Satyajit Ray's 'Devi': When It Was Still Possible To Interrogate the Primacy of Faith

Two Satyajit Ray films made 20 years apart present searing critiques of the privileging of insular religiosity over humanity. Can we hope to see such films being made in India today?

In three films – two full-length features (Devi, 1960 and Ganashatru, 1990) and one short made for television (Sadgati, 1981) – Satyajit Ray examines the intersection and overlap of unreasoning, blind faith and crushing superstition. There is a fourth film foregrounding the same theme, at any rate elements of the same theme: I am referring here to Mahapurush, one of the two segments making up the 1965 movie Kapurush O Mahapurush. But, unlike those three other films, Mahapurush was conceived as a hilarious takedown of overzealous religious faith, rather than as a critique of what such faith spawns and how, and thus it belongs in a different category to the other three movies I mentioned.

On another level, by the time Ray had come to work on Ganashatru, he was in poor health, his mobility was seriously compromised and he was unable to shoot on location. This handicap clearly shows in a certain flatness, a lack of solidity in the narrative, and this in large measure takes the sting out of what could have been a compelling critique of organised, institutional religion’s many vulnerabilities.

On the other hand, though two decades separate them, the point of departure for both Devi and Sadgati is the severe, inward-looking world of fanatical religiosity which locates itself at the antipodes to the natural human instincts of reasonableness, compassion and empathy. Both are masterfully told stories and each shines an unforgiving light on how self-righteous religiosity dehumanises, robs individual lives of dignity and meaning. In today’s India, where bellicose religiosity of a certain kind is not only being increasingly normalised but is often projected as an important public virtue, it will hopefully be sobering to revisit these two great Ray movies. Besides, one can scarcely imagine a better way to pay homage, on the eve of his 100th birthday, to one of our finest artists across all art forms.

A poster for Satyajit Ray’s Devi.

Devi is set in 1860s’ Bengal, when social liberalism and other ideas that had driven the European Enlightenment in its time were beginning to gain some traction within the community. The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, legislated in the teeth of fierce Hindu upper-caste resistance in 1856, had been an important step forward in social reform, though it had perhaps managed to polarise public opinion even more starkly than the Sati Act of 1829. (One of the film’s early episodes reveals a young liberal, a friend of the protagonist’s husband, determined to marry a widow with whom he is in love, despite a strong family push-back. However, the man clearly recognises the societal stigma that is going to lie on him for the rest of his life.)

But the winds of change were blowing almost exclusively across the urban landscape, while rural Bengal steadfastly remained out of bounds to change. Thus, while Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), as a graduate student in Calcutta, has imbibed a measure of the modern spirit, his father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas), the classically-educated zamindar of a large estate nestled deep in the agrarian countryside, never felt the need to make his peace with the changing times. Kalikinkar is every inch the benevolent despot whose word is law across his domain. He is an ardent devotee of the goddess Kali, too. So when one night he dreams of being visited by the deity – who seems to indicate to him that Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), Umaprasad’s young wife, is an incarnation of the goddess – he quickly persuades himself and everyone around him that Dayamoyee is indeed the goddess herself. From here on, the narrative moves inexorably towards catastrophe, and this is presaged pretty much at the moment of the epiphany itself. As Kalikinkar, in manic fervour, prostrates himself at her feet, Dayamoyee shrinks from him in silent revulsion, her fingernails crushing into a wall she desperately presses against, hoping to get away from her nightmare. But of course there is no getting-away for her any more. Her father-in-law lies at her feet, loudly incanting praise to the Divine Mother, while the young woman’s world – sunny and blissful till a moment ago – falls in a heap around her.

There are several different things Devi derives its extraordinary emotive power from, but probably the most potent ingredient is Ray’s ability to show every character in the round. There are no easy villains here, nor any larger-than-life heroes, and that is why the film manages to tell its story so persuasively. In his own way, Kalikinkar believes he is doing his best by everyone, and that includes Dayamoyee most of all. He shows himself to be both compassionate and intellectually agile, and in a memorable exchange with his son who suggests Kalikinkar may actually be going insane, an initially shocked Kalikinkar launches into a triumphant recitation from memory of a long, wonderfully sonorous passage from one of Kalidas’s great epic poems. The point he is making is that he is fully in possession of his senses; indeed, that the apotheosis of his daughter-in-law is fully ‘rational’. Again, when Khoka dies, our awareness that no one but Kalikinkar is responsible for the tragedy does not yet stop us from recognising the depth of the old man’s sorrow, his baffled inability to come to terms with what has happened. He is an utterly broken man and, looking at him, we begin to feel sorry for him.

Satyajit Ray. Photo: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons, Public domain

And this is precisely what makes Devi’s message so compelling: that what destroys Dayamoyee and wrecks her young husband’s life is not a mere man’s whim, nor even the mulishness of a crazy zealot, but something much bigger, mightier, with a sinister life of its own. Something that is so obsessively inward-looking that it loves nothing more than its own shadowed cloisters: Faith – unreasoned and insular, unfailingly self-righteous, if not always sanctimonious.

We see how Kalikinkar, an essentially well-meaning man, is a hostage to his religious faith, and how that same faith relentlessly drives him to play havoc with two young lives – lives that are infinitely dear to him – even as he believes he is acting with the best of intentions. 

Also Read: Satyajit Ray and the Art of the Political Film

The movie’s last few minutes burn into one’s memory. Umaprasad returns to the village, determined to do whatever it takes to free his wife from her hell-hole. Unknown to him, in the meanwhile, the child has died, and the whole family is dazed, shattered. After a brief confrontation with Kalikinkar, Umaprasad starts looking for Dayamoyee, calling out to her repeatedly. Finally, he spies her in her bedroom, dressing up at a frenetic pace for what she clearly believes will be a long journey, desperately trying to put on all her heavy jewellery. She is first seen in soft focus, and when the camera picks her out more clearly, we cringe from what we see. Her strikingly beautiful face has been transformed by the look of dark terror in her eyes, and smudges of mascara – marks of nervous haste in making herself up – heighten the sense of eeriness oozing from her. She very nearly looks like a hunted animal, scared for its life. The poor woman has lost her mind. When Umaprasad tries to shake her out of her delirium, she rushes from the house towards the river, as though sleep-walking, and disappears into the mists swirling up from the water. The deliberately over-exposed picture frames make this one of the most poignantly haunting episodes in world cinema.

Her strikingly beautiful face has been transformed by the look of dark terror in her eyes, and smudges of mascara. Photo: Satyajit Ray Productions

The film’s release caused a furore. Some people openly voiced their opinion that Devi disparaged Hindu religious practices, mocking and undermining the faith that makes up the core of Hinduism. There were protest demonstrations on Kolkata streets and even demands were made that the movie be barred from public viewing. But the year was 1960, India was a proud, young republic, and the illiberal vestments that she seems to have made her favourite attire in the third decade of the third millennium were very far from being mainstreamed yet. So, the movie that Elia Kazan happened to describe as ‘poetry on celluloid’ not only went on to run to full houses, it bagged the President’s Gold Medal at the 1960 National Awards and was even nominated as the country’s official entry at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.

It is a fair guess, though, that were it to be made today, Devi might have run into seriously rough weather. And its maker would in all likelihood have it pointed out to him how, at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in April 2021, millions of devotees trumped both the fear of an epidemic and the epidemic itself by virtue of their faith. So, he would be asked, did he mind tweaking the storyline a little and have the dying child miraculously restored to good health, thanks to divine intercession? Also, have Umaprasad jettison his scepticism and duly join his father in apotheosizing his wife?

So, the answer to the question – ‘Could we hope to see a mainstream filmmaker create another Devi today?’ – is not far to seek. Now, does Sadgati lend itself to a different answer? We don’t think so – but that is the story for tomorrow.

Anjan Basu can be reached at [email protected].