কলকাতা-ল্যাদ-আড্ডা-সৌমিত্র-ইস্টবেঙ্গল-জলভরা-ফেলুদা-কিশোর .. A food enthusiast, bookworm, cine buff and sports…
This article discusses Satyajit Ray’s film “Ganashatru” (An Enemy of the People) and its context within the final years of Ray’s filmmaking career. It explores how Ray’s health issues and subsequent restrictions impacted his filmmaking style, leading to a departure from his typical approach.
For a person of Satyajit Ray’s zeal and calibre, the five years of enforced idleness as a film-maker after his first heart attack in 1983 were tortuous to him. Eventually, when he was permitted by his doctors in late 1988 to commence his work, he was clearly advised to restrict himself to studio shooting and more significantly hand over his usual camera operations to someone else (much to Ray’s dismay). This constraint effectively meant that the stories he chose for his film would have to be set indoors, with the heavy focus on conversation between actors, as the backbone of the film.
If observed minutely, one can see a significant change in Ray’s outlook as a filmmaker. The sombreness of theme accentuating his last three films – “Ganashatru” (An Enemy of the People), “Sakha Proshakha” (Branches of the Tree) and “Agantuk” (The Stranger), which revolves around different forms of corruption was somewhat new. However, what separated this trilogy from Ray’s earlier body of work was the films’ defiant individualism, a stark directness of language (bordering rigid at times). This tone, so uncharacteristic of a typical Ray film, was unappealing to most Indians, even to his most devoted followers.
Noted critic Iqbal Masud said in 1990: ‘Somewhere at the back of our minds the radiance of the Apu Trilogy and Charulata continues to dazzle and tantalize.’ Aparna Sen, actress-director and daughter of Ray’s long-time friend Chidananda Dasgupta, commented in 1991 about “Ganashatru” and “Sakha Proshakha”: ‘From lyricism, nuanced character depiction and subtlety of expression which were once his hallmark, Ray has moved towards stark and unsentimental prose, towards boldly underlined characterisation, towards absolute clarity of expression. Maybe those of us who yearn for the old Ray just need to get used to the starkness of his new language.’
It is quite widely perceived by film pundits and viewers alike, that “Ganashatru” is, by a ‘proverbial mile’ his worst film. While such belief is entirely subjective, however what cannot perhaps be denied in the fact that the film is plagued by sub-par technical treatment.
In 1882, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote a play titled “En folkefiende” (An Enemy of the People). Ray was deeply impacted by this play ever since he read it in the 1940s. What appealed to him was the uprightness and defiance of the protagonist Dr Stockmann, the unyielding whistle-blower who dismantled a peaceful life for the sake of a principle he believed in. It may be noted here that the legendary Russian theatre practitioner Stanislavsky considered Stockmann as his favourite stage role.
In Calcutta, the play had been produced three times since the 1950s by, the famed theatre group “Bohurupee”, and on the last instance in 1970 during the turbulent Naxalite movement, it was highly successful.
But apart from translating it into Bengali, the group had left the text largely unchanged. Ray on the other hand, consciously decided to directly position the play from the Norway of the 1880s to Bengal of 1989. The challenge that Ray faced is that he has to revamp a Norwegian context with Indian flavour. He addressed this problem by introducing “holy water” which is well linked with Indian culture and religion. When Ray he published the screenplay, he confidently remarked: ‘I do not think that while watching the film . . . it will be difficult to recognise Ibsen.’ But during the course of the shoot, he somewhat rued his own decision stating: ‘I’m going further and further away from Ibsen.’
The film received lukewarm (and partially hostile) reaction in Bengal itself. People in Bengal were anxious to see Ray’s first film after his five-year hiatus, and the expectations were more than ever. However, they were unhappy as they perceived the film as so ‘un-Ray’, reverberating what Aparna Sen had said. The viewers were unwilling to accept that he deviated from his usual style of storytelling. The overall response was eerily similar to “Kanchenjungha”, which was unanimously rejected in Bengal.
When Iqbal Masud, as a member of the National Film Jury in New Delhi, tried to select Ganashatru as best film of 1989, he was outvoted 1-14 (something unheard of for a film directed by Ray). More than the outcome itself, he was startled by the hostility and apathy of the fellow members towards the film. The response was not much different overseas as well; in London and Paris – where Ray’s reputation was unparallel even in the 80s, the response was not encouraging, and no one was willing to rank the film among Ray’s finest works. It was universally recognized to be as vocal in its fight against pollution as when Ibsen wrote his okay more than a century back. Its strong message against the manipulation of religion to serve political gains was widely lauded as well. But people vocally questioned its artistic merits.
The Times wrote: ‘It is a mark of Ray’s ability that he makes this spare and simple design so compelling, thanks in part to the fine cast, led by Soumitra Chatterjee’. Tom Milne in the “Monthly Film Bulletin” commented: ‘a solemn parade of two-dimensional characters, all too obvious in their ideological alignment’. “Sight and Sound” ignored the film worthy of a review, which was surprising because its editor Penelope Houston was an ardent follower of Ray’s cinematic work.
There are certain elements which interlace almost any film that has been adopted from an original play. One of the critical premises is the pivotal role played by the dialogues between the characters. Since the films are mostly set indoors within a confined space, it is the dynamism of the dialogue delivery that takes the movie forward, and incites the interest within the viewer. The filmmaker has to leverage speech as his primary driver. “Ganashatru” is one such film and this is where it is not the normal ‘Ray School of Filmmaking’.
It can be argued though that “Agantuk” (The Stranger), Ray’s celebrated ‘chant du cygne’, was also depended almost entirely on its dialogues, and yet considered to be one of Ray’s finest. Maybe what hurt “Ganashatru” the most was its monotony over the entire course of the film and that it is quite predictable (another un-Ray-like feature). The main characters in the film lacked the vitality and coherence, and would been more than often seen as staring at the camera or remain static when they are not talking. What we have to factor in was the hard fact that it was Ray’s first film after his physical ailment, because of which he was considerably handicapped in tying the various elements of the film, for which he is universally hailed. However, It did appear as a piece of work done in utter haste, which severely undermined its credibility.
The principal actors Soumitra Chatterjee, Dhritiman Chatterjee and Mamta Shankar were splendid in their respective roles, but it was not enough to conceal the inherent weakness in the editing and other aspects of the film. Most of the other characters are not fleshed out well and are conspicuously caught in tricky situations in the framing of certain scenes.
So, what makes “Ganashatru” less revered? Perhaps it was Ray’s deep loyalty (than perhaps was needed) towards Ibsen’s original work that was set in the Victorian Europe, which would have not worked in its entirety, a century later under a completely different geographic-social-economic setting. Ray was always a champion exponent of adaptations, as is evidenced in his prolific filmmaking journey. Maybe, for once, just once, largely due to his illness related restrictions … he missed a pulse.
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কলকাতা-ল্যাদ-আড্ডা-সৌমিত্র-ইস্টবেঙ্গল-জলভরা-ফেলুদা-কিশোর .. A food enthusiast, bookworm, cine buff and sports fanatic. An IT Strategy Consultant by profession, Biswadeep delves with "the pen" at times and sincerely believes that "Chicken Biryani is a myth"