“An Enemy of the People” - by Satyajit Ray (1989)

Satyajit Ray’s An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) came several years after his previous feature, Home and the World (1984), an interlude caused by a serious heart attack that the great writer/director/composer suffered in 1983 and had left him debilitated for some time. In fact even with this resumption of his filmmaking, it seems that Ray’s customarily masterful mise-en-scene was held in restraint and limited to fairly static studio situations.

The film script is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play of the same name (in Norwegian: En Folkefiende) describing the travails of a doctor who seeks to warn his community about a dangerous public health risk. In Ibsen’s time the concerns were apparently Victorian moral hypocrisy and public resistance to scientific modernism, issues that persist in today’s world but are perhaps even more relevant to societies that feature a mixture of modernist and traditional cultures like that of India.  So Ray’s translation of Ibsen’s story into an Indian context is particularly apt.  It is worth noting that Dariush Mehrjui’s very faithful adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) for his Sara (1992) is similarly appropriately rendered and very relevant to his modern Iranian context.

The story proceeds through four relatively static scenes in just a couple of locations that cover progressions in the doctor’s efforts to thwart a potential epidemic.
1.  The Threat of an Epidemic

The first section, lasting almost half of the film, takes place at the home of Doctor Ashok Gupta (played by Soumitra Chatterjee), who receives confirmation from a chemical laboratory of his suspicions that the densely populated area of Bhuvanpulli in his local town of Chandipur has a polluted water supply that is causing people to come down with jaundice and infectious hepatitis.  This could lead to an epidemic and widespread loss of life.  He contacts the local newspaper, Janavarta, to publish a notice warning people that the water supply in a densely populated area has health risks. 

But this warning immediately meets up with official resistance.  It turns out that Dr. Dupta’s brother, Nisith, is Chandipur’s mayor, and he has a vested interest in seeing to it that this news is blocked. Nisith was instrumental in establishing the local Tripureshwar temple in Bhuvanpulli, where faithful Hindus are given “holy” water to sip in order to cure their ailments. The town’s financial prosperity is now dependent on the business associated with the temple, and any panic about the water would severely affect revenues. So Nisith warns his brother not to publish anything further about the crisis (which could lead to shutting off the water supply in Bhuvanpulli).  Of course the public faces of Nisith and another wealthy civic leader, Mr. Bhargava, are not those of greedy businessmen, but rather those of devout and dedicated Hindus.  Their public claim is that the holy temple’s blessed tulsi leaves will purify any foreign or injurious elements in the water and will protect the faithful. 

Despite this opposition, Dr. Gupta does have a few purported allies. Janavarta’s avowedly progressive editor, Haridas Bagchi, and its publisher, Adhir Mukherjee, assure Dr. Gupta that they will see to it that the public is properly informed about the health menace.

2.  Backing Away
The second section takes place at the editorial office of the Janavarta newspaper.  Disregarding his brother’s warning, Dr. Gupta goes there to submit his own more detailed article identifying the temple area as the source of the polluted water and the steps that must be taken by the civic authorities in order to avert a health disaster.  At the newspaper office Dr. Gupta is greeted by assistant editor Biresh Guha, who heaps warm praise on the doctor for his public heroism. 

However, before long pervasive hypocrisy is revealed.  It turns out that editor Haridas and publisher Adhir are cowed by Nisith and the civic authorities, and they decide not to publish Gupta’s article.  In fact we learn that Haridas’s alleged progressivism is really just a cover for his attempts to woo Dr. Gupta’s daughter, Indrani.

Nisith, Haridas, and Adhir go on to say that they will block any attempt by Dr. Gupta to reveal the scientific findings.  So Dr. Gupta decides to hold a public meeting and has messages about it posted on all the public signboards.

3.  The Public Meeting

Despite official obstructions, Dr. Gupta manages to hold his public meeting, and a large crowd is attracted to hear the doctor read his unpublished article. Before the doctor can read his letter to the gathering, however, Nisith, Haridas, and Adhir disrupt the proceedings and convince the volatile crowd that the doctor is a “public enemy”.  Then the crowd is dispersed in panic by explosions apparently set off by Nisith's hired hooligans.

4.  The Aftermath
Back at Dr. Gupta’s home the next day, rioters opposed to the "public enemy" are hurling rocks through his windows.  He also gets the news that he will be forced to move out of this apartment and that he has also lost his job at the hospital.  In addition, his daughter Indrani has been fired from her job as a schoolteacher.  He seems to be beaten and has been abandoned by everyone but his family.  However, he then gets the upbeat news that his daughter’s fiancé, Ronen, has organized his friends in the local drama society to support him.  They vow to distribute his unpublished article door-to-door to everyone in town.  In addition, Biresh Guha comes over and announces that he has resigned from the hypocritical Janavarta newspaper and now as a freelance writer intends to send articles to the big-city newspapers in Calcutta telling them the truth about what has happened in Chandipur.  Thrilled by this support, Dr. Gupta is energized to carry on his fight for the public good.
Although Satyajit Ray stayed pretty close to Ibsen’s story and situated it appropriately in an Indian context, the production values here are not what you would expect from a Ray film.  Though the cast featured a number of veteran actors and actresses, the performances are mostly wooden and artificial.  In fact the entire production had the air of a 1960s television studio play, with the characters just reading their lines without conviction. The one bright spot is Soumitra Chatterjee in the role of Dr. Gupta.  Chatterjee was a Ray favorite and had appeared in many of his great films, including his debut performance some thirty years earlier in The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959).  Chatterjee invariably evinces a certain naive and infectious optimism about the world and his place in it that helps give life to the films he is in.

Ray does add a few touches to Ibsen’s story that have value.  The support that Doctor Gupta receives from Ronen and Biresh Guha at the close of the story gives a positive uplift that was missing from Ibsen’s more downbeat closing.  Indeed, Ibsen apparently intended his stageplay to be something of a black comedy (before that notion hit the mass market), leaving the audience with a scathing view of modern hypocrisy.  Ray’s closing is more hopeful and uplifting.

Another Ray addition is the presentation of scientific issues around epidemic threats, which facilitates a useful comparison to some modern concerns – particularly that of global warming and climate change.  Nisith argues with his brother that the majority of people who drink the temple’s holy water don’t fall ill – therefore there couldn’t be anything wrong with that water.  But Dr. Gupta responds by pointing out that although some people have the natural immunity to resist the pathogens in the water, there are still many people not so immune, and so the contaminated water is still most likely to lead to a devastating epidemic unless something is done.  The statistical probabilities of a massive epidemic are too high to be ignored.  This echoes the current public debate about climate change, where those with vested interests in fossil fuel production try to raise doubts concerning the scientific predictions that predict climate change disaster as a strong near-term likelihood, but not with absolute certainty.  Thus extractive elites try to turn the cautious skepticism of scientific reasoning back on itself in order to dismiss all science-based warnings.

In addition there is also a higher-level concern in An Enemy of the People connected with how society should be organized, and this applies to Ibsen’s Norway, Mehrjui’s Iran, Ray’s India, and wherever you live, too. Since the emergence of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, there has been a recognition of rationally-based social principles that apply universally. Though there are varying opinions concerning the details, their overarching nature can be summarized in four basic principles which I refer to as RMDL, and which I have discussed before in connection with my reviews of Mohammad Rasoulof’s Head Wind (2008) and Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012). Here in An Enemy of the People, Dr. Gupta aligns himself with the RMDL principles:
  • (Human) Rights.  Dr. Gupta recognizes the basic right-to-life of all people, no matter what station they have in life. In addition he recognizes the everyone’s’ individual right to self expression. His brother Nisith stood in opposition to these common rights.
  • Markets.  This principle concerns a society’s need to support the free exchange of goods and services for all people.  Although not explicitly addressed in the film, Dr. Gupta’s allies’ plans to promote his ideas door-to-door indicate their faith in the opportunity to market their ideas.
  • Democracy.  Society should be governed by the consent of all people.  Dr. Gupta’s public meeting reflects his faith that presenting evidence before the people gives them the opportunity to choose what to do.  Brother Nisith chose to block this process.
  • Rule of Law.  This principle calls for a written set of publicly-known laws that can be adjusted by democratic processes.  Dr. Gupta said he planned to exercise his legal rights, but Nisith informed him that the town’s legal magistrate, a devout Hindu, was in his own pocket and would thwart due legal processes.
While Dr. Gupta espouses the RMDL principles, his brother Nisith and other civic leaders persistently try to block them.  So despite the film’s talky presentation, Ray did manage to cast his light on issues of contemporary concern.

No comments: