Satyajit Ray's "Devi"

Devi Film Poster

I skipped the Super Bowl on Sunday to check out Satyajit Ray's Devi. Devi was playing in Berkeley at a Ray film festival, continuing through February, that's sponsored by the Pacific Film Archive and the Berkeley Art Museum. Most famous for his Apu Trilogy, Ray is a Bengali film maker regarded as one of the best in the world at his craft. Private foundations, including Packard, have provided serious funding to endow a Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at UC Santa Cruz. Dilip Basu, the founding director of the UC Santa Cruz center, was on hand to talk about his recently published book on Devi as well as his work to preserve the original film, including rewriting its subtitles.

Still from Devi

On the surface Devi is the story of a young Bengali housewife, recently married into an aristocratic family. Her days are spent spoiling her nephew, feeding her parrot, and helping to support her ailing father-in-law. Her husband is away for the semester finishing his studies when her father-in-law, a devout Hindu, has a vision of her as an incarnation of the goddess, Devi. At the urging of a letter from her sister-in-law, "I can't tell you what's happened, but you have to return," her husband hurries home to find his wife's world turned upside down, now worshipped and supplicated each day as a devi.

Sharmila Tagore in Devi

What ensues, according to Basu, is a series of binaries. Woman and goddess, father and son, tradition and modernity, sister and sister-in-law, religion and science. The power of patriarchy is on full display, as is the difficulty of each character in making decisions to contradict that power. Most compelling, though, is the power of belief: how characters' overwhelming desire to believe in something blinds them to the consequences of their belief. Shot beautifully in black and white, Ray's storytelling is spare and haunting.

Ray's set design for Devi
Jayanti Sen, Looking Beyond: Graphics of Satyajit Ray, 72

Above is a sketch of Ray's from Jayanti Sen's Looking Beyond that traces Ray's years as a graphic designer for advertising, profoundly influencing his later artistic work. According to Sen, in Devi "this entire theme is beautifully conveyed by Ray by using a combination of light and shade of the face of the woman, and a god-like glow, the holy arch used in the calligraphy of the Bengali lettering of the word 'Devi'" (61, see film poster above). Ray consciously changed the setting of this short story when he filmed it, placing Devi in late 19th century Bengal, a Bengal where the ideas of Indian nationalism and the definitions of Hindu and Muslim were hotly debated political territory. Accordingly, Devi provoked Hindu nationalist rage when it came out in 1960; Nehru himself watched the movie to see what the fuss in Parliament was about.