Devi aka The Goddess (1960) dir. Satyajit Ray
Starring: Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Chhabi Biswas, Karuna Banerjee, Purnendu Mukherjee and Arpan Chowdhury
By Greg Klymkiw
“I stopped going to Brahmo Samaj, [the congregation of men who believed in Brahman, the supreme spiritual foundation and sustainer of the universe], around the age of fourteen or fifteen. I don't believe in organized religion anyway. Religion can only be on a personal level.” – Satyajit Ray (1982 interview with Cineaste)Great movies survive.
They survive because their truth is universal. Their compassion for humanity astonishes to degrees that are reverent, or even holy. Finally, they must weave every conceivable power of cinema’s vast arsenal of technique and artistry to create expression (narrative or otherwise) that can ultimately and only be realized by the medium of film.
Movies might well be the greatest artistic gift granted to man by whatever Supreme Intelligence has created him, and yet, like so much on this Earth that’s been taken for granted, cinema has been squandered in homage to the Golden Calf, or if you will, has turned Our Father’s House into a market.
Satyajit (The Apu Trilogy, The Music Room) Ray was a director who, on a very personal level (in spite of his occasional protestations to the contrary), infused his films with a truth that went far beyond the disposable cinematic baubles and trinkets that continue to flood the hearts and minds of our most impressionable.
Devi (The Goddess) is a film of consummate greatness. Its simple tale of blind faith springing from organized worship and leading the most vulnerable on a downward spiral into madness is surely a film as relevant now as it was in 1960. Upon its first release it was initially condemned in India for being anti-Hindu. If it’s anti-anything, it’s anti-ignorance and anti-superstition, but even this puts far too much weight upon the film having a political perspective rather than on moral and emotional turf – which ultimately is where it rests.
Set in a rural area of Bengal in 1860, the movie tells the story of a young married couple whose love and commitment to each other is beyond reproach. When Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) must leave his wife Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) to finish his university education in Calcutta, she begs him to stay and questions his need to leave. Though he comes from a wealthy family, he seeks intellectual enlightenment in order to provide him with a good job so he does not have to rest on the laurels of mere birthright. Doya, so young and naïve, cannot comprehend his desire to leave her for any reason.
During a very moving and even romantic exchange, he informs her – not in a boastful way, but more as a matter of fact and with a touch of dashing humour that she is indeed endowed with an extremely intelligent husband. He is proud of this, as he is equally proud of how much his teachers value his intellect. He seeks to impress upon her that this is a trait that makes him a far more desirable husband for her – more than his money and more than his good looks. His intelligence is part and parcel of the very being that can love such a perfect woman as Doya.
When he leaves, however, things take a very bad turn. At first, Doya goes about her simple, charmed life in the same house they live in with Umaprasad’s father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas), his brother Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee) and sister-in-law Harasundari (Karuna Banerjee) and their sweet, almost angelic little boy Khoka (Arpan Chowdhury). She proves to be a magnificent in-law and aunt – a friend to her sister-in-law, a respectful servant to her father-in-law and a loving playmate for nephew Khoka. Alas, Doya’s father-in-law has a prophetic dream wherein it is revealed to him that Doya is the human incarnation of the Goddess Kali. While Kali is often viewed as a symbol of death, many Bengalis viewed her as a benevolent mother figure, which Doya’s father-in-law and those who live in this particular region of Bengal most certainly do.
This turns Doya’s life completely topsy-turvy – especially once she is forced to sit in the shrine to Kali whilst the denizens of the region pay homage to her and eventually expect her to grant mercies and miracles. In one sequence in particular, an old man brings his dying grandson to her threshold and pleads that she bestows upon him the ultimate resurrection.
Strangely, this sequence – so gut wrenching, suspenseful and yes, even touching on a spiritual level – had for me a similar power to the climactic moments of Carl Dreyer’s immortal classic of faith and madness Ordet (The Word) where a madman who believes he is Christ questions the faith of the devout and instead, places all the power of faith in that of a young girl to resurrect her dead mother. (This, by the way, would make for one truly amazing double-bill – the parallels are uncanny.)
Hell, as it were, breaks loose for Doya when those around her genuinely have immoveable faith in her lofty, hallowed position and eventually, it is up to her husband to attempt a rescue – using his powers of intellect over superstition to bring back the sweet young woman he married.
Where director Ray takes us on the rest of this journey and how he achieves this is exactly the reason why he is revered as one of cinema’s true, undisputed greats. There are moments of such exquisite truth with images so gorgeously composed and lit that the combination of this indelible pairing can and, indeed does evoke a series of emotional responses - so much so that you may find yourself weeping with a strange amalgam of sadness and joy. The manner in which Doya is lit at various points is especially evocative.
Ultimately, though, it is Ray’s humanity that prevails and seeps into every frame of this stunning picture.
This movie MUST be seen. To not experience Devi is to not acknowledge the magnitude of cinema as the premiere art form of our time.
It's a heart breaker!
On August 14 at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Bell Lightbox, Devi is being screened as part of the phenomenal Fellini Dream Double Bills series during the Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions exhibit. Selected by Deepa Mehta, the director of the Earth, Fire and Water trilogy, Devi plays with Federico Fellini’s utterly perfect and exquisite masterpiece Nights of Cabiria. Mehta’s reasoning behind this pairing is as follows: “I could give many reasons for the affinities between (and the greatness of) these films, but mostly it’s how both Fellini and Ray walk the difficult line between reality and the wondrous, and of course the compassion that pours out of them right into their characters.” Though someday I want to see Devi with the aforementioned Dreyer classic Ordet, I cannot in any way, shape or form quarrel with Mehta’s statement.
As a sidenote, I think it's important to mention a recent first feature from Indian (Kashmir) filmmaker Amir Bashir who, on the basis of "Autumn/Harud", which premiered last year at TIFF 2010, is clearly the most obvious heir apparent to Satyajit Ray. OPEN NOTE to Lightbox Topper Noah Cowan and/or Senior Programmer James Quandt: PLAY THIS MOVIE THEATRICALLY!!! It's, in my humble opinion, one of TIFF's most extraordinary discoveries and demands a proper playdate in Toronto. My original DFD coverage on "Autumn/Harud" can be found HERE and an extensive interview with the filmmaker at my Electric Sheep column is HERE.
My previously published Daily Film Dose review of Nights of Cabiria can be read HERE. My colleague Alan Bacchus's review of Ray's The Music Room can be read at HERE