Devi is based on a story by Prabhat Mukhopadhyay who built it on a concept created by Rabindranath Tagore. The story was published in 1899 in the Bhadra (July-August) issue of Bharati, a Bengali monthly magazine. Ray picked up the story to use it as his personal celluloid tirade against the superstitious mindset of the feudal Hindu Bengali that can stretch its superstition far enough to ‘sacrifice’ an innocent young girl by deifying her as the Goddess Kali. The story is set in 1860 at Chandipur, in rural Bengal.

Dayamoyee and her husband Umaprasad live with his elder brother Tarapada, his wife and wealthy father, Kalikinkar Roy, a deeply religious person whose life revolves around his devotion to Goddess Kali. He spends his entire time worshipping Kali installed in a small temple inside his spacious home. His older son Tarapada, his wife Harisundari and their little boy Khoka live with Kalikinkar. The younger son Umaprasad studies in Kolkata. The family presents the image of an extended, affluent Bengali family set in the period it belongs to. But a sudden dream Kalikinkar has topples the balance that had kept the wheels of the Roy family rolling smoothly.

One night, Kalikinkar dreams that Dayamoyee is actually an incarnation of the Goddess Kali and she has come into his home in human form as reward for his unstinted devotion to the Goddess. The next morning, a shocked, confused and terrified Dayamoyee is installed as a Goddess on a raised platform of the mansion’s outer home. What happens then – to Dayamoyee, to her relationship with Umaprasad, to Kalikinkar and to the other members of the family completes this tragic tale of how blind belief in superstition can destroy the life of a young girl of 17. The credits rise across images showing the slow sculpting of the image of the Goddess. The Goddess stands out in all her finery of shimmering silver and gold zardozi decoration just at the onset of Durga Pooja. The pooja drums and cymbals fill the soundtrack.

Devi sets the classic example of a young girl turned into an icon – an object by placing her on the pedestal of a Goddess without her permission or understanding of what is happening to her and why just on the basis of the dream of an elderly man. Turning the subject into an object of veneration, of beauty, of devotion and of blind faith is unique in Indian cinema that can be seen as entrapment for life for the young girl. Does the old widower feel sexually attracted to the beautiful young daughter-in-law? If no, then why does he probe into her relationship with her husband, which, according to the traditional conventions he practices so diligently, he is not supposed to? Why does he, under the “excuse” of deifying his daughter-in-law, stop the very young couple from enjoying a normal conjugal life? These questions were unthinkable during the time setting of the story – 1860 – and they still are – among Hindu fundamentalists who misuse and abuse their own ignorance about their own religion.

Dayamoyee was content in her husband’s open fondness for his teenaged wife. Just before Umaprasad leaves for Kolkata, we see him writing his name and address in English in his beautiful slanting hand on white envelopes for Daya to write to him “everyday,” he says, smiling. He writes on 50 envelopes, “one for each day” of his absence. But the envelopes remain unused because Daya gets trapped in her Goddess mode where her every waking minute is strictly monitored, designed and tailored by her father-in-law with the help of his servants.

Later, we find Harisundari fetching one of these envelopes to summon Umaprasad and rescue his wife from this torture. He does arrive but Daya, in deep doubt about her tussle between her human identity and her goddess one, refuses to go. The addressed ‘envelopes’ that mark the adoring love of a husband for his wife become an empty exercise in futility by the machinations of a third man – the husband’s father.

Daya hardly talks once she is forced into the Goddess mode. The steadily increasing droop of her shoulders, the tired helplessness of her eyes, silent tears streaking down her cheeks, her reluctant acceptance of the shift from her bedroom to a room downstairs, say it all. The shift from private space where she has much more freedom to move and play with Khokon or talk to her parrot to the public space of the thakurdalan – the raised platform in the outer home – traps her within a prison. We never once see her eating. Does this mean that she is not fed properly? When she once faints of fatigue, it is interpreted as “samadhi” and she does not utter one word.

Though many critical studies have focussed on the conflict in ideology between the very dictatorial and fundamentalist Hindi Brahmin father Kalikinkar and his younger son Umaprasad, educated in more liberal Western studies, the real sacrificial goat is the deified young girl Dayamoyee, who, Kalikinkar is determined to keep worshipping in public space and Umaprasad, her husband, does not have the mental strength or the courage to rescue her and bring her back to her private space even knowing that this might destroy his married life for good. The elder son Tarapada, has no will of his own. He spends his days “worshipping” his father and his nights on wine and women. So, when his father asks him to touch the feet of his own, young sister-in-law, he does this. But the young woman, shocked at this sudden “devotion” curls her toes and scratches her nails against the wall, turns her face to the wall in shock, disgust and hate – for herself, for the state she is in, or, for the ones touching her feet?

Khoka, once closely attached to his aunt, is now scared of stepping into her shadow. In one scene, while he is at play, his ball rolls into the room Daya is resting in. Daya waves at him to come in. He quickly runs in, picks up the ball and runs out without speaking to her. The soft smile on her face disappears. The ball is an object, a plaything for a child that once was a bridge between a child and an adolescent woman. Today, it is still a toy but the playmate is no longer recognised as one. Devi has touches of a Greek tragedy in which Kali, the destroyer, exacts her necessary sacrifice – through Khoka, through the death of Daya, and through the destruction of the Roy family, perhaps as ‘punishment’ meted out to an ardent devotee audacious enough to force a real woman to take her place as Goddess. After Umaprasad sails away in a boat, the camera pans across the empty thakurdalan, the empty spaces that were filled with devotees hankering for their small dose of charanamrita (drawn from the feet of Daya after it is dipped in a vessel) and not one human soul is visible.

The lone sane ‘voice’ more in silence than in articulation, is that of Harisundari, Daya’s sister-in-law, who, right from the beginning, does not believe in this forced metamorphosis of the 17-year-old Daya from woman to Goddess Kali. So, when her little boy Khoka falls ill, without her father-in-law’s permission, she summons the country doctor. But the doctor hesitates to attend to the little patient without the patriarch’s knowledge and permission. Harasundari is coerced to have Daya touch her sick child as she has already revived the life of a dying child. But Khoka dies in Daya’s lap and Daya’s life is destroyed forever.

When Umaprasad tries to take her to the city to rescue her from this enforced imprisonment, Dayamoyee is torn between her own growing conviction in her ‘goddess-like’ powers on the one hand and her vulnerable human-ness on the other. “What if I am really a Devi? What if this brings you misfortune?” she asks, more of herself than of Umaprasad.

Towards the end, as Umaprasad tries to run away with her, talk in whispers on the banks of the river in the village, while the tall blades of grass sway in the moonlight, reflecting their disturbed mental state and their still bodies. Dayamoyee, her kajal smeared around her eyes, her hair spread out around her, tears streaking down her scared face, her body adorned in a lot of jewellery, spots the skeletal idol of the Goddess Durga, half-immersed in water. This makes her question her credibility again as the goddess-incarnate. She goes back, turning away from the vast night landscape, silhouetted in the dark, filled with a mysterious air of foreboding. The escape boat can be seen in a long shot, shimmering in the distance. But the presence of the boat is futile. For Daya, there is just one escape – death.

Devi throws up a different facet of womanhood in a Bengal we are not familiar with except through literature. We accuse society and corporate interests such as the advertising world for objectifying the woman as a commodity in order to push sales of goods they may or may not be linked to. But in Devi, we discover the eldest patriarch of a family satisfying his own ‘devotional’ interests by ‘reducing’ his daughter-in-law into an animated, live version of his favourite Goddess Kali and vesting her with ‘magic powers’ she does not possess because she is a woman and not a Goddess.