Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
Original Title: Ganashatru
India, 1989. National Film Development Corporation of India. Screenplay by Satyajit Ray, research by Nirmalya Acharya, based on the play by Henrik Ibsen. Cinematography by Barun Raha. Produced by Ravi Malik. Music by Satyajit Ray. Production Design by Ashoke Bose. Costume Design by Bablu Das, Ratan Lal. Film Editing by Dulal Dutta.
Satyajit Ray suffered a near-fatal heart attack during the filming of The Home and The World and did not return to feature filmmaking until this adaptation of Ibsen’s play five years later (and did so under strict medical supervision). He easily transports the Norwegian setting to Chandipur, India, where Soumitra Chatterjee plays a venerated physician who has been working in the local hospital and operating a successful private practice for many years. He is alarmed that a number of his patients have contracted hepatitis and, upon investigating, discovers that the town’s biggest temple has faulty piping that is contaminating the water that worshippers are drinking. He feels compelled to get the word out and sees no issue with doing so, putting together an article to publish in the newspaper run by a close friend of his. His brother, however, is a local fatcat businessman who warns him that the news will be bad for the local economy, particularly as the temple is a major tourist attraction bringing people to their beautiful seaside town. The good doctor believes the health crisis is more pressing and is undeterred from his plans to disseminate the information he believes is important, only to find opponents pressing back by silencing and eventually discrediting him to suit their own greedy interests.
Ray, whose films have always been concerned with social progress, once had the bright and optimistic energy of a man plying his trade in the newly independent India, but decades after his debut and this close to his death (three years later), he reveals that his feelings for his country have run to the hopelessly cynical. Unlike his earlier investigations of characters at crossroads between their feelings and their responsibilities, this film does little to draw you in to the inner emotional lives of its players, playing a game of good vs evil that is dramatically compelling but not quite spellbinding. Religious fundamentalism as a tool of oppression used by a ruling class against very willing victims is lamented in no uncertain terms, and the filmmaker can barely hold back his distaste for the way things are despite his attempt to throw us off with a brief glimmer of hope at the film’s end. It’s far from his best or best-looking films, but the performances are all, as usual, terrific.