Starring: Sharmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Chhabi Biswas, Karuna Banerjee, Purnendu Mukherjee, Arpan Chowdhury
“I stopped going to Brahmo Samaj, [the congregation of men who believed in Brahman, the supreme spiritual foundation and sustainer of the universe] around the age of fourteen or fifteen. I don't believe in organized religion anyway. Religion can only be on a personal level.” – Satyajit Ray (1982 Cineaste interview)
Great movies survive.
They survive because their truth is universal. Their compassion for humanity astonishes to degrees that are reverent, or even holy. Finally, they must weave every conceivable power of cinema’s vast arsenal of technique and artistry to create expression (narrative or otherwise) that can ultimately and only be realized by the medium of film.
Movies might well be the greatest artistic gift granted to man by whatever Supreme Intelligence has created him, and yet, like so much on this Earth that’s been taken for granted, cinema has been squandered in homage to the Golden Calf, or if you will, has turned Our Father’s House into a market.
Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy) was a director who, on a very personal level (in spite of his occasional protestations to the contrary), infused his films with a truth that went far beyond the disposable cinematic baubles and trinkets that continue to flood the hearts and minds of our most impressionable.
Devi (The Goddess) is a film of consummate greatness. Its simple tale of blind faith springing from organized worship and leading the most vulnerable on a downward spiral into madness is surely a film as relevant now as it was in 1960. Upon its first release it was initially condemned in India for being anti-Hindu. If it’s anti-anything, it’s anti-ignorance and anti-superstition, but even this puts far too much weight upon the film having a political perspective rather than on moral and emotional turf – which ultimately is where it rests.
Set in a rural area of Bengal in 1860, the movie tells the story of a young married couple whose love and commitment to each other is beyond reproach. When Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) must leave his wife Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) to finish his university education in Calcutta, she begs him to stay and questions his need to leave. Though he comes from a wealthy family, he seeks intellectual enlightenment in order to provide him with a good job so he does not have to rest on the laurels of mere birthright. Doya, so young and naïve, cannot comprehend his desire to leave her for any reason.
During a very moving and even romantic exchange, he informs her – not in a boastful way, but more as a matter of fact and with a touch of dashing humour that she is indeed endowed with an extremely intelligent husband. He is proud of this, as he is equally proud of how much his teachers value his intellect. He seeks to impress upon her that this is a trait that makes him a far more desirable husband for her – more than his money and more than his good looks. His intelligence is part and parcel of the very being that can love such a perfect woman as Doya.
When he leaves, however, things take a very bad turn. At first, Doya goes about her simple, charmed life in the same house they live in with Umaprasad’s father Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas), his brother Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee) and sister-in-law Harasundari (Karuna Banerjee) and their sweet, almost angelic little boy Khoka (Arpan Chowdhury). She proves to be a magnificent in-law and aunt – a friend to her sister-in-law, a respectful servant to her father-in-law and a loving playmate for nephew Khoka.
Alas, Doya’s father-in-law has a prophetic dream wherein it is revealed to him that Doya is the human incarnation of the Goddess Kali. While Kali is often viewed as a symbol of death, many Bengalis viewed her as a benevolent mother figure, which Doya’s father-in-law and those who live in this particular region of Bengal most certainly do. This turns Doya’s life completely topsy-turvy – especially once she is forced to sit in the shrine to Kali whilst the denizens of the region pay homage to her and eventually expect her to grant mercies and miracles. In one sequence in particular, an old man brings his dying grandson to her threshold and pleads that she bestows upon him the ultimate resurrection.
Strangely, this sequence – so gut wrenching, suspenseful and yes, even touching on a spiritual level – had for me a similar power to the climactic moments of Carl Dreyer’s immortal classic of faith and madness Ordet (The Word) where a madman who believes he is Christ questions the faith of the devout and instead, places all the power of faith in that of a young girl to resurrect her dead mother. (This, by the way, would make for one truly amazing double-bill – the parallels are uncanny.) Hell breaks loose for Doya when those around her genuinely have immoveable faith in her lofty, hallowed position and eventually, it is up to her husband to attempt a rescue – using his powers of intellect over superstition to bring back the sweet young woman he married.
Where director Ray takes us on the rest of this journey and how he achieves this is exactly the reason why he is revered as one of cinema’s true, undisputed greats. There are moments of such exquisite truth with images so gorgeously composed and lit that the combination of this indelible pairing can and, indeed does evoke a series of emotional responses - so much so that you may find yourself weeping with a strange amalgam of sadness and joy. The manner in which Doya is lit at various points is especially evocative.
Ultimately, though, it is Ray’s humanity that prevails and seeps into every frame of this stunning picture. This movie MUST be seen. To not experience Devi is to not acknowledge the magnitude of cinema as the premiere art form of our time.
It's a heart breaker!
Devi is presented with a restored 35mm (yes, real FILM) print at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 13, 2014 at 3:45pm as part of the TIFF Cinematheque series "The Sun and the Moon: The Films of Satyajit Ray". This might be your only chance to see this masterpiece the way it was meant to be seen, so get your tickets NOW and GO. Visit the TIFF website for further details by clicking HERE.
DON'T FORGET TO BUY YOUR SATYAJIT RAY MOVIES FROM THE LINKS TO AMAZON.CA, AMAZON.COM and AMAZON.UK, BELOW. DOING SO WILL ASSIST WITH THE ONGOING MAINTENANCE OF THE FILM CORNER.
*BUYERS PLEASE NOTE* Amazon.ca (Canadian Amazon) has a relatively cruddy collection of Satyajit Ray product and generally shitty prices. Amazon.com has a huge selection of materials (including music and books) and decent prices. Amazon.UK has a GREAT selection of Satyajit Ray movies from a very cool company called Artificial Eye (second these days only to the Criterion Collection). Any decent Chinatown sells region-free Blu-Ray and DVD players for peanuts. Just get one (or several - they can be that cheap) and don't be afraid of ordering from foreign regions. The fucking film companies should just merge the formats into one acceptable delivery method worldwide. Besides, you can order anything you want from any country anyway.