Ranking: #75/111

Director: Satyajit Ray (India)

Genre: Satirical Social Drama

Devi (The Goddess) is a most unusual and profound drama from the master Indian filmmaker, Satyajit Ray.  It’s about a false cult based on a mistaken belief that a demure young lady called Doyamoyee has become the incarnation of the Hindu Mother Goddess, Devi. The movie satirises the idea of a “blind faith” based on superstition and wish-fulfilment.

By the by, the film is also a beautifully rendered period drama about 19th century rural Bengali society.

When Doyamoyee’s husband, Umaprasad, leaves for Kolkata (Calcutta) to teach in college and learn to speak and write English, she comes under the spell of her father-in-law, Kalikinkar, a rich feudal landowner. One night, soon afterward Umaprasad has left home, Kalikinkar has a fateful and disturbingly vivid dream in which the eyes of his goddess Kali intermingle with the eyes of his daughter-in-law. He wakes up convinced that Doyamoyee is now an incarnation. He immediately begins to worship her as holy. From that moment on, she is placed on a pedestal. Following his example, others in the household start to accept her as a goddess. Her transition from a humble wife to a goddess is subtly narrated by Ray. The face of the actress (Sharmila Tagore, who was only 15 years old at the time) playing the central character has an almost expressionless, unfathomable, pristine beauty which leaves the question of how divine or how human she really is unanswered.

The next step in the development of the perverse cult is when Kalikinkar makes it official in the village. He changes her room and starts treating her as a goddess in front of visitors. As more people hear about this and visit the home, it turns into a shrine where the villagers and townsfolk can offer up prayers and drink the holy water called charanamrito, which is water in which the devi has washed her feet! All of this puts unbearable pressure on the young woman. She can no longer live a normal life.

After a healing takes place at the shrine, the cult goes to a new level with masses believing Doyamoyee really is an incarnation of Kali. When her husband Umaprasad returns, he is appalled by how his wife is being treated and trains his anger on his father. Father and son become increasingly estranged from each other. To Kalikinkar, his son has become “Westernised”; while Umaprasad looks upon his father as someone who is blindly superstitious. He’s horrified that his father has become a fanatic. And the whole thing evolved from a mere dream!

The film exposes the dangerous fantasies behind religious fanaticism and, indeed, any irrational mass movement, whether religious or political, which is based on coercion and mythmaking, rather than on free will and true knowledge, while thriving on the gullibility of people. In such cults, a person will lose all their individuality and most of their freedom.

Umaprasad openly confronts his father, determined to end the charade, as the Devi cult is slowly poisoning his wife. He then tries to save his wife from this cult, which seems like another form of female enslavement, disguised as a religious cult, in a traditional, patriarchal Indian community. He convinces her to escape with him to Calcutta. Once they reach the riverbank, though, new doubts fill her mind, showing how entangled she has become in the sect. “What if I am the Goddess?” she pleads, unsure what to do, torn between two ways of life.

Back in the home, her nephew, Khoka, becomes gravely ill and feverish. Kalikinkar brings the boy to the Goddess instead of going to a medical doctor. When the boy dies, Umaprasad virtually accuses his father of killing him through “blind faith”.

The film’s ending is ambiguous, suggesting Doyamoyee cannot be freed from the life of isolation created by a cult her father-in-law invented. She is tied to the superstitions and power structures of a highly traditionalist society.

The mise-en-scène, as expected in a Ray film, is exquisite in its attention to detail, while the acting is commendable in its controlled intensity. The interactions and conflicts between the members of the household play out in a fascinating and complex web. The imagery shows the director’s unfailing delicate touch, often creating poignant and beautiful moments in what is, ultimately, a tragic story.

And it is the sheer power, prescience and originality of the themes which takes a great film and turns it into a work of genius, not just for India, but for the world, not just for this time, but for all time.