Devi
India 1999
Directed by Kodi Ramakrishna.


A modern, big budget "special effects" Indian film about a man who falls in love with a Snake Goddess, and the consequences that ensue. Romance, music, snakes, and really big snakes.

"Is it true that female snake cobras descend to earth from the heavens?" Sunita asks her father Ranvir Singh, and Devi is the film which answers that question definitively: Not only to they descend to earth from the heavens, they do it in a massive Naga mothership which beams them down like a transporter.

Too bad the Nagini (female Naga) chose the night of the lunar eclipse to come down to earth, because when the moon is covered, they lose their powers and must return to snake form (the theme of losing one's powers when the moon is hidden, or there is an eclipse, is a common part of snake goddess lore, and also plays a part in the Hong Kong movie Phantom of Snake). When the snake goddess Devi (Prema) runs after a beautiful deer she sees, she gets left behind during the eclipse and becomes an ordinary cobra. At the same time, the beautiful deer bursts into flames for no apparent reason. Then a ring of flame forms around the cobra, a flame demon attempting to take her life. She is saved by Sunita's father, a very superstitious but kind old man. The demon takes his life, instead. Sunita is led away, sobbing, while her aunt and other inlaws conspire to cheat her out of house and home, declaring that her father was the only one in the world who cared for her anyway. The eclipse has ended, and Devi, reverting to human form, listens in the shadows. She decides to stay, to pay off her debt to the man who saved her, and his daughter.

Though how she goes about it is rather odd. She tricks her way into the life of one Vijay, a young man from another wealthy estate. She hops in the back of his jeep on his way home from a basketball tournament he was in. Strangely, though, when he arrives home, he has a tennis racquet over one shoulder. But nevermind -- Devi convinces his family that they are lovers but that he refuses to marry her. They are immediately convinced. His older brother, Ranjit, is a stern, mean bastard who they all call 'Hitler' or 'Saddam,' though he's hardly as bad as all that. When he finds out about Devi he is furious. But Devi is allowed to stay in their mansion, and while she is there she is close enough to Sunita to go to her aid when necessary.

What follows is a solid hour of family drama. Snakes! Where are the snakes? Well, this is an Indian movie, after all. These things take time to get rolling. Have no fear. The snakes still show up, but you have to come back in the last couple hours for more big ticket special effects. What we get in the meantime is an escalating drama between the two houses. Ranjit hates the Singhs, since he believes they took his money but did not sell him land. Actually, the evil Singh in-laws did this. Ranjit was supposed to marry the young Sunita, but now wants nothing to do with her. For her part, Sunita is tormented by her aunt and uncles, both physically and mentally. Devi rushes to her rescue on several occasions, and plays matchmaker between Sunita and Ranjit. In the meantime, Vijay is falling in love with Devi. But can a human and a snake goddess find love together? Hell, yes! Just give it some time.

On Nag Panchami day, the festival of the snakes, we see another example of Ranjit's stubborn arrogance. The entire village turns out to feed some milk to the snakes, led by Sunita, and he scolds them. "Children need that milk, and you feed it to snakes!" Devi secretly transforms into a cobra and comes out then, proving the value of snake worship, and Ranjit feels foolish. Poor guy. If only more people were like him, less cobras would die from drinking milk every year. But this being a supernatural film, of course the skeptic must come to learn the 'error' of his ways.

I never knew that cobra women made such good matchmakers, but Devi sets up Sunita and Ranjit quite well. There is music, dancing, engagement, and a wedding, and singing, singing singing. It comes, then, as a great relief when the demon shows up again. He forms from the lava of the earth, and we learn his name is Dantra -- a Naga, cast out of Naga-loki for his sins. Devi thought her job on earth was done. She had done her good deed by getting Sunita married and safe. But although the Naga mothership returns to pick Devi up, she can't leave, because Dantra threatens to kill Sunita as soon as she does. So Devi has to stay on earth and protect her. A disembodied voice from the Naga mothership tells her that she only has to do so until Sunita has her first child, and the child's birthsign will then protect Sunita from all future evil. In the meantime, Vijay continues to woo Devi, without result.

Dantra tries all manner of ruse to get close to Sunita and kill her, possessing their manservant, attacking them as a bat, becoming a poisonous fog. Eventually Dantra transforms into an orphan child, whom Ranjit hires to do work around the house. But at every turn, Dantra's evil plans are foiled by Devi, until at last he summons an even more powerful demon to aid him. Sunita's pregnancy seems doomed to failure, and her child doomed to never be born. Devi must call on the power of higher gods to cope. They will help, but only if the plea comes from someone within the family. Is it time for Devi to bring her manglasutra to Vijay and tie the knot? The final confrontation between God and Devil occurs far up in the snow covered Himalayas, where praying and fasting and rolling in obesiance can summon up Shakti, the Goddess of India, where love, possession, and snake charming music becomes intertwined, and where self-immolation is just another way of saying "please."

Devi was a smash hit upon its release, reinvigorating the snake woman genre. It was one of the first in a new type of Indian film, the 'special effect' film, of which style director Kodi Ramakrishna is considered the expert. But although this is a new type of snake film, it doesn't forget the past, either. One scene early on seems a direct homage to Nagin. Devi has just entered the house, and Vijay is playing a snake charming tune. She is immediately captivated, in a series of abrupt, close cut takes of her face. The scene recalls an early scene in Nagin where the same thing happens. Vijay makes light of the moment, afterwards, telling his brother it's a new song he came up with called "chicken drumstick."

The musical numbers, and there are quite a few, are not bad, but in the style of modern Indian cinema, they often don't fit seamlessly into the narrative. And the characters, when singing, no longer follow the normal rules of narrative, appearing in multiple different outfits, in different locations, sometimes nowhere near where they actually are supposed to be, with hoardes of background singers appearing out of nowhere. Some compare it to your movie being interupted by MTV, but I find it is more similar in feel to that old Monkees! TV show. Some of the songs in Devi are similarly light hearted, as well, and the marriage song will have you singing "Zoom taka Zoom taka Zoom-Zoom" long after you wished it would be out of your head. And the ridiculous opening song featuring Vijay and his comic relief manservant, dancing on the beach and singing about getting that perfect girl, will have you laughing out loud, and deeply concerned about the quality of the rest of the film. But don't worry -- that part is so bad, its good. Later, it's just pretty good.

Those interested in seeing some South Indian mythology and ritual brought vividly to light should enjoy this picture as well. As Shiva is especially associated with the snake cult, worshipping a phallic stone marked with Shiva's symbol (three white lines and a red dot) occurs frequently among both Nagas and humans. Twice in the film, the ultimate act of faith -- ritual suicide -- is enacted, to dramatically urge the Gods to come to your aid and to prove you are deeply serious and committed to your request. Played absolutely straight, the world of Devi is a world where prayer actually works, and the gods take an active interest in your offerrings. Just remember: "Devotion does not lie in the snake or in the milk. It is only in the worshipper."

The thing is -- and this is both the boon and the curse of Indian films -- Devi is around three hours long. There is a different rhythm to a film of that length, as opposed to the standard 90 minutes. There is the opening grabber, of course, something to get you interested, usually within the first ten minutes. But then, the film allows itself time to get to the point. In this case, Devi spent practically a whole hour getting Ranjit and Sunita married. And there is the feud between two estates that must be resolved, the wicked relatives that must be punished. These are all very common themes in Indian cinema, whether the film is an historical drama, an action picture, a romance, or, as here, a "mythological film." But although I somewhat resented Devi for taking so long, I found as the film actually progressed to the "payoff" scenes, the payoff was greater -- it seems some character development really counts for something, after all (please take note, George Lucas).

Devi is an uneven film, to be sure. A fun opening sags in the first half, picks up steadily, but slowly, until in the end you are marvelling that the movie continues to go on, continues to build, one confrontation after another. And yes, at some point during the film, you or someone else in your home who may be watching with you or may be in the other room, occasionally popping in, will say, "Oh my God, it's not over yet?" No, it isn't over -- not until the cosmic serpent sings.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 25, 2004.


Comments

It's available through www.indiaplaza.com.

Posted by: Peter at May 9, 2004 08:06 PM

Devi is a reasonably good entertaining movie with special effects elctrifying enough to the audience,atleast in those days when such graphics were rare.Anyone knowing about the snake mythology will not find this movie boring or far-fetched.It joins the top league of nagin-based movies for it's strong storyline and superb BGM.Music by debutante Devi Sri Prasad is not that bad as criticised by you.Infact most of them (Telugiites)who watched the movie liked it for their freshness and feel.

Posted by: c.v. Krishna Manoj at August 22, 2008 05:58 AM
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