Devi review: Kajol leads a diverse ensemble in a short film that skillfully makes room for endless empathy
Director: Priyanka Banerjee
Amidst the uncertainty over the hanging of the accused in the 2012 Delhi rape case, here is a short film that reflects the frustration society has over the incessant judicial delays. Priyanka Banerjee's Devi depicts a hypothetical (yet close-to-the-bones-real) situation of a few women from diverse backgrounds, who are rape or sexual assault victims, presumably dead, and thus, confined to a room.
The women in the room range from a triplet of rural Marathi folk to a purdah-clad lady, who is busy waxing when we first see her. There is an urban alcoholic (Shruti Haasan), and another English-speaking city-dweller (Neha Dhupia). Among the girls, there is an aspiring medical practitioner studying for her exams (Shivani Raghuvanshi), and a mute girl who is occupied with fixing the TV (Yashaswani Dayama). Among all of them is a silent-yet-fierce lone figure, who is the God-worshiping captain of the ship (Kajol).
The role her character plays shines a light on the title of the film. She might be some avatar of a goddess, who is tasked to serve as the glue that brings together the various women in the house. The narrative then takes a turn when one more reported case appears and the survivor is due to make her way to their room. This accelerates a debate among the women, who are divided on whether they should welcome the new woman or not.
Throughout the course of the conversation, the women discuss the identity and age of their predators, and the way they were assaulted. Some, particularly the elderly rural ladies, recall their episodes in a matter-of-fact tone, whereas the younger women choke up when they revisit their tragedies. As one listens in, a sense of deep empathy kicks in. One wonders why the women, who are all victims of patriarchy, are even quarreling over each other's differences or the logistics of hosting another rape survivor in their room.
It is then that Kajol's character takes them back to how scared they were when they first entered the room. "We can adjust in this crowd here. At least, it will be better than adjusting among all those dreadful sinners," she tells her fellow sisters in Hindi. While that argument manages to convince them, what really breaks their heart (and ours too) is the revelation at the end of the film. Their reactions are strikingly remorseful, particularly that of Haasan's character, who instantly snaps out of her alcohol-induced state.
The masterstroke here is how the identity of a key character, and the names of all characters, is never revealed. The purpose behind this creative call seems to underline the fact that sexual assault victims have no face. They cut across class, religion, caste, and educational background.
Savita Singh's cinematography is key here as it only compliments the feminine gaze of the director. She captures every face in mid-close up shots when they speak or react. This way, she, along with Priyanka's writing, gives enough space to every character, and in turn, every voice. However, Sanjeev Sachdeva's editing gives space to almost every reaction in the room, which lends the visual narrative a very repetitive and soap opera-style treatment. But he does complete justice to Priyanka's layered screenplay by packing a film with multiple backstories and a larger sociopolitical narrative into a crisp 15 minutes. The decision to limit this promising premise to the short-content format, thus, works immensely in the favour of Devi.
Yantra Design Studio's production design makes the room aesthetically pleasing yet not lavish beyond reason. It also does not make the room too crammed that it feels claustrophobic to transport into. There is sufficient space, even in physical terms, given to each character. Costume designer Rohit Chaturvedi paints each character as a prototype of the part of community she represents. This could be criticised as reinforcing stereotypes or taking the easy way out but it is truly in service to the underlying idea and vision of the director.
Among the performances, most of the actors, including Shruti, Neha, and Yashaswini, are adequate. The most impactful are Neena Kulkarni and Kajol. Kulkarni fully embraces her role of the devil's advocate. On the other hand, Kajol stands tall as a woman desperate to keep the pack united. She does not let her unparalleled screen presence get the better of the ensemble. She holds back, but never in the scenes when she is expected to deliver powerful lines. She does not rely on the crutch of stardom to elbow herself into the screen but optimises her acting chops to steal the show.
The aural narrative of the film is as telling as the visual one. It progresses from the sound of the fluctuating network of a TV, to a male reporter covering a rape case, to the periodical doorbells (that serve as wake-up calls) amidst the constant bickering of the women, to finally, radio silence at the final revelation. It is then followed by a female journalist spelling out the stats of rapes in the country.
Devi does not leave you with only questions. It offers you a clear solution to make the goings easier: endless empathy for the survivor, across class, religion, and age.
Watch Devi, streaming on Large Short Films, below.
Updated Date: Mar 04, 2020 14:24:59 IST
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