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

July 1, 2020
Revisiting Satyajit Ray's Devi: The enduring relevance of the film's biting critique of dehumanisation of women 1

Revisiting Satyajit Ray’s Devi: The enduring relevance of the movie’s biting critique of dehumanisation of ladies

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

What makes a traditional? How does a much-talked-about movie or TV present of its time go on on to achieve cult standing? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020, how they’ve aged (if in any respect), by both re-visiting the property with a brand new perspective or watching them for the primary time. 


Why Devi?

One of the vital enduring and vivid pictures from my childhood must be that of Sharmila Tagore staring proper into my eyes together with her fastened, unwavering glare by means of our humble outdated Western telly set, in Satyajit Ray’s Devi. It was the late 90s, and I used to be all of 5 – 6 years outdated, when Tagore’s piercing gaze and an unsmiling mouth conflated with the picture of the fierce autumn Goddess, Kali. Not a lot else from the movie had seeped by means of my mind all these many years in the past, however it had, fairly surprisingly, irrevocably rewired my reminiscences and associations to the deity with Ray’s creation. I could not have actually watched the movie, however I evidently may by no means unsee these fleeting pictures from the nook of my thoughts’s eye, as they proceed to stay seen and dedicated to aware reminiscence 22 years since.

As Ray’s centenary beckons, I determine to revisit Devi, a movie that has arguably attained cult-status amongst cinephiles through the years, and discover the thriller behind Tagore’s transfixing manner. Within the backdrop of a altering Calcutta with its timeless charms, the essay may also try and uncover this alleged dichotomy espoused by the metropolis, and the way the movie’s message on blind religion and colonisation of the feminine physique finds relevance in a metropolis that refuses to outgrow such contradictions.


In India, ladies with any quantity of social capital are both devis (goddesses) or dayans (witches), thereby efficiently eluding their human types fully. From folktales to movies, the dehumanising male gaze on ladies has been all-pervasive, stripping them of company and autonomy, even of their very own our bodies. A latest glowing instance of the identical will be present in Netflix’s Bulbbul produced by Anushka Sharma, whose story is about in 19th century Bengal. The movie revises the lore of the chudail (man-eating demoness) to make clear archaic feudal buildings oppressing ladies within the erstwhile havelis of the Indian aristocracy. Curiously, the movie’s premise jogged my memory of Satyajit Ray’s 1960 traditional, Devi, starring Sharmila Tagore within the eponymous function, with Tollywood stalwarts Chabi Biswas and Soumitra Chatterjee for firm.

Rising up in a middle-class family in Calcutta in the ’90s and early 2000s entailed dwelling on a gentle tv eating regimen of all-things Bollywood, MTV, Cartoon Community, and beneficiant doses of Bengali cinema’s holy triumvirate — Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak — on the trusty outdated Doordarshan. Till 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 ‘superb cultural previous’ that was steadily eroding away.

My household was no exception; the primary twelve summers of my life spent with my mother and father, paternal grandparents and uncle in our cosy one-BHK, comprised soirées in entrance of the telly,  devouring such Bengali classics in black-and-white. My first, and fairly momentous encounter with Sharmila Tagore’s enigmatic Dayamoyee, occurred on one such night.

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 discovering solutions to a permanent childhood riddle involving Goddess Kali, I used to be left additional overwhelmed with questions that I shall try and discover on this essay.

Proper on the outset, I want to declare my allegiance in the direction of the splendid lead pair of Tagore and Chatterjee, — over the extra well-liked pairing of Aparna Sen and Chatterjee — whose first on-screen marriage in Ray’s Apur Sansar, only a 12 months previous to Devi, had achieved a lot good for Indian cinema. Their chemistry is palpable, and the dynamism of their equation is fairly poignantly captured and mirrored within the fireworks in an preliminary scene, which takes place within the backdrop of ongoing Durga Puja celebrations. The overtly superstitious family of the prosperous Roys in 19th century rural Bengal is thrown into sharp reduction the second Chatterjee’s Umaprasad, the youthful son of the household, flees to Calcutta to earn an English training at a school. He leaves behind his 17-year-old spouse within the care of a god-fearing father, Kalikinkar (Chabi Biswas), a wayward elder brother Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee), his disgruntled spouse 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 phrases. They set the stage for her imminent destiny of taking part in an impotent goddess on the whims of her father-in-law. He lies prostrate at her toes one fantastic morning after a febrile dream, the place the goddess adopts the face of Dayamoyee, his best daughter-in-law.

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

A younger 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 nonetheless from Devi (1960)

The movie stands witness to Ray’s sheer sorcery on celluloid by means of its riveting play of sunshine and shadow. In a scene the place Dayamoyee’s limp physique sits on a pedestal, with tears streaming down her face, a thick, translucent, virtually ghoulish cowl of gray shrouds her determine. The ‘goddess’ is an exhibit for a predominantly male room that watches her each breath and blink fastidiously — she should carry out. And so she does.

Flashes of Dayamoyee’s piercing gaze that have been beamed straight into my psyche all these years in the past resurfaced, solely to depart me flustered with discomfort. As I watched her sitting defeated, virtually maimed by the assaulting eyes of her onlookers, who hoped to spiritually gratify her so as to have their wishes answered, I was left feeling horrified and astounded by the auteur’s sheer audacity.

Each time Dayamoyee was worshipped on display, I discovered my arms desperately clawing on the blanket wrapping me. The scenes performed like metaphors for sexual abuse. The ‘goddess’s’ listlessness and immobility within the face of burgeoning oppression, as she is pressured to fulfil an outdated man’s fantasy, was a delicate, but unsparing metaphor for patriarchy at its diabolical worst.

The movie that had launched to a lot opposition and criticism — and was an adaptation of a brief story by the identical title by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay — had gone on to win the Nationwide Award, and compete for the Palm d’Or in 1962. Inside its compact 1 hour 30 minute-long runtime, it meticulously packs a number of conundrums plaguing an evolving society — that of science versus faith, together with the risks of blind religion and megalomania — themes which might be apparent to the bare eye. However what actually stirs me is Ray’s fierce critique of misogynistic forces embedded in spiritual buildings that disempower ladies within the garb of empowerment.

There are clues hidden all through the movie, with the allegory of the caged hen being among the many extra dominant ones. Dayamoyee’s attachment to the chattering parrot foregrounds her future, the place, very similar to the proverbial hen, she too must come to phrases together with her shackled existence, spieling off prophecies — albeit unwillingly.

Regardless of Umaprasad’s ceaseless warnings in opposition to the perils of blind religion, the fortuitous restoration of a dying, poor younger boy not solely reaffirms his father’s beliefs, but additionally convinces his spouse of her preternatural skills.

“Ami jodi Debi hoi?” (“What if I actually am a goddess?”) asks Dayamoyee to her husband, as they stand inches away from the river financial institution, on whose different aspect lies the promise of a brand new life with city 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?” (“However if you happen to actually have been a goddess, would not you pay attention to it? Do you’re feeling any adjustments inside your self? Do not you imagine you might be human anymore? Do not you assume you might be my spouse?”) Umaprasad implores, interesting to her rationality. By way of him, the director urges his heroine to reclaim her company of not simply her spirit, but additionally her physique.

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 nonetheless from Devi (1960)

Within the closing sequence of Devi, when the unlikely goddess fails to avoid wasting her beloved ailing Khoka, — who’s denied medical assist by Kalikinkar, and is in flip, left on 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. Within the penultimate scene, earlier than Dayamoyee disappears right into a misty area of smoke, she seems in a bedraggled trance, asking her husband to assist her dress. The scene is solid in a pall of white, lending it a surreal, virtually unearthly tenor.

“Paaliye jaabo…noile…period…amay merey phelbe” (“We have to run away from right here, or else they’ll kill me”), says the dethroned goddess with heartbreaking readability. The autumn has damaged her wings, and very similar to her rise, it has occurred with out her consent. She was however a prop within the bigger scheme of issues.

As Dayamoyee — now a veritable spectre — will get swallowed into oblivion within the closing shot, I really feel a tough punch pummel the pit of my abdomen. Her unsettling gaze proper earlier than she melts into nothingness, denouncing the evils of a system that discards ladies refusing to satiate its greeds, succinctly mirrors the horrors of womanhood even right now.

Devi was allegedly based mostly on a real story — a declare I might be silly to contest whereas dwelling in a actuality that, most of the time, appears stranger than fiction. And as I revisit this traditional in 2020, within the milieu of a metropolis struggling to fight a number of calamities without delay, its relevance in the prevailing instances turns into laborious to overlook.

For a Bengali millennial, who was a maiden voter within the historic state elections of 2011 that noticed the egress of the 34-year-old Left-front regime, the panorama’s transformation over the previous decade has been fairly private. Nearly in a single day, the color of the terrain modified irreversibly for the foreseeable future, and but, it characteristically retained its unwillingness to desert an elusive ‘superb’ previous.

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

Nevertheless, essentially the most important paradigm shift had occurred within the political idiom of the state, which as soon as celebrated the chauvinistic ‘rationalism’ of ageing male communists. The brand new order was female-led, hinged on the beliefs of motherly care — ‘Maa, Mati, Manush’, with the time period ‘Maa’ evoking the patron deity of Bengal, Durga.

Mamata Banerjee’s widespread acceptance follows her warrior-goddess picture, warranting deification of ladies in public areas so as to grant them respect to today.

However one should bear in mind, even six many years therefore, that Dayamoyee by no means selected to grow to be a goddess — she was coerced into changing into one by a society that denied her fundamental human dignity.

All pictures through Fb

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