Director: Priyanka Banerjee
Cast: Kajol, Neena Kulkarni, Neha Dhupia, Shruti Haasan, Shivani Raghuvanshi
Devi, a 13-minute short, opens with a roomful of women from different walks of life. Everyone is doing their own thing. A bored-looking “career woman” (characterized by her pant-suit) rocks on a chair, an upper-class “party girl” (characterized by vodka shots and tiny clothes) lounges on a sofa, a gentle “sanskaari wife” (sari, mangalsutra) blesses the space with her puja plate, a young medical student (lab coat) works on the dining table, a trio of middle-class Maharashtrian aunties are immersed in a loud game of cards, a deaf-and-mute teenager adjusts the television set, a Muslim lady waxes her arms – and so on. The diversity is so jarringly on the nose that you immediately sense that the room is a metaphorical one. What do they represent? Is this some kind of purgatory? Why does the room look like a corner of some haunted mansion? Are they ghosts?
When so many known faces across eras – Kajol, Shruti Haasan, Neha Dhupia, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Neena Kulkarni – come together in the same frame, it’s almost always likely that the film will favour message over method. And it’s almost always likely that the noble PSA-style intent will render it bulletproof in a way that makes impassioned viewers equate critics of the film with heartless haters of humanity. Nevertheless, I will take that risk. The problem with Devi – like dozens of other socially conscious movies that aspire to evoke adjectives such as “hard-hitting” and “timely” – is the pretentious posturing of its narrative. You can literally hear the design: How do we give every character something to say? How do we make this story both righteous and suspenseful at the same time? How long do we keep the audience in the dark about their identities?
When so many known faces across eras – Kajol, Shruti Haasan, Neha Dhupia, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Neena Kulkarni – come together in the same frame, it’s almost always likely that the film will favour message over method. And it’s almost always likely that the noble PSA-style intent will render it bulletproof in a way that makes impassioned viewers equate critics of the film with heartless haters of humanity.
The hints are far from clever: A news channel has a TV journalist reporting on a new “case”. The writing here tries so hard to be ambiguous that the report sounds badly customized to keep the mystery alive. The doorbell rings and the women start to debate about whether they should keep allowing more “newcomers” into the room. “This is not a dharamshala,” argues the student. “There is no space; it’s too hot in here,” opines the snob. Kajol, naturally, plays the voice of reason. Not surprisingly, each one of them sounds like a clear role has been assigned to them. The discussion sounds far from organic. When one of them begins to propose qualification criteria (“If it was someone from your own family, you can stay”) needed to occupy the room, the motive of the film becomes clear.
It’s by no means a big or even half-clever reveal, but the script seems to think it is. That’s when the simplistic self-righteousness of the title dawned upon me. To be fair, Devi ends with a powerful moment. But I couldn’t help but imagine that the entire short is reverse-engineered – with a sort of sentimental film-school-level idealism – to arrive at this image. And if the closing slate is going to be full of statistics anyway, why go through the entire ordeal of using art as the medium of awareness? Devi would have been just as hard-hitting if all the fine actresses in the room had merely read out these numbers to the camera. It would have felt just as timely if an expository voiceover played over their silence. That, in my opinion, is a bigger irony than the violence-against-women-in-land-of-goddesses title.