DEVAKI. Director: Bappaditya Bandopadhyay. Players: Perizaad Zorabian, Suman Ranganathan, George Baker, Arvin Tukker, Ram Kapoor. DVD (Spark). English and Hindi with English subtitles. (Age advisory: not for pre-teens)
Few recent Hindi films have dared the extreme angle that Bandopadhyay’s underrated entry takes on. Offering a chilling, no-nonsense slice of rural India where women are treated as chattel by their husbands and fathers, Devaki tosses smoldering embers into the same institutionalized misogynistic inferno that made Bandit Queen, Matrubhoomi, and Mrityudand notorious.
This story of two women friends from vastly different walks of life is a remarkable testament to an enduring survival instinct in the face of overwhelming odds. Devaki (sensitively portrayed by Ranganathan) is a destitute villager forced to marry a much older, thrice-married man in return for settling her family’s debt. Devaki’s friend, Nandini (Zorabian in good form), is an educated social worker who moves back to the city only to end up in a dead-end relationship with a married man. Even in dire straits, the two remarkable women continue to correspond by letters. This well-told tale of woe is even more surprising in that it’s based on true events.
While Spark’s DVD comes with no extras and the 90-minute story only features two songs (both decent tunes), the print is crisp and free of artifacts. What also sets this story apart is the inclusion of longish tracks of dialog entirely in English—unusual for a premise with a mostly rural backdrop.
Taking unsettling twists (the original story made headlines in India), this portrait of depravity shocks (slavery, rape, bigamy, incest) even as it celebrates the undying bond between two friends. While Devaki’s and Nandini’s suffering is a bottomless well—actually causing the village crossdresser to cast aside her drag in sheer disgust—their spirit sails forth with their humanity proudly intact, offering a bittersweet lesson for all of us.