to slide in her room, and opens up his plan in front of her: they must elope, and start another life away from this prison! Daya says nothing, but she goes with him the following morning to the river’s edge where a boat will take them to the city. Alas, hardly has she reached the sandy bank than she balks: “What if I’m really the Goddess?” She mentions the little boy who was healed in front of her, and after a few tentative words of persuasion, Uma realizes he’s powerless. She’s too afraid, too young, too fragile. He brings her back.
Her devi life continues, crowds throng to see her; her days are filled with the immobile stations under the porch of the great house and the religious ceremonies she has to submit to, which rob her of a normal life. At night she has tearful memories of happy marital days: all this is over now. She has become a public figure, her duty is to the thousands who see her as the All-powerful Mother Kali and come to bow at her feet for compassion, penance or cure. She has become a stranger in her own house; even her family look upon her with awe.
Then one day Khoka, her little nephew, has a fever. Her mother calls for the doctor, who doesn’t understand: why call him when within the household there is the Goddess herself? But Harasundari doesn’t want to bring him to her sister. For her it’s all a sham. The doctor must do something. After pleading, he enters the room and starts taking the little wrist, to feel its pulse. Unfortunately, his father, Taraprasad, enters at that moment. He’s a drunkard, who sheepishly follows what his father says because for him there’s no other solution. Baba has “everything”, the house, the land, the money… Even his headstrong wife doesn’t want him near him. As soon as he sees him, the doctor flees. Kalikinkar hears about his grandson’s illness. There is no choice now but to present him to Daya. Harasundari confronts her Devi sister, and asks her the crucial question:
Daya cannot answer, but she asks for Khoka to be left with her for the night, as much out of hope that “something” might happen, as because she’s been estranged from the little boy so long. We can see she’s as trapped as the rest of the household. Sadly though, when the night’s over - it was of course predictable – the boy’s dead. Uma rushes to his father, who cannot understand why such a loss afflicts him, he of all faithful people. His son nevertheless is quite clear about the situation:
He then hurries to save Daya, as he says. But as her enters her room, she’s wild, speaks incoherently, and visibly shocked by the death, its meaning perhaps or the pain or both. He tries to reason her, to speak to her, but she cannot answer him:
She’s turned into Kali the demoness, Kali the devourer, after having been Kali the healer (Kali, apart from meaning “the black one”, also means Time, who devours everything). And, as in stories from XIXth century gothic novels, she escapes through the window in a mist of light. Has she gone mad? Will she come back and collapse? Is this life or death? Ray doesn’t give us the answer, but clearly any promise of harmony is shattered, and Uma’s loss is complete.
As I said at the beginning, the interest of Devi is that we cannot determine 100% if the movie is or isn’t a condemnation of the Hindu faith, or at least its Avatar theology (Greg Klymkiw reverberates this reputation here). What’s clear is that the main focus is on the tragedy which Uma’s family undergoes as a result of the revelation of the incarnation. But the film doesn’t take a clear stance concerning the religious value of such a cruel happening. The discussion between father and son, when Umaprasad comes back and confronts his religious father, is important. When he realizes the whole commotion is the result of a dream, he cannot believe it.
Uma hints at Kalikinkar’s “folly”, his madness even, and the old man takes in the blow. “Am I really mad?” he wonders. But soon it’s his son’s turn to face questioning: “Don’t you believe in incarnation?” Uma cannot say no, after all such an event belongs to their faith; it’s only that he can’t want it to happen to his beloved wife. And then from the courtyard comes the rumour of the “miracle”: he’s obliged to relent. Mad with grief, he tries one last thing, the escape described above. But perhaps he accepts, like his wife, that she might indeed be more than what she appears. And in the end, when he blames his father’s superstition, who knows whether he isn’t just voicing his grief?
Here’s what Ray is supposed to have said about institutional religion:
“I stopped going to Brahmo Samaj around the age of fourteen or fifteen. I don't believe in organized religion anyway. Religion can only be on a personal level.”(1982 interview with Cineaste)(Same review at dailyfilmdose.com)
So I have to admit that for Satyajit Ray, who also briefly stages Uma’s liberal-minded friend (Anil Chatterjee, fresh from The cloud-capped star), a young man who claims he’s disowned and therefore free to lead his life outside the traditional social frame, for Ray then, the critical modernist position is certainly stronger than the traditionalist’s. But how free would he have been to criticize religion all the way? The discussion of faith vs. reason, so apparent in Ganashatru, isn’t systematically developed, in spite of the mention of the key-words “evidence” and “superstition”. There is only one moment when Uma’s literature teacher (in his office we can see Shakespeare’s portrait) clearly encourages him to stands for his “husband’s rights”, and declares that his decision will be his “test” of truth:
Yet the film-maker will not allow him the victory over the spiritual kingdom, oppressive as it might seem. Of course what seemed possible in the independent seclusion of a University office isn’t as simple in the heated atmosphere of countryside traditionalism. And even this opposition doesn’t mean that “truth” or “freedom” are necessarily on the side of urban progressive thinking. In the end, Devi leaves us with a subtle balance of forces: rational intellectualism versus religious mysticism, and the latter certainly cannot be so easily discarded as inhuman. The facile assertion of the superiority of a higher level of human sensitivity, exemplified by a secularized outlook on religion, for example, would forget the ritualistic wealth of an ancient religion where all the facets of human experience are present, violence and compassion, tolerance and trance, revenge and vindication, as much as empathy and patience.
On top of the reviews already mentioned, there's this one by Beth. Don't miss it!