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Devi The Goddess  

This is the first film I`ve seen from celebrated Indian director Satyajit Ray, and it certainly made me want to see more from him. Ray is well-known for the so-called Apu trilogy, but, in Devi The Goddess, he deals with religion, and, specifically, superstitious beliefs.

We are witness to the lives of an Indian family; the widowed old man, his two sons, including one who plans on going to university in Calcutta, and the son`s wives. The college-bound son leaves the home very early on in the film, while receiving a promise from the wife to write every day on the goings-on in her life. While the son is gone, things seem to proceed very much as usual, as she looks after the old man, a very traditional, praying sort of man. Actually, the deity in particular whom he prays to is the Goddess Kali, and we see a couple of his praying sessions. At the same time, he has nothing but good things to say about this wonderful woman. He tells her one day how life became bleak after his wife had died, and it was only through the good fortune and taste of his son that this new woman has entered, to return the joy that the old man used to have. In any case, it is true that this man sees women as dutiful servants, like mothers, yet he seems to be a gentle old guy, anyway.

But his opinions on his daughter-in-law manifest themselves in grandiose ways. One night, he has an unsettling dream, which results in a revelation for him. His daughter-in-law now, according to him, is indeed the reincarnation of the Indian goddess Kali, and that his praying, his devotion to a deity even in times of misery, has paid off tremendously. And because the old man is a respected elder, he is soon able to convince other people of her extraordinary gift, and, of course, we soon get scenes of hordes of people walking the countryside expecting miracles. And the woman is trapped by the conviction of uneducated, impoverished people needing a miracle in their lives.

This film is inevitably tragic, yet there is an undercurrent of satire and humour, since we know that the man is an old fool, entranced (I couldn`t help but chuckle at the scene of him walking from his bedroom after the dream to kneel at the feet of this scared and baffled woman) and that the woman, a naive child-woman, could not be a goddess. There is also amusement in the obvious conflicts between the beliefs of different generations. The father is a traditional man, deeply religious, while the son is a modern, as 1960 India goes, kind of fellow, the sort who goes off to Calcutta to go to university and learn English, in hopes of career advancement. So when the son gets word of what is happening back home, of course he is shocked, and bluntly tells his own father that he has lost his marbles. The father is shocked that the son would suspect his superior`s own mental capacity, and so quotes to him an old Sanskrit saying about how if one honours his father he honours the gods. The son`s brother, on the other hand, plays the role of obedient son, so much so that when the father bows down to "Kali", he does too, out of reflex. And there is a revealing scene, where he comes home drunk, quoting the old Sanskrit as if he resents the meaning in that phrase.

I wonder if perhaps the roles of women in Indian society is indeed an important theme as well. The young woman is idolized, but is never really respected as an individual. She is a prize in one form or another, and is expected to be passive, as all possessions of an owner should be. While the husband is much more sophisticated than his superstitious dad, he still sees his wife (affectionately) as a silly little girl. The father, certainly, adores her because she is so passive and caters to his every domestic whim. And when he thinks she is a goddess, he projects that quality onto her. It seems that while everyone projects their own image (servant, dutiful wife, goddess) of the woman on to her, she is not able to be herself. She has been made empty by a world which does not allow her to be herself, to have a full personality, so of course she eventually buys her own hype, that she is indeed a goddess with the power to affect (positively or negatively) people supernaturally, which leads to the tragic and ironic ending. I think that, while the message about worshipping false idols is the main one, the reflection on women is an unavoidable by-product of the situation concocted here.

I liked the score, with its mixture of traditional Indian music and more melodramatic pieces. I also thought the direction was simple, stately, yet documentary-like as well. And of course this is a great story, the kind of story I often enjoy. And I certainly hope to encounter another one of Ray`s films.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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