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Screen Goddess

Sharmila Tagore became a deity in Satyajit Ray's 'Devi,' part of a 30-film retrospective of the Indian master's films at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto

By Richard von Busack

A YOUNG helpless girl, an old man with dubious motives, the hand of the goddess Kali at work--see, there's nothing dry about director Satyajit Ray. Watching Ray films at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, fans may well feel they have just discovered a trunkful of treasures from India. Many of these films, although known by reputation, have never been seen on this coast.

Ray (1921-92) worked out of a rented home in Kolkata, the city formerly known as Calcutta. He dodged ill health and the political strife of India, working through the 1970 civil emergency with its near revolt and brutal repression. Yet Ray's work is always, at least on the surface, serene. Akira Kurosawa said that Ray represented the essence of Asian art: like Mount Fuji, "calm without, fire within."

Ray exhibits a range of moods from facetious to bottomlessly tragic, and this retrospective will demonstrate them all. The fest of some 30 Ray films at the Stanford marks the 10th anniversary of the Satyajit Ray Film and Study Collection at UC-Santa Cruz.

The perfect introduction to Ray's work is the 1960 film Devi (The Goddess), playing Oct. 18-19. Director Dilip Basu, a professor at UCSC and head of the collection, is currently writing a book about Devi. "It is certainly one of the top--a unique film," Basu says. "Ray never did anything [else] like it. "

Ray's best-known works, the three films that make up The Apu Trilogy, are a classic of common-man filmmaking. Devi is darker. The languor, heat, silks and perfume of the remote palace are tangible, as they are in Southern Gothics. "The most convincing study of upper-class decadence I've ever seen," Pauline Kael called Devi, and the film appeals on the level of a study of corruption.

Specifically, Devi is about "the stranglehold of Hindu orthodoxy in 19th-century Bengal," as Ray wrote (quoted in Andrew Robinson's excellent 1989 biography). Basu sees Devi as "a debate between the two generations of a father and a son. The son is a 19th-century intellectual, a representative of Westernized India, totally involved in the question of the women's place. The father is a traditionally learned scholar, a very devoted follower of the cult of Kali."

The action begins when the old man, who is on the edge of dotage, notices his unsophisticated, countrified daughter-in-law. Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) is called Doya for short. She's a country girl who's made an advantageous marriage to a man who is one of the rising class of Anglophiles, nurtured by the British to ease the running of their Indian empire.

When her husband goes off to the city to study English, Doya is left in the custody of the father-in-law, who passes his time in worship. Doya tends her father-in-law dutifully. One morning, the old man wakes up after a dream and declares that his daughter-in-law is a human incarnation of the goddess Kali.

Kali is a goddess that holds terror for Westerners. A tiny fringe of Kali's devotees, the killer cult of thuggee, gave us the word "thug." Kali is both creator and destroyer, portrayed with a sacred gaping womb and a necklace of skulls. Two of her hands threaten, two of her hands bless. She is called "Ma," a word that means the same thing in India as it does here. Such is a small indication of how Kali symbolizes both adoration and terror of women.

Basu calls attention to the poster for Devi, which Ray designed. It's a photo of Tagore, whose face is divided. "One side is dark; the other is red, cut in the middle. Here are two binaries. Here is each and its opposite." The girl is literally a battleground between the old and the new India.

The newly deified Doya does her best to be transformed. On one level, she's being a good obedient girl, following the advice of the Hindu sacred text, the Upanishads, quoted here repeatedly in the proverb "Please your father, and you please the gods."

So Doya sits, half-swooning, with the peasants lining up to praise her, surrounding her with flowers and candelabras. Sometimes her gaze is dulled with boredom, as if the incense smoke is intoxicating her. Occasionally, you can see the glint of newly realized power in her eye. It may not matter whether the girl believes in her divinity. In fact, this flickering back and forth between boredom and besottedness is likely what a god might feel.

"A wise director learns to lower his brow a little," Ray once commented, but he didn't lower it enough here for the slowest viewers. A few critics in 1960 couldn't figure why an otherwise rational girl would go along with all this worship. We're more used to devis--or rather, divas--today.

A Freudian angle on the story is all too easy to take. We can insinuate what sexual longings might have motivated the old man. Ray denied this easy reading. "I had not a shred of that element in mind," Ray told Robinson. The closest Devi comes to sounding out incestuous feelings is when the returning son confronts his religion-drunk father: "I don't know what was in this for you."

Sharmila Tagore, who will appear at the Stanford on Oct. 18, gave one of the most fascinating performances ever by a woman in the history of world cinema. Tagore was only 13, going to a Calcutta mission school run by Irish nuns, when she was tapped to play Aparna in The World of Apu. She is the bride Apu acquires when the groom in her arranged marriage goes suddenly insane.

She is 17 in Devi, transforming herself convincingly from freshness to madness. "Devi was what a genius got out of me, not something I did myself," Tagore said later. Modest, but not quite true; she's continued as a major star in Indian film to this day.

And Devi is but one of many Ray films scheduled at the Stanford Theater through December. David Packard, chief of the nonprofit theater, is double-billing Ray's work with Hollywood films the Calcutta director enjoyed and wrote about in his diaries (such as Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot and The Maltese Falcon). When he won the lifetime achievement Oscar in 1991, Ray used some of his last breath to praise Deanna Durbin. (Durbin was Universal Pictures' musical star of the late 1930s, the Hilary Duff of her day.) "Ray kept these diaries recording the movies he saw when he was a teenager," Packard says, "writing down a star system for films he was seeing."

Packard hopes that the regular fans of Hollywood can turn out for Calcutta-made films. Operating what's still the most popular revival theater in America is, he says, a matter of instinct: "The formula I follow is, if I like something, I figure other people will like it." Mahanagar (The Big City, Nov. 15-16) is the film that introduced Packard to Ray's work. "The artistry is effortless--not like Beethoven or Citizen Kane, where there's a huge amount to admire. His work is more like Mozart's. They used to say of Mozart that he had an emotional understanding of all kinds of people, and Ray has that. "

In Ray's work, the searching intelligence, the generous spirit and impeccable eye of the director meet the sensuality and immovability of India. He's not the last word on the cinema in India. After all, Ray was directing in a language that less than a fifth of the nation understood. Still, Ray told stories in a language of film that the entire world can understand.


The Satyajit Ray Film Festival runs through Dec. 21 at the Stanford Theater, 221 University Ave., Palo Alto. See Revival Caps weekly for a detailed schedule of screenings.


Devi Diva: Sharmila Tagore plays a girl goddess in Satyajit Ray's 'Devi.'

Sharmila Tagore

By Richard von Busack

Sharmila Tagore visited Santa Cruz at the former Dream Inn, stopping for a quick interview before her appearance at the Pacific Rim Film Festival. Tagore is a descendant of Rabindranath Tagore: polymath and Nobel Prize-winning novelist, actually suggested the theme of the 1899 short story "Devi" to its author, Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee. The 1960 film Devi stars Tagore, who previously debuted in Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu.

I think that Devi, the mysterious tale of a woman suspected of divinity, isn't just Tagore's best film, but one of the best I've ever seen. Tagore went on to become a leading star in both Bollywood and Calcutta movies; during her career, she starred in five of Satyajit Ray's movies.

Metro: What was your first impression of Satyajit Ray?

Sharmila Tagore: I was 13 at the time, I was so young. I remember this very tall person with a booming bass voice. He was very kind, exceedingly gentle but daunting. Very easy to get on with. I don't remember exactly what he said at the time--just that he made me feel very at home and comfortable.

Metro: You've said that your work in Devi was "what a genius got out of me, not something I did myself." (Quoted by Andrew Robinson in his book Satyajit Ray, University of California Press, 1989.) Did he give you specific direction in the film Devi?

Ms. Tagore: No, he did not. There were others who did. Ray gave much direction to Chhabi Biswas, a very senior actor who played the father. He preferred newcomers to professional actors. His direction was often technical, telling the actors to take the light, move next to a door or an object. In Days and Night in the Forest, in the scene where I tell Soumitra Chatterjee about how I saw my mother die in a fire when I was 12, he took me aside and told me about a Bergman film he'd seen. He wanted me to think about something like the situation he described.

He allowed us to improvise a little; if he felt that something you were doing was wrong, he might come over and whisper in your ear, "Why don't you try doing it like this--without so much emphasis."

He always finished on the first and second take, even when he was working with children. Never more takes than that unless there was something wrong technically. There was always a lack of money, so there were not too many retakes.

[Robison in Ray, quoting an article by Ray titled "The Confronting Question" about the conditions in a Calcutta film studio:

"Here, while a shot is being taken, one holds one's breath for fear the lights might go down in the middle of the shot, either of their own accord, or through a drop in the voltage: one holds one's breath while the camera rolls on the trolley (dolly), lest the wheels encounter a pothole on the studio floor and wobble--thus ruining the shot; one holds one's breath on location for fear of a crowd emerging out of the blue ... one holds one's breath while the film is processed for fear of it being spoiled through sheer carelessness; one holds one's breath too, while the film is being edited, because one never knows when the ravaged Moviola might turn back on the editor in revenge and rip the previous film to ribbons. No wonder film-makers become prone to heart diseases."]

Ms. Tagore: I think he [Ray] chose actors who were slightly cerebral so they'd be able to follow his instructions. Speaking personally, I never found him difficult to follow. The way he spoke was crystal clear--it was never anything like "imagine you're a sunset, a flower blooming in the wind." It was "open that drawer, stand by that curtain." It was much easier.

Metro: Watching Devi now, do you have a better idea of what was motivating your character, Doya?

Ms. Tagore: Oh, sure. At the time, I had no idea. I'd go to sleep on the set. It took 45 minutes to light the scene where I'm in bed, and so they had to wake me up to get the shot. Now, today, I realize what it was all about: the victimhood of a child. Those days [in the 1860s, when Devi is set] girls got married at an early age, and they'd never see their families again. A good daughter-in-law did everything her father-in-law told her. When her husband goes off to study, she really has no idea what to do. The strain, isolation and loneliness makes it hard for her to make up her mind. She cannot think correctly, she's completely cut off.

What happens to her is not empowerment, it's the opposite of it in the film. She's a victim of belief. At the time the film was made, religion had a very strong hold. The film Devi represents a clash of modernity versus tradition, and this girl becomes a victim in the struggle.

Devi is Satyajit Ray's most Hindu film. He had to defend it from the orthodox, dogmatic way of looking at the world. The film remains very relevant, even now. Religion brings out the worst in people. And if there is a collective frenzy over religion, anything is possible. It's the human beings who create, or re-create the gods, the human beings who decide whether they will be used for good or not.

Metro: I've heard you were being educated in a convent at the time you were cast in Devi. Is it possible that you were thinking of the Christian Virgin Mary when you made the film?

Ms. Tagore: I was not conscious of it, though I liked the convent and Mother Jean-Baptiste, who taught in it. I'd just started going to school at the convent; I'd been asked to leave the Bengali Middle School because they were afraid I'd have a terrible effect on the students because I had worked in a film [namely, The World of Apu]. When I was growing up, my parents believed in Kali; I may have imbibed this belief unconsciously.

Metro: Was Devi considered a controversial film? In I Lost it at the Movies, Pauline Kael claims that Pandit Nehru himself had to intercede to keep it from being banned.

Ms. Tagore: It was actually The Apu Trilogy that Nehru allowed to be shown; the controversy was that these three films presented an image of India as poor and backward. The matter went up into the parliament.

Metro: And did you yourself face any reactions to Devi?

Ms. Tagore: When we were shooting, an elderly man fell at my feet and proclaimed me Devi. I was very young and to have an old man at my feet scared me.

Metro: Can you comment on your other films with Satyajit Ray?

Ms. Tagore: In Nayak [The Hero, 1966], Satyajit Ray wanted me to wear glasses to make me look more grown-up. I asked him if my character should be nearsighted or farsighted. He was very impressed with that question.

We filmed all the train sequences indoors, even though the studios were not well equipped; I thought the art director, Bansi Chandragupta and the photographer, Subrata Mitra, really worked to the best of their advantage. The film's beautifully shot, almost perfect for the romance. Ray wrote the story on his own, all about the movie star who's impressed an entire train except for a little girl and the journalist I played.

It's so easy to identify with the structure, all those little unfinished stories. I played the "conscience" in all of Ray's films, particularly Seemabaddha [Company Limited, 1971] . In Aranyer Din Ratri [Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969], I play a girl who is neither impressed or judgmental when dealing with a group of city men who are more English than the English. They can't see a sunset without thinking of an American film they saw one like it in, or can't see a jungle without thinking of Tarzan. They're educated buy they live in a vacuum. There's so much humor in this film, as there are in all Ray's films. And they did well at the box office in Bengal, they're not so arty or difficult to follow.

Metro: Is it still the case that Ray's language is only understood in about a fifth of India?

Ms. Tagore: Yes. The rest of India doesn't understand the Bengal language. A lot of people can't read, and thus can't read subtitles. I think the problem with their lack of success in the rest of India was due to marketing. Tamil and South Indian films can be exported to do well in Malaysia; Bengali films aren't as easy to export.

Metro: With the rise of DVDs and home videos, are movie theaters in India suffering a decline?

Ms. Tagore: People still go to the movies as an outing. Bollywood films are increasing their songs and locales, filming in Switzerland and Scotland, and adding more lavish attractions. The older theaters are being renovated with new sound systems and wide screens, to draw young people. Certainly people still go to the movies in India.


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