Monday, September 19, 2022

2022 Blind Spot Series: Devi


Based on a short story by Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Devi (The Goddess) is a landlord who is convinced that his daughter-in-law is a reincarnated version of a goddess as his delusions become troubling. Written for the screen and directed by Satyajit Ray, the film is an exploration of fanaticism in late 19th Century India where this young woman is caught in the middle of a conflict involving religious ideals and the emergence of rational, modernist ideals. Starring Chhabi Biswas, Soumitra Chatterjee, Sharmila Tagore, Purnendu Mukherjee, Karuna Banerjee, Arpan Chowdhury, Anil Chatterjee, Kali Sarkar, and Mohammed Israil. Devi is a mesmerizing and entrancing film from Satyajit Ray.

Set in late 19th Century India, the film revolves around a 17-year old young woman who is convinced by her father-in-law that she is the incarnation of a goddess he worships where he and other follows believe she can save everyone while her husband is skeptical about all of this following his return from his studies in Calcutta. It is a film that explore this idea of religious beliefs as it reaches elements of fanaticism and its conflict with rational thinking during a crucial period in India’s history under British rule. Satyajit Ray’s screenplay explore this family dynamic under the rule of this landlord in Kalikinkar Roy (Chhabi Biswas) who is a devoted worshipper of the goddess known as Kali while his younger son Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) is studying to become a teacher as well as learn English as doesn’t agree with his father’s beliefs but doesn’t challenge them. Leaving for Calcutta to finish his studies, Umaprasad leaves his young wife Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) with his father, older brother Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee), his wife Harasundari (Karuna Banerjee), and their young son Khoka (Arpan Chowdhury) whom Doyamoyee is fond of.

When Kalikinkar has a dream about Kali, he sees Doyamoyee’s face in his dream where he ponders of she is the goddess Kali. It would take a few small things for Kalikinkar to be convinced as does Taraprasad and a few of Kalikinkar. Yet, Harasundari is skeptical for much of the film where Doyamoyee is given her own room but it also comes with a sense of isolation and an identity crisis. Even when a man whose grandson becomes ill where he prays to Doyamoyee and beg her to heal his grandson as it is a key moment in the second act that play into Kalikinkar’s own faith but also Doyamoyee’s identity crisis as she becomes more confused. When Umaprasad returns from Calcutta, he is baffled but also troubled by the throngs of people going to his wife knowing that she’s just an ordinary young woman.

Ray’s direction is definitely ravishing in not just the intimate moments that occur in the film but also the scope of the locations as it is shot largely in the Bengal region in India. While there are some wide shots of the locations in the areas near the rivers and long grassy fields, Ray does maintain some simplicity in his compositions in the way he presents Doyamoyee as she is in the middle of this shrine being worshipped through close-ups and medium shots. The scenes at the home are simple with the rooms being also claustrophobic as it play into Doyamoyee’s isolation as well as the tension that looms in the house with Kalikinkar making the home a place of worship with servants treating Doyamoyee with caution fearing they might cause trouble. Even as Ray keeps the close-ups tight while creating some unique imagery that play into this sense of fanaticism including a wide shot of people walking on the beach of the river as they line-up to meet Doyamoyee.

The film’s third act that relates to Umaprasad upon his return from Calcutta where he is troubled by what he is seeing as he is this representation of someone that is rational and is worried about his wife’s psyche. Even as he tries to get her out of his family’s house, Doyamoyee is just unsure where Ray’s camera is fixed upon this shadow of a shrine as if it is telling her something while Umaprasad is confused as he goes to his professor (Kali Sarkar) who gives him some advice as it relates to this conflict about rationality and faith. Even as it play into its climax where Ray definitely makes some commentary about the idea of blind faith and its fallacies where the end results are tragic. Overall, Ray crafts a riveting and somber film about a young woman who is seen by her father-in-law as the reincarnation of a goddess that leads to chaos.

Cinematographer Subrata Mitra does amazing work with the film’s black-and-white photography with its natural lighting for the daytime scenes along with some unique schemes for some of the daytime interiors as well as scenes at night. Editor Dulal Dutta does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into some of the drama. Art director Bansi Chandragupta does fantastic work with the look of the home where the family live in as well as the shrine that Kalikinkar has created for Doyamoyee. The sound work of Durgadas Mitra is brilliant for its natural approach to sound in how some of the music is presented on location as well as the sparse moments in the river. The film’s music by Ali Akbar Khan does incredible work with the film’s score with its usage of sitars and percussions to play into some of the dramatic tension as well as how some of the music is played on location including a song sung by a man that becomes a key moment in the film.

The film’s superb ensemble cast feature some notable small roles from Anil Chatterjee as a friend of Umaprasad in Bhudeb who go to him for advice in pursuing a widow, Kali Sarkar as Umaprasad’s professor who gives him advice on how to confront his father but also to not create further chaos, Mohammed Israil as an old man who renounced his faith in Kali until his grandson becomes ill, Karuna Banerjee as Taraprasad’s wife Harasundari who is skeptical about Doyamoyee’s persona as well as what her father-in-law believes in, Purnendu Mukherjee as Umaprasad’s older brother Taraprasad who is skeptical about Doyamoyee until he becomes convinced that she is an avatar of Kali, and Arpan Chowdhury as Taraprasad and Harasundari’s son Khoka whom Doyamoyee is fond of as she often plays with him until he deals with her new role as this goddess. Chhabi Biswas is excellent as Kalikinkar Roy as the patriarch of the family and a landlord as he is also a devoted follower of Kali where he is convinced that Doyamoyee is an incarnation of Kali where he loses sight of rationality while also is blinded by his delusions.

Sharmila Tagore is brilliant as Doyamoyee as Umaprasad’s wife as a 17-year old woman who is believed by her father-in-law to be this incarnation of Kali where she becomes confused by her identity as it added to some emotional and mental torture over the new role she’s playing. Finally, there’s Soumitra Chatterjee in an amazing performance as Umaprasad Roy as a young man who is hoping to bring a good life for his wife while he goes to Calcutta for his studies to become a teacher while learning English where he later deals with the chaos his father has brought and the anguish his wife is dealing with.

The 2021 Region A Blu-Ray release from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a new 4K digital restoration in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that is also restored in its original Bengali language with a new English subtitle translation. The Blu-Ray release feature two special featurettes relating to the film as the first is a sixteen-minute, twenty-second piece from 2013 with interviews with two of the film’s stars in Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee where they both talk about the film, their experiences working with Ray, and the controversy about the film following its release in 1960. Tagore was only 14 when she made the film as it was her second collaboration with Ray as she was aware of the subject matter as well as what her character was going through. Chatterjee revealed a lot of the conflict that the film discussed as it was also happening in the late 1950s/early 1960s as it relates to the view of orthodox Hindus and their ideals which Chatterjee described as backwards. Tagore revealed that the film upon its release wasn’t well-received by both critics and audiences in India yet Ray was undeterred knowing that he was going to cause problems with that audience.

The 17-minute video essay by film scholar Meheli Sen discusses the film and its themes as well as the original short story that Ray would expand upon. Notably as it play into some of the social tension that was happening with modern ideals and the views of orthodox Hindus as it still happens in the 21st Century but on a smaller scale. Sen also talks about the role that women had to play in the late 19th Century and how the character of Doyamoyee was someone who never had any independent thoughts until she met Umaprasad. Sen also talks about the clash between rational thinking from the modern world and the irrational ideas from orthodox Hinduism as it relates to the film but also the times in which there were people wanting to break from these ideas in society in the hope they can create a better future despite being under British colonial rule.

The Blu-Ray set also features a booklet that includes an essay entitled Devi: Seeing and Believing by Devika Girish, who is the co-deputy editor of Film Comment magazine as she writes about the film. Notably as she describes the film as Ray’s most political film as it relates to the conflict with post-colonial India, just years removed from the Partition, from the orthodox Hindus and young people wanting a more rational idea that doesn’t believe in superstition. Girish felt that Ray would use the source material of the book to comment on this current conflict by setting the story in the late 19th Century as well as how Ray portrays women who are stuck in a certain identity they have to play. Even as it would begin a new theme that Ray would explore in his films about women trying to find their own voice in India as it is a great essay to read about this film.

Devi is a sensational film from Satyajit Ray that features great performances from Chhabi Biswas, Sharmila Tagore, and Soumitra Chatterjee. Along with its supporting cast, ravishing visuals, its exploration of religious fanaticism and loss of identity and rationality, and its haunting music score. The film is definitely a mesmerizing yet somber film that explore a family being undone by an old man’s delusions towards his daughter-in-law as she struggles with her identity and her husband trying to make sense of all of this chaos. In the end, Devi is a spectacular film from Satyajit Ray.

Satyajit Ray Films: Pather Panchali - Aparajito - (Parash Pathar) – The Music Room - Apur Sansar - (Teen Kanya) – (Rabindranath Tagore) – (Kanchenjunghar) – (Abhijan) – The Big City - Charulata - (Two) – (Kapurush) – Nayak - (Chiriyakhana) – (Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne) – (Aranyer Din Ratri) – (Pratidwandi) – (Sikkim) – (Seemabaddha) – (The Inner Eye) – (Ashani Sanket) – (Sonar Kella) – (Jana Aranya) – (Bala) – (Shatranj Ke Khilari) – (Joi Baba Felunath) – (Hirak Rajar Deshe) – (Pikoo) – (Sadgati) – (Ghare Baire) – (Sukumar Ray) – (Ganashatru) – (Shakha Proshakha) – (Agantuk)

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