Ganashatru: Why 'master of adaptations' Satyajit Ray faltered with Ibsen’s En Folkefiende

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Oct,22 2017 12:29 59 IST

Editor's note: In a prolific career spanning nearly four decades, Satyajit Ray directed 36 films, including feature films, documentaries and shorts. His films have received worldwide critical acclaim and won him several awards, honours and recognition — both in India and elsewhere. In this column starting 25 June 2017, we discuss and dissect the films of Satyajit Ray (whose 96th birth anniversary was this May), in a bid to understand what really makes him one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.

In 1881, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote a play titled Gengangere (Ghosts), which led to widespread public protests because of the subjects it dared to deal with. The play was a scathing commentary on 19th century Victorian morality, and tackled such topics as incest, euthanasia and the dangers of blind religious faith. When the play was staged, Ibsen was strongly criticised and outcast, and in response to such reactions from all quarters of the society, he wrote another play the following year. This play was titled En folkefiende (An Enemy of the People).

Still from Satyajit Ray's Ganashatru

Still from Satyajit Ray's Ganashatru

Strangely enough, as many as 80 years later, in another part of the globe, history repeated itself, and the same story played out, when in 1960, Satyajit Ray made a film titled Devi (The Goddess) — which was a scathing commentary on the dangers of blind superstitions and religious orthodoxies. Ray had to face unprecedented public criticism for the film — with allegations against him ranging from trying to malign a religion he himself was not a part of, all the way to hurting the sentiments of Hindus all over the world. In response to such an ugly and baseless public outcry, Ray decided to make a film towards the end of his career. And what better way to register his protest than to adapt Henrik Ibsen’s play En folkefiende? In the year 1990, then, Satyajit Ray made Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People).

For the adaptation, Ray remained extremely loyal to his source, changing only the setting to a modern day Indian town. Dr Ashoke Kumar Gupta is a highly revered, honest, hardworking and principled physician working in the township of Chandipur in West Bengal. The town is known for its charming weather, and also for a temple that attracts devotees and tourists in large numbers all throughout the year. The members of the town’s municipal board are working towards positioning Chandipur as a tourist destination, which in turn would help the town’s economy. But when Dr Gupta finds out that the charanamrita (or holy water) from the temple has recently been contaminated with germs of Infective Hepatitis thanks to poor quality underground sewage pipelines, he tries to warn the people of the town, advising them to refrain from visiting the temple till such time as the sewage pipelines can be repaired. This leads to a huge public outcry, and Dr Gupta soon finds that in return for speaking the truth, he has been branded an enemy of the people.

There is a common belief among film enthusiasts, particularly among those who have watched Satyajit Ray’s films quite keenly, that Ganashatru is, by far, his worst film. While that belief is a subjective point of view, and while it is undeniably true that the film suffers from some extremely poor technical treatment, a few things need to be said about some of the other criticisms against it.

There are certain characteristics which mark any film that has been adapted from a play. One finds these characteristics almost inevitably in all such films — to the extent that if one were to watch them closely, then even without any advance knowledge of the source, one would be able to surmise that the film has been adapted from a play. Chief among these characteristics is the overdependence on dialogue. Set in a limited and often confined space, such films take the story forward only when the characters verbally communicate with each other. The filmmaker does not have the luxury of subtleties. Speech is the primary vehicle here. Ganashatru, too, is marked by this feature — which, mind you, is a far departure from Ray’s usual style of filmmaking. This leads one to conclude that the film is unlike any other Ray film.

But then, one might argue, that even some of his later films — Agantuk (The Stranger), for instance — are heavily dependent on dialogue and discourse. Why is it then that these films are so popular? One of the possible responses to this question could be that Ganashatru suffers from two primary faults. First, the story becomes quite mundane over the period of 100 minutes, and that it is quite predictable (another un-Ray-like feature). Secondly, the cutting of the film is unbelievably shoddy, with lack of continuity, background characters staring into the camera, or standing still like a statue, or characters not knowing what to do when they are not speaking – everything that would normally make a director demand another take. It almost feels as if the film was hurriedly put together (which it was). But then, perhaps we should not forget that the man who used to make one film every year was returning to make a feature after a long and physically devastating six years of battling a prolonged and life-threatening illness. The result was for everyone to see. The actors in the film try to do their best, but the editing doesn’t do its job of ‘hiding’ their faults. Soumitra Chatterjee is brilliant as the upright and fearless doctor, and so is Dhritiman Chaterji as his jealous brother who also happens to be the chairman of the Municipality. Mamata Shankar is effortlessly natural as the good doctor’s daughter, but the rest of the cast, which includes some terrific actors, are simply there to fill the screen.

Is Ganashatru essentially a bad film? The question merits debate. In isolation, as purely a work of art, perhaps it is. But it is also undeniably true that no art is independent of its creator and his or her state of mind. Ray’s biggest crime, if one might take the liberty to say so, in making Ganashatru is that he was perhaps too loyal to the source than he should have been. What works on the stage, that too in 1882, does not work on screen, more than a century later, unless treated in a certain way. A master of adaptations, Ray seems to have overlooked that simple fact for once in his otherwise illustrious and impeccable film career.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay is an author and translator. His translations include 14: Stories That Inspired Satyajit Ray, and his original works include the mystery novels Patang, Penumbra and Here Falls The Shadow.