The story of Devi was published in 1899 in the Bhadra (July-August) issue of Bharati, a Bengali monthly magazine. Satyajit Ray picked up the story to use it as his personal celluloid tirade against the superstitious mindset of the feudal Hindu Bengali that can stretch its superstition far enough to ‘sacrifice’ an innocent young girl by deifying her as the Goddess Kali. The credits rise across images showing the slow sculpting of the image of the Goddess. The Goddess stands out in all her finery and shimmering silver and gold zardozi decoration just at the onset of Durga Pooja. The pooja drums and cymbals fill the soundtrack.
The scene shifts to the apparently content family of Kalikinkar who dotes on his younger daughter-in-law. Harisundari does not quite care for this. She also does not like her little son Khoka’s attachment to his kakima. Khoka is too little to understand these adult complexities. This goes for the 17-year-old Doyamoyee too, content in her husband’s open fondness for his teenaged wife. Just before Umaprasad leaves for Kolkata, we see him writing his name and address in English in his beautiful slanting hand on white envelopes for Doya to write to him “everyday,” he says, smiling. Later in the film, we find Doya, now in the Goddess mode she is trapped in, fetching one of these envelopes to write to her husband about her tragedy, desperate for him to come and fetch her.
In Devi, Ray says everything more in visuals than in words. In one scene, in the privacy of their bedroom, when Tarapada totters home drunk, his wife asks him sarcastically, “Home so early tonight?” Drunk to his eyes but still in full sense, Tarapada laughs and says, “If a bahu of the house becomes a Goddess, must I also not become a good boy?” Another line suggests that his wife denies him sex because of his debauch lifestyle she is not ready to adjust to. In Kolkata, when Umaprasad asks his friend (Anil Chatterjee) to tell him about the secret love of his life, he screws up his eyes and says one word, “widow.” Doya hardly talks once she is forced into the Goddess mode. The steadily increasing droop of her shoulders, the tired helplessness of her eyes, silent tears streaking down her cheeks, her reluctant acceptance of the shift from her bedroom to a room downstairs, say it all. A single shot establishes Doya’s aborted rebellion against the goddess-image thrust on her against her will. When Kalikinkar bends down to touch her feet the morning after the dream, Doya turns her face to the wall, scratching her nails down its length, marking lines down the wall and curling her toes inwards in shock and disgust. The body language registers an uncanny blend of anguish, self-pity, pain, grief and shock.
Khoka, who was once so attached to her, is now scared of crossing her shadow. The phenomenal spread of her so-called magic powers of healing is captured in a panning long-shot across the horizon showing an infinite queue of people moving like ants in the distance towards Kalikinkar’s abode to seek her curing powers with her ‘charanamrita’ (water dipped into her toes). There are repeated shots closing in on the priests doling out drops of charanamrita to the devotees of the human Goddess. This is juxtaposed against Harisundari’s discomfort and disbelief in the so-called Godliness her sister-in-law is now believed to be endowed with. She defies her dictatorial father-in-law by calling in the family kabiraj to tend to her sick son, without taking Kalikinkar’s permission, only to surrender to Doya ultimately because it is her little son’s life that is at stake. “Will you give him back to me tomorrow morning?” she asks Doya as she placed Khoka on her lap. Her face is pathetic in its debate between wishing to believe in the impossible but still with questions about its validity.
Ali Akbar’s Khan’s music brings to life a time bygone, flush with devotional songs composed in dedication to Kali known popularly as Shyama Sangeet. The sound of the pooja music, the ringing of the bells, the unceasing chanting of mantras, the sound of cymbals floating across, with the camera returning to capture the rituals in detail, bringing back to mind the rituals the simple Doya did so religiously till she was captured and imprisoned within a life she neither imagined nor understood invests the film with an aura of the unreal. Subrata Mitra creates a panoramic view of the landscape in that scene of the long queue leading to Kalikinkar’s house till the last scene where the insane Doya rushes into the fields, the tall blades of grass engulfing her little frame into their safe cocoon, the picture resembling a beautiful charcoal sketch in movement. The one scene captured in silhouette where Umaprasad clandestinely steps into Doya’s room to hug and kiss her is one of the most touching moments of the film. Dulal Dutta’s editing is like poetry – smooth, seamless and yet exuding a rhythm of its own in keeping with the fluctuating rhythms of the film’s changing moods.
The characters are sharply edged be it Kalikinkar who has the major slice of the story, or, Tarapada, his weak and obedient elder son, or even the little Khoka. His ball rolls into the room Doya is resting in. Doya waves at him to come in. He quickly runs in, picks up the ball and runs out without speaking to her. The soft smile on her face disappears. Umaprasad is the strongest. He fails to convince Doya to run away with him the first time. The second time, he arrives on Doyamoyee’s beckoning. By the time he arrives, little Khoka is no more.
Ray keeps Khoka’s death out of the frame, catching it only through small reaction shots – the old servant wiping away his silent tears, Harisundari seated on the floor beside the bed, with the mosquito net still up, her hair all awry, Tarapada captured in the dim darkness of the room, and Kalikinkar sitting in the front porch, crying away for the loss of his grandson who “the Goddess has chosen to take away” till he is forced to face an angry and disgusted Umaprasad who accuses him of the death of little Khoka. When Umaprasad steps into his bedroom, he discovers the tragic figure of Doya bedecked in her bridal sari, trying to put on her jewellery, her bindi smudged on her forehead, the kohl lining her eyes streaking down her face. “Hook up this chain quickly, we have to go,” she tells him, turning around so that he can hook up the chain. Then, before he can stop her, she runs out and away, like the mad woman she has become, rushing through blades of tall grass, till the tragic figure collapses in a faint, this time, forever. Kalikinkar, the film states between the lines, did not kill Khoka alone. He is also responsible for having killed Doya and destroyed beyond repair, the life of the young Umaprasad and the married life of Tarapada and Harisundari. But does he realise it? The film does not spell out.
Chhabi Biswas as Kalikinkar gives a performance that will remain a milestone not only in his career but also in the history of Bengali cinema. Sharmila Tagore as Doya fills the character with the finer nuances of being a naïve teenager basking in her husband’s love and happy being the subservient daughter-in-law to a demanding and dictatorial father-in-law. Later, we see the slow changes she cannot resist because she has neither ‘voice’ nor understanding of what is really happening to her. Soumitra Chatterjee as Umaprasad, a young, educated man with the courage of his convictions and the braveness for standing up to his dictatorial father demands, gives a memorable performance. Karuna Bannerjee as Harisundari stands out in dignity, the incisive look in her eyes that threaten to see through everyone, her quiet but strong voice that balks at the family’s slavery to the demands of a metaphorically blind father-in-law.
Devi has touches of a Greek tragedy in which Kali, the destroyer, exacts her necessary sacrifice – through Khoka, through the death of Doya, and through the destruction of the Roy family, perhaps as ‘punishment’ meted out to an ardent devotee audacious enough to force a real woman to take her place as Goddess. At another level, Devi unfolds itself as a study of the unconscious forces that hold a family together. Kalikinkar believes that his daughter-in-law is the Goddess Kali because he misinterprets a dream. Yet, he is no villain. He acts in the only way he is expected to- as a man of his time, dictatorial, feudal and too rigid in his belief that makes him misinterpret a dream as a ‘vision.’ One fails to understand why then, does Devi remain one of the most under-critiqued films in Ray’s ouvre.