While filming his ambitious Rabindranath Tagore adaptation The Home and the World (1984), Satyajit Ray suffered a serious heart attack. His doctors recommended that he should avoid strenuous activity and stop directing movies altogether. Except for a half-hour documentary about his father, Ray followed that medical advice for a full five years. He then made three more films at his usual pace of one per year.
The first was 1989’s An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) a direct adaptation of the famed Henrik Ibsen play from 1882. Universal in its importance, the play dramatizes the way that business-oriented society is willing to suppress inconvenient truths, even when the public health is at stake. Ibsen wrote it in response to a public outcry in Sweden against his play Ghosts, which dared to speak openly about venereal disease. Ray identified with Ibsen’s theme, as he himself was a progressive and had previously made films about potentially controversial topics. His 1960 feature The Goddess (Devi) criticized the misuse of faith, when the Hindu goddess Kali is falsely worshipped through a woman believed to be her reincarnation. Ray’s The Holy Man (1965) is a comedy, yet it also denounces fake gurus, charlatans that exploit vulnerable believers.
Writing and directing just as he had done since his first feature Pather Panchali (1955), Ray for the most part stayed close to Henrik’s original. But his adaptation complicates the idealistic doctor’s dilemma, adding a conflict between religion and science. Once again, Ray finds that religious faith can be used as a weapon against the public good. Ibsen’s story has been transposed to a town called Chandipur, in contemporary West Bengal. The respected Doctor Ashok Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) is treating disturbing cases of a water-borne disease. His lab tests locate the source in the spring at the Tripureshwar temple. Thousands of Hindus drink the temple’s water in observance of their faith. The only way to prevent a devastating epidemic is to shut down the temple and rebuild its plumbing, but the promise of profit makes doing so a complicated manner.
An Enemy of the People is not highly valued by critics that define Satyajit Ray by his classic early pictures. Much of Ray’s lofty reputation rests with near-mystical scenes in which he set narrative concerns aside to pause for a purely sensual observation. In his Apu Trilogy, a young woman pauses in a pouring rain, simply enjoying the showers. Ray had ignored the established film experts that said he couldn’t film in a real monsoon. Critics declared that the scene evoked the essence of life in India. But Ray’s diminished health required a change in his filming methods. His doctors allowed him to make other movies only if it could be filmed entirely in the studio. With the prospect of no location work, Ray’s response was to leave naturalism behind entirely. This is not the kind of visually rich film for which Ray was celebrated.
An Enemy of the People unspools as a filmed play, with flat lighting suitable for a television show. We see only a few interior sets. Actors enter and leave carrying important letters just as in Ibsen’s original stage directions. The camerawork is not at all artistic; the weakened Ray may not have looked through the viewfinder. To underscore big dramatic revelations, Ray simply cuts between close-ups of character reactions, as in the most simple of soap operas.
Yet one visually astute setup shows Ray using deep focus to make a strong story point. While Dr. Gupta pleads with the publisher on the other side of the room, Nishith is framed as a giant profile in the foreground, calmly lighting a cigar. The dynamic composition tells us that the treacherous brother knows exactly what he’s doing. Unable to fashion expressive visuals, Ray concentrates on Henrik Ibsen’s still-relevant politics. As an engaged social progressive, Ray was well aware that Indian health issues in need of rational scientific judgment were often ‘politicized’ for private gain and resisted with emotionalism and religious obstinance.
Unlike the original An Enemy of the People, Ray’s adaptation never criticizes Dr. Gupta for having too much faith in people. Ray instead confects a hopeful finish in which faithful family and friends rally to Ashok’s side. The affirmation that good can still prevail leads Ashok to a welcome ‘Frank Capra’ realization: “I am not alone. I am an enemy of the people, but I have friends.” No man is a failure if he has friends… or the ability to rally an exterior news outlet.
Some critics knew better than to classify An Enemy of the People as Satyajit Ray in decline. Leonard Maltin simply called it more static than usual for Ray. After starring for Ray in 15 films, Soumitra Chatterjee’s fine performance helps immensely, maintaining our faith in Ashok Gupta even when the good doctor’s innocence proves a terrible handicap. Ray would make only two more movies. He wrote, directed and composed the music for his final film The Stranger (1991) from his sickbed, aided by his son Sandip Ray.
Satyajit Ray’s creative commitment remained constant even as his health failed. His reputation among his international peers was unsurpassed. Director Akira Kurosawa was not a man known for idle compliments but in Ray’s case he waxed poetic, describing his colleague as “A great tree in the woods of India.”