Devi is only the fourth Satyajit Ray film I’ve seen beyond the much-celebrated The Apu Trilogy, which is what made his name outside his native India. Devi seems to have been a turning point in his career where he started experimenting a little more with his storytelling and style, instead of showing mainly just a very overt influence of the Italian neo-realist filmmakers who inspired him.
Ray weaves a somewhat allegorical tale with Devi:it’s about a young woman, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), who is the daughter-in-law of Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas). Kalikinkar believes she is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali after a dream tell him so, and he is a devout follower of Kali. Meanwhile the son/husband is away teaching and learning English. Kalikinkar is such a devout follower that he gets her to actually believe that she is the reincarnation, and has his friends seeing their house as some kind of temple. This is all set in the waning days of the 19th century.
The film is pretty interesting. There are a lot of layers to it, but it’s a clear attack on religious dogmatism in the deeply patriarchal society of India. The film is full of striking compositions. Ray worked incredibly closely with Subrata Mitra, who use bounced lighting nearly a decade before anybody in the west. Sharmila Tagore also gives a truly hypnotic performance with very little in the way of dialogue—her presence says everything that needs to be said.
Devi may be a little too elusive for me at times, but there is a ton to admire, and it’s a film I will go back to. It’s still a very impressive film ending in a complete tragedy, which is predictable, but there is no other way it could end. It also leans a little too much into the melodramatic, and at times you feel something is missing. You never quite get why he convinced his friends she is the reincarnation of Kali, which in itself would make a compelling story. Anyway, it’s worth seeing, and makes me interested in delve more into Ray’s films.
The Blu-Ray from Criterion is fairly light on extras, with only a featurette with actors Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee, and a video essay by film scholar Meheli Sen. The booklet includes anessay from critic Devika Girish.