by Jason Suzuki
One of the most exciting things about Devi is its leading cast. Not only is Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore reunited from Apur Sansar as another married couple in this film, but playing the role of Tagore’s father-in-law is The Music Room’s Chhabi Biswas. Apu’s mother Karuna Banerjee has a part in here as well making this film filled with some of the best actors Ray has worked with. Like The Music Room the film is another period piece for Ray, set in 19th century Bengal, and focuses on how each member of a family is affected when the head of the household has a vision that his daughter-in-law Dayamoyee (Tagore) is an avatar of the goddess Kali who he is a devout worshipper of. This happens while Dayamoyee’s husband Umaprasad (Chatterjee) is away at school. Umaprasad’s character is to an extent similar to Apu in that he is educated and is confronted with the effects of traditional values and religion.
Ray seems to give equal focus to all members of the family from the father who deeply believes in his vision to his other son who is forced to go along with it even though his wife (Karuna Banerjee) is not having any of it. Dayamoyee is torn between her husband’s skepticism and respecting her elder, and later on torn between the responsibility of the chance that she actually is the reincarnation of this goddess. When a sick child is miraculously healed when brought to her only makes matters more complicated.
Despite the miracle cure, Ray seems to be on the side of Umaprasad. His bewilderment at what has occurred while he was away at school and his attempts to get his family to think rationally take up the second half of the film. For Ray this is not a film in which we are supposed to wonder if the goddess truly has chosen Dayamoyee as her vessel, but about the clash between values and the complex relationships different generations have from one another. Very much on the same level as Ozu in regards to the social aspects of the material but much different formally.
Though short and to the point, the vision Biswas has in the middle of the night, of the eyes of the goddess Kali at first floating in the black of the frame before being transposed on Tagore’s face, is striking. It’s simply handled and much of the effect relies on Tagore, who is able to convey much without saying anything as seen in Apur Sansar and used to great effect in Devi as the attention given to her begins to take its toll. Before Ray had worked with melancholy and redemption, with Devi he is at his most chilling.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.