A colourless, classical sculpture appears on screen in close-up. Shaped like a head, faintly visible contours reveal the most basic of facial features amidst its blankness. A shrill, orchestral arrangement disturbs the peace, instantly spawning a sense of unease; the discernible jitters of the handheld camera doing little to alleviate the tension. Suddenly, those foreboding musical strains morph into the more traditional, comforting sounds of sitars and sarods and, out of nowhere, the blank model acquires a visage. Once faint contours now become boldly delineated, though the most notable revision is the presence of a perturbing third eye. Alas, it appears that this is Kali – the feared and revered Hindu goddess. Though the now charming score encourages us to view her amicably, her claustrophobically direct glare into her audience nonetheless induces anxiety. Suddenly (again), the baritone howls of a distant organ jolt the soundscape and Kali morphs once more. Now embellished with shimmering jewellery and ornate headgear, the newly-decorated idol maintains her inscrutable, unsettling glare. The string accompaniment is augmented synchronously; the rhythmic, percussive chants of thundering tabla frenzying the aural experience until the music collapses from its own velocity and devolves into the sound of voluminous bell-ringing. Finally, we’re pulled away from Kali’s gaze and obliged to view her in a high-angle shot that exposes the full extent of her luxurious aureola (not to mention her intimidating ten-armed body). The frame subsequently dissolves as the camera zooms out, revealing both the temple that houses her and the (numerous) subjects that worship her. Meanwhile, those frenzied tabla return to the soundtrack, this time diegetically as musicians and dancers come to dominate the foreground, intensifying the festive atmosphere.
Swiftly, we switch to a low-angled (reverential?) shot of a well-groomed male elder, solemn in his prayers, before switching again to Kali – the camera zooming out to reveal her as the recipient of the man’s piety; the scene concluding as he lowers onto his knees and places his head on the ground in deference. This quasi-spiritual interlude finds itself abruptly replaced as the camera once again takes us outside the temple, tracking past the musicians as it makes its way towards a ritual slaughter. A knife is raised in the air, and then… CUT: to the patriarch of the previous scene, observing the action in silence; CUT: to the tabla again, each drum banged ever more furiously; CUT: to the moment of the strike, the suspended knife now accelerating downwards; and CUT: to fireworks in the night sky, the sound of multiple explosions substituting for the unheard cries of the mammalian victim. We rest temporarily upon the affectionate interactions of a young family enjoying the pyrotechnical extravaganza, only to revert back to Kali’s fate mere seconds later. Now we find her entire form carried along by worshippers in a mind-boggling procession; long shots highlighting the extraordinary numbers involved in the journey. The celebration ends abruptly however, as before we know it the goddess is pushed into a river – the sequence’s final shot lingering upon her inexpressive face as she’s compelled to succumb to the forces of nature.
In an introduction that lasts little over five minutes, Satyajit Ray establishes the principle concerns of Devi with consummate precision. Though the film will resist another outpouring so ebullient until its wrenching finale, the dynamism behind this early montage ably lays down the foundations upon which the director’s otherwise meditative narrative rests. As the gradual beautification of that initial, blank sculpture suggests, Devi marks an investigation into the construction and destruction of identity – specifically when applied to females and deities. Ray flaunts his credentials as a secular pro-feminist with laudable bravado, castigating the socially-sanctioned moulding of women into man-made idealisations whilst condemning the overwhelming pre-eminence of blind religious devotion in contemporary Bengal (the film unfolds in the 19th-century, but its setting within a relatively isolated rural estate renders it unavoidably atemporal). Somewhat expectedly then, the male elder of the prologue turns out to be a wealthy landowner – a figurehead used by the director to highlight the entrenchment of patriarchal subservience in a society obtusely hung up on outmoded praxes; the man’s gender and his visible affluence guaranteeing him a dangerous degree of influence in local affairs. Thus, when said patriarch decides that his beloved daughter-in-law, Doya, is actually the human reincarnate of the prologue’s Kali (following a “vision” that’s brilliantly executed to accentuate the malevolently ethereal elements within spirituality), both his relatives and his subjects lapse into unquestioning acceptance of his apparition. Ray subsequently forges a socio-religious critique that politicises his text in a manner that invites comparisons with his outspoken Marxist contemporaries in the world of Bengali cinema, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. At its most elementary level, Devi functions as a societal microcosm, a staunchly left-wing perspective of power in action: concentrated within the hands of the privileged few, and imposed upon the disenfranchised masses who acquiesce in the name of supernatural delusions. Of course, educated dissenters exist, in this instance the patriarch’s son, Uma (Doya’s husband), whose enlightened intellectualism appears conceived to indulge the inevitable conflict between tradition and modernity – though the elephantine weight of the former remains nigh-on impossible to repel. As Uma confronts his father with the assertion that he’s “going mad”, the old man responds by invoking his heritage and reciting an ancient Sanskrit poem whose rigid orthodoxy proves as chilling as it does foreboding:
No one is worthier of respect than a father,
If you would honour the gods, honour your father,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the Sun,
The paternal spirit is more radiant than the ocean,
The paternal spirit encompasses heaven and earth…
And yet, despite the potency of Ray’s criticisms, Devi‘s foremost attribute is its sensitivity. There’s little doubt as to where the director’s allegiance lies in the clash of old and new, but for narrative purposes he nonetheless ensconces himself firmly within the expanses of grey between the opposing viewpoints. His is a cinematic parable that offers a judicious caution: when consumed by our fixation with the desires of ‘higher’ beings, we risk losing sight of the human beings whose needs are surely more pressing – and Devi makes a stern point of demonstrating its commitment to the latter. Though his subtextual web engrossingly interweaves fanaticism and mysticism alongside feminism and rationalism (alongside a surprising acknowledgement of the colonial question), Ray’s approach is marked by observational tranquility in the face of increasingly tumultuous sentiments (one recalls the quiet affection shared by Doya and Uma during the fireworks of the opening sequence), and in doing so he scythes right to the emotive core of his variegated drama. Thus, the patriarch’s vision is treated not with contempt or scrutiny, but with unassuming respect while it’s presented to the viewer as a harrowing epiphany – and so it follows that his insistence upon Doya’s deification is grounded in a genuine belief in the reality of his metaphysical experience. Noting the character’s absence of malice and the sincere presence of love for those whose worlds he’s upending, Ray refuses to damn his father figure, instead channelling his anger towards a system which grants such individuals their immense leverage in the lives of others whilst concurrently disenfranchising those that deviate from the accepted figures of power: namely the object of the father’s worship herself, Doya. Burdened with not only her divinity but also the femininity which forces her subjugation, the film’s titular “goddess” tellingly utters the fewest words of all the film’s leads – and her silence is deafening. Denied access to the education that empowers her husband, Doya finds herself a helpless victim of dogmatic hypocrisy; her precarious fate completely at the mercy of the film’s idealistic males. Naturally, there can be only one conclusion from thereon out. And so it is that as the limitations of religious belief make themselves sorely announced during Devi‘s tragic finale, the everlasting image of the prologue’s drowning goddess assumes a resonance that reverberates throughout the ages.