Reviews TV + Movies

Lines Drawn: A Critique Of The Film Devi (Goddess)

The 13-minute film starts with a clash between Tara and a man. Amidst the commotion we hear a man calling her names, of which one that translates to “dyke cunt”, a mostly homophobic slur, in an effort to mock her ‘boyish’ ways, can be made out. After pure rage, brutal name calling by both of them, Tara (Aditi Vasudev) is left battered but unbroken, bolstered by her sense of righteousness. But it really is one thing to stick up for one’s own rights, reinforced by the confidence of youth. On the other hand, what happens when somebody else’s are at stake?

After the fight, as they enter home, we hear the classic song ‘Dil hai ki manta nahi’ dissolving into the background, immediately placing you in a house that has imbibed the warmth of its residents for years.

Tara’s mum, Lata (Tanvi Azmi), is bemused by the “adventures” of her child, and in particular by the bruise she’s got on her face. We sense that it’s not the first time that Tara has been in trouble, and her mother sees this as a revolt for her sake as well as others, and that she’s scared of what could happen to her daughter. Indeed, Devi (Priyanka Bose), the house help who helped raise her, tells Tara as much, attempting to justify that her mother is not unwise.

Their conversations circle so naturally around each other, it has to be the result of a bond that only means to grow. It is commendable how Karishma Dube manages to capture the nuances of family life, when one member of the family is thought to be fast asleep but are actually awake and listening in on the happenings of the rest of the house.

We also sense the tension between Tara and Devi. Late in the night as they lean out of the window, while Devi smokes a cigarette, it’s clear that something has changed between them. The streetlights fall on their face just as they do on you. The traffic is heard by them just as it is by you and the cigarette puffs are just as mournful (probably more so).

One night, when the guests are over for cocktails, Devi is seen working in the kitchen. Tara, finds herself out of place and walks in, kisses her unexpectedly, and Devi kisses her back.

They are seen by one of the guests, and Devi leaves. We later learn that Azmi is informed of this occurrence. The three women, share the living room space sitting in silence. Devi sits down, like she always must have. The confrontation is quick, with Tara quiet throughout. Azmi states that she has considered Devi, like her daughter while Devi stands up to say that she hasn’t harmed her child in any way.

The next morning, breakfast is served to the mother-daughter duo and it is observable that the help has been replaced. The scene artfully cuts to the credits and we have a dark souvenir in our hands.

Their kiss would be a romantic triumph in a Western perspective, could be in an Indian one too. But what happens when desire is met with class and caste discrimination?

Theirs seem to be an educated Bengali family that is likely from a dominant caste, living in Delhi. They don’t typically fit into the traditional mould of an Indian family. However, the three women struggle to re-establish what they are to each other when confronted with an uncomfortable truth. Indicating how through India, patriarchy runs through as a measure of what is acceptable in societal realms – wealthy or not.

Having someone assist at home is very typical in middle and upper class households in India. This informal job market forms the functioning of many households. Filmmaker Karishma Dube states– “This film is my attempt to better understand this familial relationship I have witnessed with our domestic help in India. It confused me as a child, and it still does so now.”

The film aims to explore the topics of class and identity within the framework of the contemporary Indian family – where culture and social status equal all, and where autonomy and western power are derided and admired in the same breath. When Devi and Tara are found together, the three women must instantly redefine who they are to each other according to the standards of society, exposing the relationship to what it truly is (transactional? Divided by caste lines?).

The film is beautifully personal and universal in its tensions, its desires and attractions and how they can work anomalously, often in violation of what is socially appropriate. The relationship between Tara and Devi is not easy to describe, and that was interesting to me… Dube executes the scene with sensitivity to show us something implicit to us that can often be absurd to most.

The warmth and tenderness between two women are often evasive to the inattentive. The maternal side to lesbian relationships is the flowering buds of countless movies. Women are protective of women, regardless of their sexuality and when it does come to their sexuality, you can see it manifest into a mothering of each other. One must not mistake this for being territorial, these relationships are anything but that. Maybe it is even common in most queer relationships. Maybe we seek to parent each other to softly release the shackles of society and a family that withdraw its love at the face of love.

To dwell solely on Devi’s character, I believe that she clearly draws the lines between her acceptance, survival, and the family. The title thus spells irony, an irony decipherable of parallels – what could be and what they are.

The title highlights how everything within the Indian society derives from the crevices of divinity. As a consequence, at the subconscious stage, the title may be extracted from how Devi’s character fills in the space of both a mother and a lover to Tara. The blooming of the former relationships is divine but the latter is not. To spark a debate within, I wondered – what is the point at which the relationship ceases to be important?

For Tara and Devi, their relationship will never exist, particularly within the paradigm of caste and class. Yet their connection is real and protean. 

It’s also primarily a coming-of-age story, where the protagonist ultimately struggles to do what’s ‘right’. Unfortunately, by the end of the film I could only think how much worse it could be for Devi, particularly because she belongs to a historically oppressed caste and class. We can’t fix the problems in the film, but it does lead to a discussion that is typically evasive. And the film accomplishes this.

The firm pressing of their lips has been the undoing of so many. Love that goes deeper than kohl, yet the kohl continues to oppress.

Watch now, and let us know how you feel.

This story was about: Gender Intersectionality Lesbianism Opinion

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I am an art dilettante, into bilingual poetry, learning to philosophize and comprehend spaces for differences to coexist.

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