Revisiting Satyajit Ray's Devi: The enduring relevance of the film's biting critique of dehumanisation of women

In Devi, the 'goddess's' listlessness and immobility in the face of burgeoning oppression was a metaphor for patriarchy at its diabolical worst.

Arshia Dhar July 09, 2020 18:24:03 IST
Revisiting Satyajit Ray's Devi: The enduring relevance of the film's biting critique of dehumanisation of women

What makes a classic? How does a much-talked-about film or TV show of its time go on to attain cult status? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020 and how they have aged (if at all).

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Why Devi?

One of the most enduring and vivid images from my childhood has to be that of Sharmila Tagore staring right into my eyes with her fixed, unwavering glare through our humble old Western telly set, in Satyajit Ray's Devi. It was the late 90s, and I was all of five or six years old, when Tagore's piercing gaze and an unsmiling mouth conflated with the image of the fierce autumn Goddess, Kali. Not much else from the film had seeped through my brain all those decades ago, but it had, rather surprisingly, irrevocably rewired my memories and associations to the deity with Ray's creation. I may not have really watched the film, but I evidently could never unsee those fleeting images from the corner of my mind's eye, as they continue to remain seen and committed to conscious memory 22 years since.

As Ray's centenary beckons, I decide to revisit Devi, a film that has arguably attained cult-status among cinephiles over the years, and explore the mystery behind Tagore's transfixing demeanour. In the backdrop of a changing Calcutta with its timeless charms, the essay will also attempt to uncover this alleged dichotomy espoused by the metropolis, and how the film's message on blind faith and colonisation of the female body finds relevance in a city that refuses to outgrow such contradictions.

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In India, women with any amount of social capital are either devis (goddesses) or dayans (witches), thereby successfully eluding their human forms completely. From folktales to films, the dehumanising male gaze on women has been all-pervasive, stripping them of agency and autonomy, even of their own bodies. A recent glowing example of the same can be found in Netflix's Bulbbul produced by Anushka Sharma, whose story is set in 19th century Bengal. The film revises the lore of the chudail (man-eating demoness) to shed light on archaic feudal structures oppressing women in the erstwhile havelis of the Indian aristocracy. Interestingly, the film's premise reminded me of Satyajit Ray's 1960 classic, Devi, starring Sharmila Tagore in the eponymous role, with Tollywood stalwarts Chabi Biswas and Soumitra Chatterjee for company.

Growing up in a middle-class household in Calcutta in the '90s and early 2000s entailed living on a steady television diet of all-things Bollywood, MTV, Cartoon Network, and generous doses of Bengali cinema's holy triumvirate — Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak — on the trusty old Doordarshan. Until the ascent of Rituparno Ghosh, the working class Bengali's vocal rejection of mainstream Tollywood's aesthetics left them clinging on to the dying embers of a 'glorious cultural past' that was steadily eroding away.

My family was no exception; the first twelve summers of my life spent with my parents, paternal grandparents and uncle in our cosy one-BHK, comprised soirées in front of the telly,  devouring such Bengali classics in black-and-white. My first, and rather momentous encounter with Sharmila Tagore's enigmatic Dayamoyee, happened on one such evening.

Revisiting Satyajit Rays Devi The enduring relevance of the films biting critique of dehumanisation of women

Twenty-two years later, as I revisited her story in hopes of finding answers to an enduring childhood riddle involving Goddess Kali, I was left further overwhelmed with questions that I shall attempt to explore in this essay.

Right at the outset, I would like to declare my allegiance towards the sumptuous lead pair of Tagore and Chatterjee, — over the more popular pairing of Aparna Sen and Chatterjee — whose first on-screen marriage in Ray's Apur Sansar, just a year prior to Devi, had done much good for Indian cinema. Their chemistry is palpable, and the dynamism in their equation is rather poignantly captured and reflected in the fireworks in an initial scene, which takes place in the backdrop of ongoing Durga Puja celebrations. The overtly superstitious household of the affluent Roys in 19th century rural Bengal is thrown into sharp relief the moment Chatterjee's Umaprasad, the younger son of the family, flees to Calcutta to earn an English education at a college. He leaves behind his 17-year-old wife in the care of a god-fearing father, Kalikinkar (Chabi Biswas), a wayward elder brother Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee), his disgruntled wife Harasundari (Karuna Banerjee), and their little son Khoka (Arpan Chowdhury) — Dayamoyee's fosterling.

Tagore's coy bride and daughter-in-law act is rooted in her demure eyes and rationed words. They set the stage for her imminent fate of playing an impotent goddess at the whims of her father-in-law. He lies prostrate at her feet one fine morning after a febrile dream, where Goddess Kali adopts the face of Dayamoyee, his ideal daughter-in-law.

Revisiting Satyajit Rays Devi The enduring relevance of the films biting critique of dehumanisation of women

A young Sharmila Tagore in and as Devi (1960)

Revisiting Satyajit Rays Devi The enduring relevance of the films biting critique of dehumanisation of women

Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee in a still from Devi (1960)

The film stands witness to Ray's sheer sorcery on celluloid through its riveting play of light and shadow. In a scene where Dayamoyee's limp body sits on a pedestal, with tears streaming down her face, a thick, translucent, almost ghoulish cover of grey shrouds her figure. The 'goddess' is an exhibit for a predominantly male room that watches her every breath and blink carefully — she must perform. And so she does.

Flashes of Dayamoyee's piercing gaze that were beamed straight into my psyche all those years ago resurfaced, only to leave me flustered with discomfort. As I watched her sitting defeated, almost maimed by the assaulting eyes of her onlookers, who hoped to spiritually gratify her in order to have their desires answered, I was left feeling horrified and astounded by the auteur's sheer audacity.

Every time Dayamoyee was worshipped on screen, I found my hands desperately clawing at the blanket wrapping me. The scenes played like metaphors for sexual abuse. The 'goddess's' listlessness and immobility in the face of burgeoning oppression, as she is forced to fulfil an old man's fantasy, was a subtle, yet unsparing metaphor for patriarchy at its diabolical worst.

The film that had released to much opposition and criticism — and was an adaptation of a short story by the same name by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay — had gone on to win the National Award, and compete for the Palm d'Or in 1962. Within its compact 1 hour 30 minute-long runtime, it meticulously packs several conundrums plaguing an evolving society — that of science versus religion, along with the dangers of blind faith and megalomania — themes that are obvious to the naked eye. But what truly stirs me is Ray's fierce critique of misogynistic forces embedded in religious structures that disempower women in the garb of empowerment.

There are clues hidden throughout the film, with the allegory of the caged bird being among the more dominant ones. Dayamoyee's attachment to the chattering parrot foregrounds her future, where, much like the proverbial bird, she too will have to come to terms with her shackled existence, spieling off prophecies — albeit unwillingly.

Despite Umaprasad's ceaseless warnings against the perils of blind faith, the fortuitous recovery of a dying, poor young boy not only reaffirms his father's beliefs, but also convinces his wife of her preternatural abilities.

"Ami jodi Debi hoi?" ("What if I really am a goddess?") asks Dayamoyee to her husband, as they stand inches away from the river bank, on whose other side lies the promise of a new life with urban comforts, sans the sufferings.

"Tumi jodi Debi hote tumi nije bujhte paarte na? Tumi ki tomar moddhe kono poriborton bujhte paro? Tomar ki mone hoy tumi manush now? Tumi amar stree now?" ("But if you really were a goddess, wouldn't you be aware of it? Do you feel any changes within yourself? Don't you believe you are human anymore? Don't you think you are my wife?") Umaprasad implores, appealing to her rationality. Through him, the director urges his heroine to reclaim her agency of not just her spirit, but also her body.

Revisiting Satyajit Rays Devi The enduring relevance of the films biting critique of dehumanisation of women

From left: Chabi Biswas, Purnendu Mukherjee and Sharmila Tagore in a still from Devi (1960)

In the final sequence of Devi, when the unlikely goddess fails to save her beloved ailing Khoka, — who is denied medical help by Kalikinkar, and is in turn, left at the mercy of Dayamoyee's divine prowess — she is reviled as a "rakkhoshi" (demoness) by her sister-in-law, who accuses her of devouring her son. In the penultimate scene, before Dayamoyee disappears into a misty field of smoke, she appears in a bedraggled trance, asking her husband to help her get dressed. The scene is cast in a pall of white, lending it a surreal, almost unearthly tenor.

"Paaliye jaabo...noile...era...amay merey phelbe" ("We need to run away from here, or else they will kill me"), says the dethroned goddess with heartbreaking clarity. The fall has broken her wings, and much like her rise, it has happened without her consent. She was but a prop in the larger scheme of things.

As Dayamoyee — now a veritable spectre — gets swallowed into oblivion in the closing shot, I feel a hard punch pummel the pit of my stomach. Her unsettling gaze right before she melts into nothingness, denouncing the evils of a system that discards women refusing to satiate its greeds, succinctly mirrors the horrors of womanhood even today.

Devi was allegedly based on a true story — a claim I would be foolish to contest while living in a reality that, more often than not, seems stranger than fiction. And as I revisit this classic in 2020, in the milieu of a metropolis struggling to combat several calamities at once, its relevance in the prevailing times becomes hard to miss.

For a Bengali millennial, who was a maiden voter in the historic state elections of 2011 that saw the egress of the 34-year-old Left-front regime, the landscape's transformation over the past decade has been rather personal. Almost overnight, the colour of the terrain changed irreversibly for the foreseeable future, and yet, it characteristically retained its unwillingness to abandon an elusive 'glorious' past.

Revisiting Satyajit Rays Devi The enduring relevance of the films biting critique of dehumanisation of women

Sharmila Tagore's Dayamoyee walks off into the mist

However, the most significant paradigm shift had occurred in the political idiom of the state, which once celebrated the chauvinistic 'rationalism' of ageing male communists. The new order was female-led, hinged on the ideals of motherly care — 'Maa, Mati, Manush', with the term 'Maa' evoking the patron deity of Bengal, Durga.

Mamata Banerjee's widespread acceptance follows her warrior-goddess image, warranting deification of women in public spaces in order to grant them respect to this day.

But one must remember, even six decades hence, that Dayamoyee never chose to become a goddess — she was coerced into becoming one by a society that denied her basic human dignity.

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