A pair of kohl-lined eyes bores through the screen in the first few moments of Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960), as the blank visage of a clay idol of Goddess Durga—held in close-up behind the opening credits—acquires bold, painted features. In Hindu myth, Durga and her wrathful avatar, Kali, are both forms of Devi, the all-powerful Mother Goddess. When the camera pulls away from the idol to reveal a village celebration of Durga Puja, the melodic strings of the score giving way to the diegetic din of bells and fireworks, it’s as if the legend of the Mother Goddess has been reified: the world has come into boisterous being around her.
The scene is both an anomaly in Ray’s work, with its gothic shadings, and a kind of signature shot. Often in the Bengali auteur’s lyrical, literary films, a set of curious eyes leads us into a world, and into a nascent point of view. Think of our introduction to Apu in Pather Panchali (1955), Ray’s triumphant debut feature and the first entry in The Apu Trilogy: Apu’s sister, Durga, pries one of his eyes open through a hole in his blanket to wake him up for school. The acclaimed Charulata (1964) offers another iconic Ray image: the bored housewife of the film’s title peering through a pair of opera glasses at the world outside her husband’s gilded nineteenth-century bungalow. Novelistic in its approach to character and narrative but attuned to the modernist potential of the camera, Ray’s is a cinema of contemplation—one that teaches us how to look at the world. In his biography of the director, Andrew Robinson relates a wry remark by the editor of a satirical Kolkata magazine: “Have you seen the latest Ray film? What you really mean is, has Satyajit’s film seen you?”
The eyes that open Devi—Ray’s sixth feature and what some critics consider his first directly political film—don’t so much invite us into a worldview as turn their gaze on the gaze itself: on its powers to deify and dehumanize, create and destroy. Two modes of seeing clash in the film, which is set in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Chandipur, a village in what was then the British Indian province of Bengal. A vision received in a dream convinces the pious feudal landlord Kalikinkar (Chhabi Biswas) that his doting daughter-in-law, the seventeen-year-old Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), is an incarnation of the Mother Goddess. Swiftly, the young girl is placed on a (literal) pedestal and swarmed by incense-wielding priests and supplicants, her frightened, tear-streaked face deterring no one. Her husband, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), who is away in Kolkata for his university studies, believes in a different kind of vision: the clear sight of the modern, rational, Western-educated man.
Ray engages father and son in debate not just in the film’s dialogue but also in its compositions. Seen through Kalikinkar’s eyes, Doya appears in low-angle close-ups, suspended against a nondescript background like the idol in the film’s opening. Umaprasad’s perspective, on the other hand, is secular and empirical, attuned to scale and the constrictions of domestic space. When he returns home to rescue his wife, he looks at her through the bars of a window in a geometric—even Cartesian—tableau. She sits on the checkered floor of her shrine, looking diminutive next to the men who surround her.
“Devi dramatizes the ways in which the symbolic deification of women comes at the cost of their material agency.”
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