Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Devi (India, 1961, Satyajit Ray)

One of the first post-Apu films of Ray’s career takes as its main themes religious obsession and superstition. The opening titles refer to Kali, a revered deity, who is then worshipped during an elaborate ceremony by the community of a small Indian village. Rumour has it that Kali is sometimes reincarnated in human form, a belief which is taken most seriously by the old and infirm Kalikinkar. When his son, Uma, leaves to study in Calcutta, he becomes reliant on his daughter in law, Doya, whom he believes to be the goddess reincarnated after a feverish vision. Despite initial scepticism amongst some in the village, and even within the old man’s own family (his other daughter in law thinks it’s ridiculous, and is proclaimed jealous, whilst her husband seems to ‘believe’ just to please his father who favours his more academically minded son), such is the old man’s influence and authority within the village that many become convinced, especially when the Doya appears to perform miracles. A peasant brings his dying child to see her, whom she apparently cures.

Her husband believes the old man is out of his mind, and tries to take his Doya away from the village to Calcutta. However, she is now convinced that she is indeed Kali reincarnated, and refuses to leave with him. The true test of her divinity arises when her nephew, Khoka falls ill. His mother, unconvinced by the whole situation, refuses to take her son to see Doya. Her husband tells Kalikinkar, who then insists upon Doya curing the boy. Of course, tragedy strikes.

Doya’s husband, upon his return, is the only person who can make sense of what happened. Kalikinkar thinks the boy died because he was punished for his own sins. His son tells him he was responsible, because he didn’t send for a doctor to treat the boy. His faith was so blind that he thought Doya would save the boy’s life. Doya herself is stricken with grief having failed, and descends into madness.

Ever the humanist, Ray highlights the dangers of fanaticism and religious obsession, but approaches this with great subtlety and care, rather than a heavy-handed approach. Doya finds herself exploited by those more powerful than her, who project their beliefs upon her and strip her of her identity as well as jeopardise her marriage. These beliefs are held at the expense of rationality, and those who hold them most put at risk their own families in order to prove them. Yet Ray never strays into being too judgemental with these religious obsessives; he just presents them as being misguided, though this doesn’t prevent the tragedies which occur. Another splendid film by one of the greatest film makers of the twentieth century.

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