Woman or Goddess? The Politics of the Female Body Based on the Short Film Devi

(Readers’ submissions: Celebrating one year of the Indigenous Blog)

By Arpita Chowdhury

Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati…Kathua Hathras, Unnao – Do these names sound familiar?

Every day, scanning through the newspapers, at least 40% of the news articles talk about the violence against women, whether it’s rape, sexual assault, eve-teasing, or domestic violence. The horrific tales do not cease to exist. The word ‘Maata’ is among the most commonly used in India; however, the connotations attached to it fall short when it comes to showcasing the so-called ‘masculinity’ on the same body that was worshiped a while ago.

The short film Devi (2020) directed by Priyanka Banerjee, attempts to deconstruct the notions of the traversing moral standards of society in just thirteen minutes along with a linear narrative which makes it a hard-hitting tale. A set of women packed in a single room set the thought line that narrativizes the plight of women navigating the political economy of the gender divisions placed at the intersection of religion, caste, class, and gender. It is quite evident that women’s bodies are seen as a land that can be mutilated, ravished, and used as a sight of male pleasure. 

The short film brings to the fore and completely dissects the taboos often attached to the cause of rape. All the women characters in the film come from different backgrounds in terms of their education, socio-economic conditions, marital status, etc. Banerjee has specially given attention to the attires, thus slapping it in the face of the ones who argue that a certain dressing style increases the chances of rape. Whether it is a Burqa or hot pants, whether she can speak English or not, whether she is a 50-year-old woman or a child, whether she is a housewife or a working woman – it hardly matters. The female body, as soon as it is born, becomes a product that belongs to someone. 

The sheer commodification of the female body raises questions on the deification of women that is quite prevalent in the country. The film opens up with Kajol’s character performing the Indian ritual of igniting an incense stick and worshiping the idol, thus setting the preface of what Banerjee aims to portray. In her book Politics of the Female body, Ketu H. Katrak defines the titular term as something that “involves socialization involving layers and levels of ideological influences, socio-cultural and religious, that impose knowledge or ignorance of female bodies and construct women as gendered subject or object.” For instance, if we take into account the marriage customs of the traditional realm, from skin color to body weight, a woman is subject to extreme scrutinization which leads to further humiliation.

Ironically, the female figure is put on a pedestal labeling her as pure, as the nurturer, as the caregiver, and on the other hand, she is objectified as a sexual being who can be bought or sold in the market.  All the ideas of child marriage, domestic violence, sexual assault are amalgamated in the narrative that makes the audience ponder upon this issue. Based on these arguments, we can view Devi as a narrative that does not question but resurfaces the cruel realities of ideological linchpins that often get suppressed under the garb of the patriarchal dominion. 

Talking of the cinematic techniques used by Banerjee, we notice that she uses dark tones and episodic punches of colors that highlight different ideas. For example, the red bindi or saree reflects tradition as well as rage and anger. It can also denote the blood which is a result of bodily mutilation and violence. On the other hand, the impending black and gray shades reflect on the gloominess of the milieu thus forcing the audience to enter the space and confront the reality. The seating position of the different female characters is quite significant, women who come from urban societies and work to earn their livelihood sit on the sofas and chairs, and women from rural areas who are essentially uneducated sit on the floor. The character portrayed by Kajol represents a link between these two kinds of women. She is a housewife from a middle-class family and hence attempts to always maintain peace and accommodate all kinds of viewpoints.

The use of the television set plays an extremely important role in the overall narrative of the film. It essentially is a technological as well as a sociological link between the world and the space where all women belong. The constant presence of the sound of the news channel works as a liminal character in itself. The increase in the number of rape cases shirk all the women in the room and it also leads to a heated debate between the urban and the rural women who end up describing their own cause of death. Thus, highlighting the very atrocity they went through.

The genius of the short film lies in its depiction of difficult themes in a manner that makes it easy for the audience to absorb. Not even once do we witness the violence. It is imperative that the female body and the political act of deification are reflected in the convenient acts of categorizing women in mainstream society. The rhetoric of Devi screams out the hypocrisy and also questions the trajectories of female choice and her rights over her own body. The short film is an extremely evident example of true art that explores relevant socio-political issues.

Arpita Chowdhury is currently a student of English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She has a keen interest in film studies and film analysis, and writes regularly.

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