Devi: Satyajit Ray's commentary against blind belief, and the elevation of religion over reason, logic

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Sep 24, 2017 10:08:11 IST

Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

During the renaissance of Bengal, there were several prominent luminaries and enlightened individuals who spoke widely against a number of social, cultural and religious evils which were widely accepted as the norm up until that point of time. Among these individuals was Rabindranath Tagore, who had strong views against the religious zealotry that was seen among certain people practising the Hindu religion in 18th and 19th century Bengal. But since Tagore himself was a Brahmo, he consciously refrained from making a comment on the subject and instead asked one of his contemporaries, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay — a Hindu Brahmin, and a free-thinking individual at the same time — to write a story about a young girl who found herself a victim of religious superstition in an orthodox zamindar family in Bengal. As a direct outcome of this request, Mukhopadhyay wrote a short story titled ‘Devi’ (The Goddess), which was adapted for the screen by Satyajit Ray many years later, in 1960.

Devi: Satyajit Rays commentary against blind belief, and the elevation of religion over reason, logic

Sharmila Tagore in Satyajit Ray's Devi

Devi is one of Ray’s most tragic films. It tells the story of Dayamoyee — the 16-year-old wife of Umaprasad, who is the younger son of Kalikinkar Chaudhuri, an extremely erudite and highly revered zamindar in rural Bengal. Kalikinkar has been a devout worshipper of Kali all his life, and his devotion towards the deity is exemplary. Now that he has aged, he has given the responsibility of the zamindari to his elder son Taraprasad and spends his days in the service of the goddess. He is extremely fond of Dayamoyee, who is the perfect daughter-in-law. Dayamoyee makes all arrangements for his morning and evening pujas, Dayamoyee never forgets to bring him his medicine, and Dayamoyee is always at his beck and call. And she does all this without uttering a single word — as was considered the characteristic of a good daughter-in-law during those days. Her husband Umaprasad lives in the city, but Dayamoyee hardly has any free time, because when she is not taking care of her aged father-in-law, she is busy looking after Khoka — the five-year-old son of Taraprasad and his wife — who refuses to eat, bathe or sleep, unless his favourite aunt is around.

One night, Kalikinkar has a dream, in which he sees the face of the dynasty’s deity merging with the face of Dayamoyee, and the old zamindar gets it into his head that his younger daughter-in-law is an incarnation of Kali. He immediately falls at her feet, installs her in the family’s temple and then begins a heart-wrenching show of religious superstition. The helpless young girl becomes the object of everyone’s veneration, and is subjected to hour and hours of ceremonial procedures and worship every day. Everyone thinks she is the goddess herself, and those who don’t, can’t help but remain mum for fear of earning the wrath of the zamindar. Things take a turn for the worse when an old beggar brings his ailing grandson to Dayamoyee and begs her to spare his life. When the dying boy is fed with the charanamrita used to wash Dayamoyee’s feet, the boy survives, strengthening everyone’s believe that she is the goddess herself. Back in the city, when Umaprasad learns that his wife is being worshipped as a goddess in his village, he rushes back and accuses his father of torturing her. But Dayamoyee refuses to run away with him, fearing that something might happen to her husband if he went against the will of the deity. Finally, when Khoka falls sick, Kalikinkar begs Dayamoyee to revive him. Dayamoyee cradles Khoka in her arms all through the night, just like she used to, but before the sun rises, the ailing little boy dies. It is then that everyone blames Dayamoyee for the boy’s death. No one worships her anymore, no one brings gifts and flowers to her that morning. And not being able to recover from the shocking death of the dear boy she loved so much, Dayamoyee loses her mind and runs away towards the river, presumably to be consumed by its waters, just like a goddess.

Needless to say, Satyajit Ray faced severe criticism for having made the film. Ray himself was a Brahmo, and he was accused of showing the Hindu religion in poor light without understanding the teachings of the religion too well. Nothing could be farther from the truth. First, Ray’s deep knowledge of the Hindu religion was far stronger than that of some of the fanatics who were up in arms against him, and this is quite evident in the film itself. Secondly, and more importantly, not once does Ray say anything against the Hindu religion per se. For instance, in the very opening scene of the film, the entire family is shown happily celebrating the worship of the goddess Durga. What Ray opposes, and sends a strong message against, are the man-made, self-imposed superstitions that flout all logic and cause harm to human life. The film makes a strong commentary against all such blind beliefs and says that no religion in the world is greater than logic and reasoning.

On both technical and creative counts, Devi is an excellent example of cinema. Consider, for example, a scene between Kalikinkar and Umaprasad, when the son accuses his father of having lost his mind. The aged patriarch has a fleeting moment of self-doubt, but he quickly cuts through it by reciting line after line from an entire section of Kalidas’ Raghuvansham, in a bid to prove to his son that he has not turned insane. Through veteran actor Chabi Biswas’ soaring recitation of the lines, Ray gives his audience a simple and yet crucial message — that in matters of religion, even the most knowledgeable man can succumb to irrational behaviour and that education does not necessarily mean enlightenment. That he does this in a single, uncut, three-minute-long shot only goes to show the film’s technical brilliance. In another scene, Khoka is hiding behind the door to Dayamoyee’s bedroom, and just as she enters, Khoka jumps up and scares her. When his favourite aunt asks him what would have happened if she would have died of the scare, the little boy replies nonchalantly — “That would have been fun!” Through this scene, Ray once again proves his deep understanding of the mind of a child. That the little boy does not even understand the concept of death becomes all the more tragic when he himself dies a dismal death — without proper treatment, without the necessary medicines, in the arms of the same aunt who he had scared to death.

Speaking about the film, Sharmila Tagore, who brought so much to the role of Dayamoyee once said, “Even today, like Dayamoyee, scores of women continue to suffer injustice in the name of family, tradition, culture and honour. After so many years of independence, India still remains largely a patriarchal society with dark pockets of ignorance and superstition where excessive religious orthodoxy continues to victimise women. Till such time (that) religion is used to perpetuate ignorance and superstition, till such time the true, tolerant, progressive nature of religion continues to elude mankind, Satyajit Ray’s Devi will remain extremely relevant and a must see for anyone who loves meaningful cinema.”

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.

Updated Date: Sep 24, 2017 10:08:11 IST

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