Monday, October 18, 2021

The Criterion Release of Satyajit Ray’s Devi (1960)

Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore (foreground) in Devi (1960).

By the nineties, the films of the great Indian director Satyajit Ray were in a shocking state of disrepair. Merchant Ivory re-released eight of them to arthouses in 1995, but the company didn’t make any attempt to restore them to their former glory; it simply found the best prints available, and I guess that was better than nothing. But the wizardry performed by the Criterion Collection and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna on The Apu Trilogy, which collaborated to reconstruct negatives burned in a fire at a London laboratory, resurrected three premier masterpieces of world cinema. (They were returned to theatres six years ago; a thrilling documentary on the Criterion Channel details the process by which they were rebuilt.) Now you can access seventeen Ray pictures on Criterion, including his documentary about the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore, and Three Daughters, the complete short-story film anthology previously unavailable in North America: when I was introduced to it in my twenties – in the years when I discovered Ray and fell deeply in love with his work, it was called Two Daughters. The Ray collection is a treasure trove. A realist-humanist on the order of Jean Renoir, who was his chief influence, Ray ought to be essential viewing for anyone who reveres the art of filmmaking.

Now Criterion has released Devi (The Goddess) on disc. It came out in theatres in 1960, at the end of the astonishing first half-decade of Ray’s career, which produced not only his bildungsroman The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World of Apu) but also The Music Room. Devi is his most daring film; it was almost prevented from getting a foreign release, but Nehru interceded. Set in the Indian provinces in the nineteenth century, it’s about an aristocrat, Kalikinkar Roy (played by Chhabi Biswas, who played another decadent landowner in The Music Room), who is pampered by Doyamoyee (the exquisite Sharmila Tagore, from The World of Apu), the kindhearted young wife of his favorite son, Umaprasad. This role is taken by the incomparable Soumitra Chatterjee, whose relationship to Ray is like that of Toshiro Mifune to Akira Kurosawa – he starred in fifteen of Ray’s movies. While Uma is in Calcutta completing his studies, Roy has a dream in which Doya reveals herself as the incarnation of the goddess Kali, to whom Roy is devoted, and so in his son’s absence he installs her as a deity in his mansion, attended like visiting royalty and visited by worshippers. Roy’s other son, Taraprasad (Purnendu Mukherjee), whose father’s indifference has driven him to drink but who is still cowed by him, feels he has no choice but to go along with Roy’s delusion. But his wife Harasundari (Karuna Banerjee, who played the mother in the first two Apu pictures), at the request of the trapped, frightened Doya, writes to her brother-in-law and begs him to come home. But by the time he gets there, the insanity has reached a new level: a local whose little grandson is deathly ill mysteriously recovers in Doya’s arms, and now the faithful and the suffering come from miles in a procession to fall at her feet.

Umaprasad is the favored son, but he’s also a quiet rebel against the old-world traditions his father has immersed himself in: he is a modernist, a rationalist, and he’s learning English so that he can launch himself in a successful career – even though (as Doya points out at the beginning of the movie) he could choose simply to live on his father’s wealth. Though he does it unconsciously, the father’s insistence on treating Doya as a goddess drives a wedge between her and his son, commandeering his daughter-in-law for his own fanciful purposes; he effectively prevents Uma from leading an adult life. This is an Oedipus story in which the Laius figure retains his power. Ironically, though Taraprasad resents his father and feels ill-treated at his hands, he’s the one who plays the role of the obedient son, though when he’s in his cups he mocks his own filial performance. Censorship was strict in India while Ray’s career was blossoming, yet without alluding directly to the sexual relationship of Uma and Doya, he makes it crystal clear that what Roy is taking away from his son is his right to sleep with his wife. There’s an amazing moment when Uma returns to his father’s house to see Doya decked out in her goddess’s finery, receiving her devotees, and the look she throws across them at her husband is so intimate it takes your breath away.

In the brief section that takes place in Calcutta, Umaprasad spends the evening at the theatre with his friend and fellow student Bhudeb (Anil Chatterjee), who is sure his own father is going to disinherit him because he has fallen in love with a widow. Uma, who has always enjoyed Roy’s affection and generosity, can’t believe Bhudeb’s father won’t come around; he tries to kid Bhudeb out of his anxiety and even promises to speak his old man. He has no idea that his father has found a more potent and bizarre way to have the final say over his son’s romantic life. But Devi is a tragedy with more than one victim: at the end all five of the major characters are destroyed in one way or another.

The performances are beyond praise, and in this new disc Subrata Mitra’s black and white cinematography glistens. Ray may be the most sensual filmmaker who was ever born, and the Blu-Ray, which I watched, pays tribute to that profound sensuality.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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