Satyajit Ray’s 1960 production Devi is adapted from Pravat Kumar Mukhopadhyay’s short story set in 19th century rural Bengal. Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas) is a wealthy landlord and devout follower of Goddess Kali. Umaprasad(Soumitro Chatterjee), Kalikinkar’s youngest son is a quintessential modern Bengali. At the end of the festival, Umaprasad returns to Kolkata to complete his education; leaving behind his young wife Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) with the rest of the family. Kalikinkar is very fond of his daughter-in-law. Doyamoyee also shares a pleasant relationship with Khoka, Taraprasad, and Harasundari’s son. On one uneventful evening, Kalikinkar has a dream that puts their lives out of gear. He sees Goddess Kali’s eyes overlapping with Doyamoyee’s face. Hence, Kalikinkar firmly believes her to be an avatar of the Goddess. He officially worships Doyamoyee even against his son Uma’s wishes. A tragedy arrests his irrational belief embedded in superstition and chance.
Science vs Superstition- The Myth of The Devi
Dream interpretation is now considered a science. However, implementing the visuals literally may not only be inappropriate but disastrous. Kalikinkar dreams of flesh and bone Doyamoyee as the reincarnation of Goddess Kali. Initially, Kalikinkar’s power and prestige influenced people to follow in his footsteps and pray to the living goddess Doyamoyee. A poor peasant visits Doyamoyee with his terminally ill grandson. The sick boy revives upon consuming the Charanamrita( water used to bathe Devi’s feet; fostering faith in the Devi. Umaprasad, a rational man considers this to be a singular case of coincidence. However, his rebellion goes unacknowledged in the light of this miracle. Instead of consulting a doctor, when Khoka falls sick, Kalikinkar administers the Charanamrita. Due to a lack of medical attention, Khoka passes away. Khoka’s death breaks the myth of the Devi, leaving behind a broken Kalikinkar and an insane Doyamoyee.
Harboring undying faith based on a singular event is close to stupidity. While one cannot question faith, ignoring materiality would be a fallacy. To think of the Charanmrita as a universal medicine for all ailments is not only sheer idiocy but promotes insanity. Ray brilliantly taps into the conundrum of science and superstition. Giving faith its due, he doesn’t wage a scientific war against superstitions. However, science emerges victorious bursting bubbles of superstition and breaking hearts.
Identity- Reimagining the self and the other
Kalikinkar lovingly addressed his daughter-in-law as ‘maa’. Goddess Kali is also his ‘maa‘. Trouble follows when Kalikinkar juxtaposes these two distinct identities of ‘maa’ as one. He addresses himself as devotee but holds onto the power and prestige of the father-in-law. Doyamoyee obeys his order as a dutiful daughter-in-law and assumes the role of Devi. Although there is an apparent shift in mutual identities, the power-play remains the same. This ambiguity results in complexities in the Devi.
Unable to refuse Kalikinkar she plays the part of Devi. Soon after the miraculous recovery of the ailing boy; she starts believing in her role. The selfish human nature eventually overpowers her acquired divinity. Her beloved Khoka had distanced himself from his ‘kakima‘. A longing for khoka held back Doyamoyee from dispensing her qualities of a superior being, refusing medical consultation. After Khoka’s death, Doyamoyee is caught up in the web of embodying the divine. She believes that she must be immersed like the idols or else be killed by the family. Ray crafts a pitiful end to Doyamoyee and Umaprasad’s lives. An identity crisis feeds into Doyamoyee driving her insane.
Deification (creating the Devi)- The persistent evil
As kids, we have often heard stories of the ‘dayini‘(‘dayan’) or witches. People have often argued the accused to be possessing enormous power often ill-employed. Ray commendably chooses deification to analyze the perils of being associated with power. Our negotiation with power is evidently utilitarian. Although the diety is celebrated unlike the ‘dayan’, she shares a tragic commonality with the latter. Despite evoking sympathy among the viewers, Devi is at a loss. Deification stripped Doyamoyee of her humanness exposing her to scrutiny and criticism. Ray challenges religious dogmatism and emphasizes the need to be a human first. Kalikinkar’s misinterpreted dream has cost two lives. The mortal survives while the ones superficially close to God suffer.
The Tragic End- Concluding Remarks
Devi is a masterpiece. At once, it throws light on debates of science and superstition while commenting on the need to be more human. Ray underlines the dilemma of the women and their jeopardy in a household. Devi tells the tale of a secondary human’s rise and fall from apparent power. This social commentary swaying away from the sob stories of Sati is novel It champions the need for rational thought and compassion. Brilliantly underlining the need for respecting women without being deified, the film marks a compassionate understanding of women as humans. Despite the passage of time, the film is oddly relevant. Hence, a must-watch for the sensitized mind.