Satyajit Ray's Powerful `Devi' A Remarkable Look At Fanaticism

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XXXX "Devi," with Sarmila Tagore, Soumitra Chatterjee, Chhabi Biswas. Directed and written by Satyajit Ray. Varsity. No rating; suitable for general audiences. -----------------------------------------------------------------

One of the late Satyajit Ray's masterpieces, this restored 1960 Bengali film is a remarkable study of the subtler terrors of religious fanaticism.

The script, adapted from a story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee, concerns a 19th-century landowner who is convinced that his daughter-in-law (Sarmila Tagore) is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali. She can't resist the new position of power and influence she holds in their household and starts to believe that she is indeed blessed.

His son, who has been away in Calcutta, is shocked at this conviction of divinity, which appears to have been inspired only by a dream the old man had - and/or his sublimated sexual attraction to her.

When she apparently heals a sick child, their home becomes a Lourdes-like attraction, and the son can only watch as his wife drifts into total identification with this all-consuming role. With an inevitability that becomes increasingly tragic, they both prove too weak to defeat his father's conservative ideology.

The Ray repertory company really gets a workout here. Soumitra Chatterjee, who played the adult Apu in "The World of Apu," is the distraught son and, as usual, the character who behaves most sensibly. Karuna Bannerjee, Apu's mother in "Pather Panchali" and "Aparajito," plays his sister-in-law, who is equally horrified and helpless.

Chhabi Biswas, the spendthrift landowner in "The Music Room," is the demented father. Ray wrote it with him in mind. They're all excellent, although the movie belongs to Tagore (Apu's wife in "The World of Apu"), who gradually, enigmatically shifts from sweet teenage housewife to troubled queen to mad "goddess."

"Devi" ran into quite a bit of controversy during its initial release in India. Accused of attacking Hinduism, Ray was nearly prevented from releasing it abroad. Shortly before he began shooting, the timeliness of the theme was underlined when reports of a young West Indian villager's "miracles" caused a stampede in which several people were trampled to death.

(Coincidentally or not, depending on how much faith you put in the zeitgeist, an American film was creating a similar religious controversy around the same time. In 1960's "Elmer Gantry," Jean Simmons played a level-headed woman who has her head turned by evangelism and begins to believe in her own healing powers and divinity. She also comes to a bad end.)

Ray avoided another kind of controversy by shooting the romantic scenes in a self-censoring manner. Complaining that such scenes in Indian films have been "reduced to a formula of clasping hands, longing looks and vapid, supposedly amorous verbal exchanges," he admitted that "I used a shot of a couple kissing in `Devi,' but did not venture beyond a long shot with the lovers silhouetted behind a mosquito netting."

What seemed like compromise then looks like artistry now. Ray's restraint in all matters is part of what makes "Devi" so powerful and so disorienting.