‘Devi’ Is a Painful Exploration of Nine Women’s Tragic and Unlikely Sisterhood
A tale of sisterhood. A tale of suffering. A tale of truth.
Director: Priyanka Banarjee
Cast: Kajol, Neha Dhupia, Shruti Haasan, Neena Kulkarni, Sandhya Mhatre, Mukta Barve, Shivani Raghuvanshi, Rama Joshi and Yashaswini Dayama.
Language: Hindi, Marathi & English
Runtime: 13 Minutes
Devi (meaning Goddess) is a film that kept me on edge from the get-go. I was expecting a hard-hitting message and I was not disappointed. The film opens with a wide shot of a stuffy room, with many women in the frame. At first glance, the most striking thing about the scene is how visibly different these women are.
What do these starkly different characters have in common? They are all victims of brutal rape.
Led by Kajol, this army of women deliver lasting performances in the short time given to them. Kajol plays the traditional housewife, with her lackluster cotton saree and mangalsutra (Indian nuptial chain), praying and spreading incense around an already stuffy room.
It is quickly revealed that these characters are in the afterlife and are all occupants of a room there. The conflict arises when the characters go into a squabble regarding the entry of a potential new victim, devolving into a noisy, marketplace-like fight.
The women argue about a lack of space for the new victim, normalising their plight as if it is completely normal to be in a “heavenly” room with fellow rape victims. Unable to decide who gets to stay in the room and who must leave, they use the details of the rape such as when, how and by who as the deciding factor. The scenes following their petty fight are extremely powerful and hair-raising, which I will leave you to watch for yourself.
The entire revelation of what these characters went through left me feeling extremely uncomfortable and shaken because just outside of the barriers of film, this is the harsh reality for many women around the world, as reported in the media every single day. The way it is discussed is very matter-of-fact and apathetic, which is exactly what jolts the audience.
Director and writer Priyanka Banarjee condenses 13 minutes of screentime with layers upon layers of high impact messaging. She brings a dull room to life with the characters that she has carefully put together. The variety of women include a sophisticated city career woman (Neha Dhupia), an alcoholic party girl (Shruti Haasan), an old Marathi Aunty (Neena Kulkarni), a muslim woman clad in a full Burqa (Mukta Barve), a student doctor (Shivani Raghuvanshi) and a deaf-mute girl (Yashaswini Dayama).
With her hand-picked archetypes, the message that no woman is more or less “rape material”, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, occupation or looks, is glaring. A much-needed message in a time where women are being advised against dressing a certain way, drinking alcohol or returning home late because it is seen as “asking for it”.
The fact that the entire film is shot in the same room is another noteworthy point, the room serving as a prison of sorts for these women. A poignant reminder that women who have been sexually abused never really break free from their pain and trauma, often for more than a lifetime.
With such individualistic characters, Banarjee keeps the lighting consistently low to fully allow their quirks to shine. The entire set is of an earthy colour palette to maintain uniformed sobriety, with the only pops of colour coming from the clothes, make up and accessories of the women. Even the television is played in monochrome. That effectively sets the sombre and solemn mood for the entire film, leaving it entirely up to the women to allow viewers to feel anything but.
Another subtle messaging is the way the women treat each other. When the women argue about who gets to stay in the room, they actively try to negate the other’s suffering by dismissing the seriousness of it because it is “not traumatic enough”. This mirrors society and the unwelcoming reception that victims receive, often from other women themselves.
Kajol delivers a very restrained performance, careful not to overshadow the other actresses, but still manages to be extremely powerful, as is expected of her, given the years of acting experience under her belt. However, Kulkarni steals the show as Maushi, as she plays the judgemental elderly woman effortlessly. She nitpicks each woman’s experience with rape, despite having gone through the same thing herself, a trait that is prevalent amongst many older Indian women. All the other actors play their parts wonderfully, as well, and the result is a film that successfully captures the heart and suffering of an array of characters.
If I had to describe Devi in one word, it would be – intense. As a woman myself, this film left me in tears. It delivers a much-needed message to the masses in a succinct way. In a country like India where Goddesses are worshipped, crimes against women are rampant. While this short film will not change that in its entirety, it is a bold step in the right direction to drive home a very important message – women need to support each other first because we are all in this together.
Watch the short film below:
Image credit: Electric Apples Entertainment