62 Years of Satyajit Ray’s Devi

The Soumitra Chatterjee-Sharmila Tagore film stays relevant for its depiction of religious dogmatism and collective hysteria
62 Years of Satyajit Ray’s Devi

Satyajit Ray's Devi (1960) was a fiery protest against bigotry, unquestioning acceptance of imposed beliefs and collective hysteria. Adapted to the screen from Prabhatkumar Mukhopadhyay's short story of the same name, this film is perhaps Satyajit Ray's most controversial and daring movie.

It's hard to find the innocence of 'Apu Trilogy'  and the humour of 'Parash Pathar' here. Even though  one can glimpse the feudal system of 'Jalsaghar' in the film, there is more to it than that: the perils of religious dogmatism. Devi is a vivid reflection of the extent to which religious extremism can ruin the lives of ordinary people, especially women.

The story begins in rural Bengal, in 1860. Kalikinkar, a zamindar, is busy with the puja of Maa Kali throughout the day. The eldest of his two sons does not do any work and comes home drunk most of the time. He has a disgruntled wife and a seven-year-old child. On the other hand, his younger son Umaprasad studies English at a university in Calcutta and his wife is the seventeen-year-old Dayamoyee, who is as innocent and vulnerable as a newly-dropped flower. Dayamoyee is almost a mother to her own father-in-law. Kalikinkar believes that from the day Dayamoyee entered the house, sadness and despair disappeared from their lives. And so when Kalikinkar sees Dayamoyee in the form of Mother Kali in a dream, he starts believing that she is a goddess. Thus begins the crooked game of imposing divinity on an ordinary woman.

No, Dayamoyee is not a goddess, nor does she have any inhuman powers. But this is barely relevant to Kalikinkar's extremism that thinly veils his deeply patriarchal beliefs.

The primitive structures of our society, which persist even today, often result in the deification of women, representing them as saviors (or daayans), whether women wish for this representation or not. Likewise, divinity is imposed on a living being like Dayamoyee against her will. But she is unable to protest as a human being because she does not know the language of protest. No one ever taught her. Did the goddesses we worship want to be goddesses at all?

There are many interpretations of dreams. Considering the fact that Kalikinkar refers to Dayamoyee as his mother, is there a touch of the Oedipus complex here? Or some kind of sexual undercurrent? What is the manifestation of divinity in this case?

62 years later, the film raises many questions. Satyajit Ray tried to expose not only Hindu fanaticism but also the various layers of this complex mentality. The critics of that time did not spare Satyajit for making a film against Hinduism. The questions raised in this 1960 film will never get old or change. Kalikinkar, Umaprasad and Dayamoyee are imprisoned in this cage made by the society. Who is responsible for this decline? Is Kalikinkar the only one to blame? Or hesitant liberals like Umaprasad? Or Dayamoyee or thousands of other women who never learned the language of protest? Or is there something greater sinister, ominous, evil ― that we cannot see, but has been guiding and influencing our being for ages?

Devi is therefore much more to me than a usual angry protest. This film is a commentary on the misogynistic system that binds women under the very garb of empowerment.

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