A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, March 23, 2017

An Enemy of the People (Satyajit Ray, 1989)

Dhritiman Chatterjee and Soumitra Chatterjee in An Enemy of the People
The phrase "enemy of the people" regained currency recently when the current president of the United States applied it to the news media. It's also the title of Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play about the persecution of a truth-teller, so let the irony fall where it may. Writer-director Satyajit Ray's adaptation of Ibsen's play is one of his last films, made three years before his death. His health had been severely weakened by a heart attack in 1983, and his consequent lack of vigor shows in the film's static character: limited camera movements and a restriction to only a few sets, mostly interiors. It's very much a filmed play -- even in the final scene we hear but don't see the crowds outside proclaiming their support of Dr. Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee). Ray's screenplay follows Ibsen in general outline, while shifting the scene from a Norwegian town to an Indian one. The title character, Dr. Ashok Gupta, is concerned about a sharp increase in diseases that are typically water-borne, such as hepatitis and cholera, so he sends a sample of the town's water, including that from the newly built Hindu temple, for analysis, and his suspicions are confirmed. He writes an article for the local newspaper explaining his findings and suggesting that the temple be closed until necessary water treatment measures are taken. But he is opposed in this by his own brother, Nishith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), the equivalent of the town's mayor, who fears that closing the temple will hurt the economy, especially with a festival approaching that is likely to attract religious pilgrims. Nishith enlists a priest from the temple to proclaim the water safe and pressures the newspaper's publisher into killing his brother's article. Dr. Gupta calls a town meeting, but it is taken over by Nishith, who even goes so far as to call his brother's faith into question. Religious fundamentalists attack the Guptas' home and the landlord asks the doctor to move; the doctor's daughter loses her job as a teacher, and his privileges in the local hospital are revoked. Ibsen's play ends with his Dr. Stockmann standing firm, with only his family's support, but Ray softens his film's ending with the off-camera sound of the rallying supporters of Dr. Gupta. It's not really a cop-out ending, however. Ray has shifted the focus of his film from Ibsen's attack on bureaucracy and capitalist privilege to one he believed more relevant to his country: the clash of science and religious fundamentalism. What saves Ray's An Enemy of the People from preachiness and its lack of cinematic finesse is the director's usual involvement in his characters and the deep conviction of his actors, particularly Soumitra Chatterjee, who made his film debut in The World of Apu (1959) and worked with Ray on more than a dozen films over the next three decades.