Sunday, September 19, 2021


Earlier this year saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. TCM marked the day with a bunch of his films, which gave me the chance to record a film that was new-to-me, his version of the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People.

Henrik Ibsen wrote his play in the 1880s and set it in his native Norway; Ray moves the action to the present day (well, 1989 when the movie was made) and places it in a small city called Chandipur somewhere in the Indian state of West Bengal (that being the same state in which Calcutta is situated and bordering Bangladesh. Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) is a doctor there who has also written some articles for the progressive newspaper Janavarta; he's planning another one about an outbreak of jaundice in the community.

Dr. Gupta has a feelnig that the outbreak is caused by contaminated water, and to that end he's collected a sample of water in one of the districts and sent if off to Calcutta for testing. His suspicions are confirmed, as the water is indeed contaminated. So, there's a simple solution, which is to fix the water problem with new wells and, if the community could support it, some sort of treatment facility.

The bigger problem, however, is that the district with the contaminated water contains a relatively new Hindu temple, and that temple's holy water is what really seems to be the source of the contamination. The temple has become a site of pilgrimage, bringing a lot of people to Chandipur, and with them a fair amount of financial gain to the city.

The town fathers, then, led by Dr. Gupta's elder brother Nisith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), are understandably worried about what the consequences are going to be if word gets out that the temple water is in fact the source of the problem. There's the old saw about a lie getting halfway around the world before the truth can put its shoes on, but here, even if the the temple water contamination is cleaned up, the stories about the contamination will always remain more prominent than the fact of any cleanup that might occur in the future.

So Nisith brings quite a lot of pressure to his brother not to publish the story about the contaminated holy water. Indeed, the publisher of Janavarta decides, along with editor Haridas (Dipankar Dey), to spike the story. And it's not as if any other newspaper will publish it. Fortunately, however, Ashok's daughter, a local schoolteacher, is also engaged to a member of a theater company, and they have a printing press as well as a theater to hold meetings. So it's decided to advertise a public meeting where Dr. Gupta will give a speech about the contaminated holy water.

Unfortunately, Nisith gets his allies together and uses parliamentary procedure to sabotage the meeting. He also gets Dr. Gupta relieved of his duties at the local hospital, and even Dr. Gupta's daughter fired from her teaching position. What are Dr. Gupta and his family going to do?

This version of An Enemy of the People is very interesting, and takes the Ibsen play in some interesting directions that Ibsen himself didn't go. The action is in a small city rather than a village, which changes the dynamics somewhat, as it's easier to whip up an anonymous mob than in a village where everybody knows everybody. But the bigger thing is the debate between faith and science which the original play doesn't have. The story is quite good, and it's both universal and timeless, as we can see even today in the kerfuffle over Nicki Minaj's thoughtcrime regarding the coronavirus, and how the establishment is using the guise of "fake news" to suppress opinions the establishment doesn't like.

Unfortunately, this version of An Enemy of the People also suffers from what I thought was surprisingly poor direction. Almost unforgivably for a movie from the late 1980s, six decades into the sound era, it has shockingly stagy camerawork, and acting that seems like people declaiming their lines rather than real acting. (Apparently, Ray was in quite poor health by the time he made this movie, which might help explain that.) There's a very small amount of opening up the action by showing a few shots of people receiving the temple water, but that's about it.

Still, despite the movie's flaws, Satyajit Ray's An Enemy of the People is highly worth seeing for a fresh take on an always relevant story.

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