Devi, 1960

Devi opens with a static shot of an undecorated alabaster statue in the image of Kali, the goddess of creation and destruction, as the Hindu deity is excessively ornamented for a religious festival. On the eve of the festival, Umaprasad (“Uma”) (Soumitra Chatterjee) brings his shy and beautiful wife, Doyamoyee (“Doya”) (Sharmila Tagore) and nephew, Khoka (Arpan Chowdhury) to watch the fireworks display, and at dawn, follow the conclusion of the ceremonial procession to the river bank as the statue is cast into the waters. Uma will soon be leaving home to resume his university studies in Calcutta, and Doya is apprehensive about the prolonged separation. He reassures her that his pursuit of knowledge is a noble endeavor and convinces her to communicate her innate thoughts through daily letters. In Uma’s absence, Doya passes the time by doting on young Khoka and attending to her pampered father-in-law, Kalikinkar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), who often calls her “mother” as a term of endearment. One evening, Roy receives a vision during a fevered dream that Doya is the reincarnation of the mother goddess Kali. Roy instructs his older son, Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee) to bow at her feet, much to the shock and disbelief of Taraprasad’s wife Harasundari (Karuna Bannerjee), and moves her sleeping quarters to the ground floor in order to be near his shrine to Kali. Soon, the news of Roy’s revelation is disseminated throughout the village, and the crowds begin to gather at the family estate to pay homage or seek assistance from the goddess. A reluctant and weakened Doya sits immobile for hours receiving prayers from tribal priests and supplicants, compelled to obey Roy’s divine vision out of reverence and duty. But when a young boy is seemingly healed by Doya’s intervention, devotion turns to fanaticism, and Doya becomes a reluctant captive in the chaotic spectacle of Roy’s delusion.

Satyajit Ray creates a harrowing and compelling portrait of idolatry, obsession, and fanaticism in Devi. From the opening sequence illustrating the adornment of the Kali statue, Ray presents a figurative analogy for the inevitable fate of the naive and trusting Doya as she, too, is manipulated and transformed into the image of the reincarnated goddess. Note that a similar phenomenon of religious sighting is depicted in Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and also in La Dolce Vita, illustrating the universality of religious superstition. The repeated imagery of window bars, darkness and shadows, and veils and curtains reflect the pervasive sense of confinement, oppression, and unenlightenment within the household. By juxtaposing mysticism and religion, faith and hysteria, logic and superstition, Ray exposes the destructive power of ignorance in the absence of rational thought, and the fragility of spirituality in a decadent, selfish, and indulgent society.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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