The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 3

On Satyajit Ray's Film Adaptation of "The Goddess"

by Dilip K. Basu

On Satyajit Ray’s

Prabhat K. Mukherjee’s story about a sixteen-year-old wife who is identified by her pious father-in-law as an incarnation of Devi, the Mother Goddess, held great appeal to the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Ray believed that Mukherjee’s story, first published in 1899, could be transformed into a visually rich period film, and that his characters could be even more dramatic and compelling on the screen.
          What Ray did not imagine was that a film version of “The Goddess” would cause a political storm. When Devi was released in 1960, critics denounced the movie as an attack on Hinduism, especially on the Hindu practice of idolatry. The Indian Parliament fell into an uproar. Some members demanded Devi be denied export clearance, arguing that, should foreigners be exposed to the movie, they would get a false impression of the Mother Goddess and India’s ancient belief in incarnation. Fortunately, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, knew better. He saw Ray’s film and silenced its critics by requesting that before they attack it, they see it. Most parliamentarians didn’t bother to see the film, but Nehru’s intervention saved Devi from being censored and likely forgotten forever. Had Nehru not spoken out in favor of Ray’s delicate and even-handed treatment of the practice of faith, the world never would have seen this masterpiece.
          Oddly, the short story on which Ray based his film did not provoke a similar outcry upon publication. This was largely because Mukherjee, the “Balzac of Bengal,” was a Brahmin, the highest caste in the Hindu hierarchy, and thus somewhat protected from harsh critiques. Mukherjee did not come up with the idea for the story. It was apparently based on actual events, according to the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who abandoned the idea of writing the story himself because of his membership in the Brahmo Society, an elite group of modernist Indians who publicly opposed idol worship. Tagore knew his politics and opinions would taint the reception of the story he wanted to write, so he offered the idea for the story to his friend Mukherjee.
          Ray too belonged by heritage to the Brahmo Society, but he didn’t believe he would face the furor Tagore had anticipated sixty years before. He assumed twentieth-century Hindus would be more tolerant and open-minded. So the intensity of the attacks on Devi shook Ray—he would not return to the theme of Hindu belief in any subsequent film except Ganashatru (Enemy of the People), a tale about the poisonous mix of religion and politics, which he made in 1989, toward the end of his life.
          Ray’s film differs and departs from Mukherjee’s story in several respects. In the Mukherjee story, the plot concludes with a demure sixteen-year-old hanging herself; she would rather face death than the humiliation of being a failed healer, a false Devi. In Ray’s rendition, the character of Daya loses her mind; she runs across a field near the family’s mansion and vanishes into the mist. The last shot of the film, repeating the first, shows the unadorned white clay face of the idol of the Goddess, an image shorn of the colors and attributes humans usually ascribe to her.
          The first time I saw Devi, in Calcutta in 1960, I walked out of the theater feeling dazed and stupefied. I could not help but wonder at Ray’s influence by Euripedes, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and, to some extent, Freud. Even the word Devi—Greek: Zeus, Latin: Deus—sounded somehow European to me. I told myself Ray must have turned to Greek plays in search of tragic models, for there was no room for tragedies in classical Indian dramaturgy.
          In the 1980s I saw Devi again, in California,  and became fascinated with how Ray had transformed Mukherjee’s pithy story into a film. This time, I mostly noticed the Indian cultural details and became interested in how deftly Ray had handled them. I read Ray’s screenplay and reread Mukherjee’s story. Then I visited Ray in his Calcutta apartment and discussed Devi with him. Why did he choose to make a film based on Mukherjee’s story?
          “The challenge of making period films charges me,” he said. “I love recreating scenes and characters that were very much part of our past and are still with us in the present.” The pictorial aspects of Mukerjee’s story appealed to Ray, too, as did the story’s dramatic potential as a tragedy. Ray wanted to make another film with the veteran actor Chhabi Biswas, who played the aged aristocrat obsessed with classical music and dance in The Music Room (1958), Ray’s first period film. He also wished to recast Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee, who had proved immensely popular in The World of Apu (1959).
          Ray substantially reshaped Mukherjee’s story. Mukherjee begins his tale with the sentence “This is a story from a little over a century ago,” rewinding the time frame one hundred years to the 1790s, when British rule and education were not formally entrenched in Bengal and religion was a more powerful force than in the 1890s. Ray, on the other hand, fast-forwarded the time frame of the story eighty years from the 1790s to the 1870s. He had a good reason for altering the period of the film: by placing the narrative in the context of colonial modernity, in the midst of arguments for reform and social change, he made the confrontation between Uma, the husband of Daya the Devi, and Kalikinkar, Uma’s father, more dramatic than in Mukherjee’s story. Ray emphasizes Uma’s pride in his English education, which he calls “new learning” as opposed to his father’s “old learning,” based on studies of  Tantra and Shakti. “The son’s character is very developed in this film according to my feelings, for dramatic reasons,” Ray told Andrew Robinson, author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. “I was full of sympathy for him. I believe his arguments were much stronger than the father’s arguments, because of the irrationality involved.”
          Mukherjee’s story is full of sharp contrasts. There is a cultural clash between Kalikinkar, who believes his daughter-in-law is a living god, and Uma, who refuses to believe this is possible. Kalikinkar’s elder son, Taraprasad, sides with his father, creating conflict between brothers. Daya, a trusting and loving sixteen-year-old, is a foil to Hara, Tara’s wife and Khoka’s mother, a proud, jealous woman who dislikes Daya’s close relationship with her son.
          Ray elaborated on these contrasting strands in Mukherjee’s story and brought them alive in film. Every character in Devi has a dramatic counterpart: Daya has Hara, Uma has Tara, Kalikinkar has the elderly beggar. The tradition of Shakti is juxtaposed with the modernity of British education. The reason of the Enlightenment is juxtaposed with the emotion of practicing religion.
          Another striking departure from Mukerjee’s story is Ray’s meticulous detailing of religious ritual and practice. Ray told me, “I had a lot of fun directing the scenes of ritual and devotion, designing the sets, costumes, and makeup.” This is evident from the first scene of Devi, in which Ray depicts the autumn harvest festival of the Goddess Durga, a warrior goddess who rides a lion. Durga has ten arms and is shown killing a buffalo demon. Ray starts the film with these images to show the unearthly spell that the Mother Goddess Devi could cast on her devotees. By the time Daya is transformed into Devi, the audience cannot help but be spellbound by the power of Shakti and awed by a woman who brings together within her being womanhood, motherhood, and sainthood. These female forces, Ray successfully showed, were at the center of the Shakti practice in Bengali popular culture. They were also, as Mukherjee illustrates in his short story, forces that were equally mysterious, life-affirming, and dangerous.
          Does it still happen: a woman placed on an altar and worshipped as Goddess, the creation of a modern-day Daya? The answer is yes. Twenty-first–century India boasts stellar qualities of modernity: an educated and thriving middle class, the world’s second-largest scientific and engineering community, fighter planes, satellites in space, its own Silicon Valley, nuclear bombs. But all that modern development has not stalled, much less eliminated, centuries-old religious practices. The kind of conservative Hindu nationalists who wanted to ban the export of Satyajit Ray’s Devi have multiplied over the past century, and until recently ruled the country. To paraphrase Ray, in spite of India’s modern advancements, it is a land where cows are still sacred, phallus is God, and woman is a Goddess.

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