In interviews about Kahaani, director Sujoy Ghosh has spoken with much affection about his love for Satyajit Ray’s cinema, and about the little ways in which he was influenced by Aranyer Dinratri and other Ray films. Coincidentally I saw Kahaani just a few days after watching Ray’s 1960 film Devi, with the barely 15-year-old Sharmila Tagore as a young bride who is thought to be a reincarnation of the Mother Goddess. There is a strikingly similar shot in the two films, a close-up of the immersion of the goddess’s statue, her head sinking into the water. In Kahaani it’s the very last shot, one that parallels the heroine Vidya disappearing from our sight, her work completed; the film’s climax has already made a statement about feminine power by linking Vidya (who, for much of the story, was seen as vulnerable and manipulated) with Shakti, the vanquisher of evil.
There is similar deification in Devi – in fact, the plot centres on it – but the repercussions here are very different; a young woman (girl, really) named Dayamoyee is suffocated by an image she is unable – and eventually unwilling – to break out of, resulting in tragedy for her family.
This film was made just a year or so after Ray’s Apur Sansar, which ended the Apu Trilogy, and I felt an echo of Apur Sansar in the first glimpse of Dayamoyee and her husband Umaprasad: Soumitro Chatterjee (who played the adult Apu) and Sharmila Tagore (who was Apu’s child-bride) are reunited in this scene, and their nephew is perched on Umaprasad’s shoulder, much as little Kajal sat on Apu’s shoulder at the end of Apur Sansar. It’s almost as if the family that had been left incomplete in the earlier film is here made whole.
That picture is deceptive though, and the happiness short-lived. While Umaprasad is away in the city, his pious father (played by the wonderful Chhabi Biswas who was so good as the zamindar in Jalsaghar), already deeply fond of and dependent on his daughter-in-law, has a dream that she is Kali incarnate. In no time at all Dayamoyee goes from being a girl playing with her little nephew to a distant figure closeted off from the rest of the house, an object of veneration to be brought out for public display only when devotees come asking for blessings and miracles.
Devi’s simple but mesmerising opening-credits sequence begins with the titles over a shot of a blank, unadorned, pale-white statue. As the sequence proceeds and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s music becomes lusher, faster, more devotional – its tempo suggesting the frenzy of worship – this tabula rasa of a face will be transformed into a familiar goddess idol through the accoutrements of makeup, jewellery and hair. This transformation pre-echoes Dayamoyee’s progression from being a relatively anonymous member of her household to something of a tourist attraction.
What follows is a depiction of prayer and rituals that I thought disturbing on more than one count (as some readers of this blog will know, I find prayers and rituals disturbing at the best of times). Most of the worshippers we see are men, and throughout this film one senses the dominance of the male gaze, a gaze that determines how a woman is to be categorised – goddess or demoness, mother, wife or servant. (“I don’t appreciate these modern young people, do you?” the father-in-law tells Dayamoyee early in the film. It’s a lighthearted remark, but even before he has his dream, one feels that the old man has fixated on this 17-year-old child as a mother figure.) The story is a constant reminder of how women in conservative societies can simultaneously be the repositories of a house’s honour and prisoners within it; reverence and subjugation run hand in hand.
(Incidentally this aspect of Devi reminded me of another favourite film, Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, in which a young woman in 17th century Denmark is accused of being a witch and eventually comes to believe it herself. In both stories, the control exercised by religious authority becomes indistinguishable from the control exercised by elderly men in patriarchal societies.)
Devi isn't a consistently engaging work - my attention drifted during a couple of the pedantic scenes involving Soumitro, who has to play one of the most thankless of all roles, the Voice of Reason. Some of the speechifying in the second half is superfluous: so much is conveyed more effectively through the simple unfolding of the narrative, and through the delicately shifting expressions on Sharmila Tagore’s face. The adolescent Sharmila in this film is miles removed from the confident movie star who would, later in the decade, play such varied parts as the condescending magazine editor in Ray’s Nayak, the shy flower-seller in Kashmir ki Kali and the modish rich girl in An Evening in Paris. There is an artlessness in her performance here that could arguably have been achieved only at this point in her career, and only with such a director – and it works especially well for the part of a childlike girl who is defined by what other people think of her.
Thanks to the brilliant Criterion Collection print of Jalsaghar, I now find it irksome to watch Ray’s films on Indian DVDs, but even in a mediocre print one can appreciate the many delicate touches in Subrata Mitra’s cinematography. Particular noteworthy are some of the dimly lit indoor compositions, with the many shots of beds covered with mosquito nets. This creates an otherworldly, shroud-like effect, almost a visual representation of the idea of a girl wrapped in a cocoon. In some scenes, Dayamoyee’s bedroom resembles a pupa from which a grotesque, mutant butterfly will emerge.
But the single image that stays with me is a much more simply staged shot. It’s the image of Dayamoyee sobbing quietly, her face turned towards the wall, traumatised by the behaviour of her father-in-law who has just done something unthinkable in the context of the norms of their society – he has placed his head on her feet. The shot recalls the words sung by an old beggar elsewhere in the film: “I’ll never call you Mother again / You gave me too much sorrow /I called You but You turned away.” Here, sorrow will be the lot of both the worshipper and the worshipped.