Based on a story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherji, Goddess (Devi) is, like much of Satyajit Ray’s work during this period, also inspired by the works and humanitarian themes of the Indian writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore. Being principally concerned with ideas of equality and justice regardless of one’s background, caste, wealth, social status, many of these films would be seen in the context of splits and divisions, mainly in the contrast between rural Bengali life and the rich, big city life of Calcutta. Although superficially this appears a simple division to mark strong contrasts, Ray has the ability in many of these films to get beneath the surface, find the basic human qualities that drive people and enforce certain characteristics and social behaviours.
Although the contrast between people of differing classes is certainly there in Ray’s 1960 feature Goddess, the film sees the director move towards a more complex expression of the interaction between familial, social, gender, religious, political and personal conflict in a way that, in later works, would see him seek to form a more varied and widespread outlook not only on Bengali life and culture in all its richness and variety, but identify within them characteristics and behaviour that is universal to people everywhere, regardless of nationality and upbringing. The conflict in Goddess then may be primarily a religious one, but it goes deeper than this, finding in faith a personal expression where one’s strengths and weaknesses are magnified, and while the consequences of actions taken on such terms can appear to be for the benefit of all, there are other unforeseen issues that have to be taken into consideration.
Set in Bengal, a century in the past, at the centre of Goddess is Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), a seventeen year-old young woman married to a wealthy man Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterje). They live with her husband’s family, but her husband is studying English in Calcutta preparing for exams, and once qualified, he hopes that they can make their own life together, and perhaps have their own children like their nephew Khoka, who Doya dotes on. Uma’s father however is a devout man, a worshipper of the goddess Kali, known to her followers as Ma, or Mother. Caught up in his prayers and rituals devoted to the goddess, he has a strange dream one night and wakes up believing that it has been revealed to him that his daughter-in-law Doya is an incarnation of Kali. Doya soon builds up a devoted following, not just with the worshippers in the temple, but with the poor people of the region who believe that she has miraculous healing powers.
The subject of religious charlatanism is one of many aspects of the lives of the Bengali people that Satyajit covers in his comprehensive view of society over his film career, but it is addressed more directly, albeit in a semi-comic manner, in Mahapurush (The Holy Man). Here the subject is approached in a different manner, taking in not only the disparity in religious beliefs and the impact such blind devotion can have on a society, but seeing it from different perspectives – from the rich man and the poor man, for the believer and the non-believer. It also takes a look at the underlying drives behind such devotion, what it says about the old traditions of Indian society that are not just purely religious, but have an impact on how women are viewed, the freedoms they lack and their inability to make decisions over their own lives, questioning the ability of such a society to modernise.
Satyajit Ray however is too great a director to even allow such Manichean divisions tell the whole story, and while there are certainly negative side-effects that come out of such blind religious devotion in Goddess, the intentions behind them are shown to be relatively benign and even quite beautiful in the persuasive euphoria of the religious ceremonies, the singing and the rhythmic chanting that do indeed have the power to bring people together in the common cause for good and well-being. There is no conscious intent on the part of Doya’s father-in-law to either aggrandise himself or fool others with the deification of his daughter-in-law – his belief is sincere and his faith so strong that he is unable to see the difference between dreams and reality. And it’s there that Ray makes his point, neither attacking religious beliefs nor glorifying them, but making the simple point that they should not get in the way of being open and aware of the basic realities that have to be faced in life, life that needs to change and move on with the times.
Goddess is released in the UK by Mr Bongo Films. The film here is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is region-free.
Mr Bongo’s releases of Satyajit Ray films, while certainly welcome in the absence of any other editions, have also been problematic from a transfer point of view. Like their edition of Two Daughters released alongside Goddess, the original 1.33:1 image is anamorphically enhanced. It’s not stretched to fit the widescreen frame, but retains its original ratio and is boxed in with black borders to the left and right. In practice, this isn’t much of an issue for anyone with a widescreen TV, as it just forces the viewer to watch it in the correct aspect ratio. Whether it results in a loss of screen resolution is negligible, as the elements are really far from perfect.
The print suffers from numerous small marks and dustspots, with some heavy scratching in places and one or two larger marks, but on the whole the damage is scarcely troublesome and has little impact on the viewing experience. Contrast is strong, but the blacks are solid and shadow detail is reasonably fine, if far from exceptional. There is nonetheless decent clarity to the image with adequate detail visible, and the stability is generally fine also. Objects, particularly dark objects and hair, tend to cast hazy halos and cause ghosting against brighter backgrounds. Again, as with Two Daughters, it’s certainly an acceptable way of viewing the film, but only if your expectations aren’t particularly high.
The audio track is also far from perfect. Presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, it’s generally adequate in terms of allowing dialogue to be relatively audible, but there is a large amount of hiss in the background which rises when there is music or spoken dialogue, and there is frequent crackling in the quieter passages.
English subtitles are included and are fixed on the original print. They have a transparent border, so are at least clearly readable at all times.
There are no extra features on the disc.
Another fine film from Satyajit Ray finally makes its way to UK DVD. Like the previous Mr Bongo release of The Adversary and their edition of Two Daughters, released alongside this, their DVD for Goddess is just about barely adequate for a commercial release, but all the same it’s an essential film from one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, taking a simple situation and revealing within it a complex and often beautiful study of people, society and religion.