Devi which Satyajit Ray directed in 1960 was the great filmmaker’s sixth work. His third film with Soumitra Chatterjee (who was to Ray what Mifune was to Kurosawa) and his second with Sharmila Tagore who considers Devi her personal favourite among all her performances. Indeed her performance as the underage child-bride Dayamoyee is so heartbreaking, I found myself choking with sorrow at many junctures in a story that is as timeless as it is timely.
Consider this. Happily married into a Zamindar’s family to a progressive, if not exactly enterprising or radical, husband Umaprasad ( Soumitra Chatterjee), Dayamoyee’s fairytale life upturns one fine morning after her father-in-law Kalinkar Chowdhary (played by the great Chhabi Biswas) wakes up claiming she is Ma Kali reincarnated. That’s what Kalinkar saw in his dream, and who dares to question the all-powerful patriarch?
“Nonsense!” says Kalinkar's elder bahu (Karuna Bannerjee). She dares to raise her voice, but only in front of her weak ineffectual husband in the privacy of their room, unable to stop her young innocent sister-in-law from becoming the victim of a despotic deification.
Ray had discovered back in Apur Sansar how much Sharmila Tagore can convey through her eyes. She barely speaks out her pain and protest in Devi as her tyrannical father-in-law takes over her life, rendering her roles as a woman and a wife completely redundant.
Sharmila’s earlier sequences in happier days with her husband reminded me of Apur Sansar. There is a lengthy dialogue between Dayamoyee and her husband Umaprasad at the start of this progressive tale of domestic violence on a level that the law cannot even conceive where he asks if she would like to accompany him abroad if he goes away for further studies.
“What would your father do without me? What would Khoka do without me?” she asks with innocent bewilderment. Khoka is Dayamoyee’s little nephew. The apple of her eyes. But the same Khoka shuns her in fear after she is defied. Watch Sharmila Tagore's eyes dim into disappointment in the sequence where he refuses to enter her room. The actress is made to convey all her fears, anxieties and disappointments through eyes.
Among all of Satyajit Ray’s great films Devi stands out for its silent protest, for its deeply wounded attack on religious bigotry and blind faith. Dayamoyee’s plight is recorded in every drop of her jaw, every cringe of her shoulder. When her father-in-law leaps forward to touch her feet she recoils her feet are bundled away from his hand as though salvation lay not in deification buts its repudiation.
All through this charade of deifying Dayamoyee, her husband remains a figure of emasculated reformism. In a revealing sequence in Kolkata, he is seen in conversation with a colleague who has been disinherited by his father for falling in love with a fallen woman .Umaprasad offers to meet the woman and extends all support.
Umaprasad is a fashionable reformist. He is repulsed by his father’s religious fanaticism. But there is little he can do to stop the outrage. He makes a feeble effort to take her away to Kolakta. But Dayamoyee kills the idea. She is confused about her own identity. Reform in Dayamoyee’s life has come cloaked in mystification. She is a goddess doomed by fate to be destroyed by the very power that has been thrust on her.
Some consider Sayajit Ray’s debut film Pather Panchali to be more powerful than Devi. I disagree. The power of Devi comes from its young vulnerable female hero’s powerlessness. The more she is deified the more she is doomed. No one has spoken of the sexual undercurrents in the father-in-law’s obsession with his 17-year-old daughter-in-law. Even the great Ray was like Umprasad, at the end of day, a fashionable reformist. Dayamoyee was a mere child put on a pedestal from where she can only fall.
Image Source: Instagram/sundaysuspensefm/eartfilm, IMDb
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