Satyajit Ray made a cinematic adaptation of Henrick Ibsen’s landmark 1882 play, ‘An Enemy of the People’ in the year 1990, titled Ganashatru. Ray’s adaptation takes the basic storyline and transposes it to an Indian context. Riddhiman Basu explores the play and the film.
“The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority–yes, the damned compact Liberal majority–that is it. The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war.” These are the words of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the protagonist of Henrick Ibsen’s landmark 1882 play, ‘An Enemy of the People’. Satyajit Ray made a cinematic adaptation of this play in the year 1990, titled Ganashatru, the name being a literal Bengali translation of the title of the play. Ray’s adaptation takes the basic storyline and transposes it to an Indian context.
The events of the play take place in a small Norwegian town. Dr. Stockmann is a doctor and the medical officer of a local bathhouse (spa) establishment, which opened a year back. The doctor had observed certain strange illnesses, as well as typhoid among the visitors of the bath, which led him to speculate that there was something wrong with the quality of water in the baths. He had sent a sample of the water for chemical analysis at the local university. The results confirmed his hypothesis, the water was indeed contaminated.
Towards the beginning of the play, these test results arrive, and the doctor communicates the news to Mrs. Stockmann, his daughter Petra and Hovstad and Billy of the ‘People’s Messenger’, a local newspaper, who happen to be present at his house, at that time. Dr. Stockmann intends to publish an article related to this in the newspaper. Editor Hovstad and Sub Editor Billy initially agree on the plan.
However, things change when the doctor’s elder brother, Peter Stockmann, the mayor of the town and the chairman of the bathhouse, decides to intervene. In the second act, when Thomas insists that the whole piping of the spa needs to be changed, Peter argues that it will take a long time and will harm the revenues earned. In the third act, Peter shows up at the daily’s office and stops the article from getting published, rather insists on publishing an article that inspires false confidence.
Enraged at this, Dr. Stockmann decides to hold a public conference where he would read the report on the water analysis to the common people. The meeting is held at his friend Captain Horster’s house, where, to sabotage the meeting, Aslaksen, the publisher (who had earlier expressed reservations about printing Dr. Stockmann’s article) is appointed chairman by Peter, who tries to divert the topic. Further aggravated, Dr. Stockmann lashes out at everyone, making critical comments on social evolution (one of which is mentioned above) and complains that he is not being allowed to speak the truth because of a liberal majority who likes to avoid the reality. The audience is angered by this powerful oration and calls him an ‘Enemy of the People’, at the end of the meeting.
In the fifth and final act we get to see the repercussions of the public rage on Dr. Stockmann and his family. His daughter Petra is fired from the school where she teaches. His two minor sons also get into a fight with other students and are expelled from school. Dr. Stockmann loses his position as the medical officer of the spa. It is publicly discouraged not to go to him for health consultations. The whole family is ostracized, and stones are hurled at them through windows. Only Captain Horster stands with them as a friend. But in the end, Dr. Stockmann resolves to change the system by gradually educating as many children as he can get as he finally declares, “The strongest man in the world is the one who stands alone.”
Sayajit Ray’s Bengali film takes place in a fictional suburb of West Bengal, namely Chandipur. The film begins with protagonist Dr. Ashok Gupta, a physician and chief doctor in the local hospital (counterpart of Thomas Stockmann, played by Soumitra Chatterjee) talking on phone with the editor of a daily called ‘Janabarta‘, Mr. Haridas Bagchi (=Hovstad, played by Dipankar De); informing him about the increase in jaundice and other water-borne diseases in the area. Here, the prime antagonist is not his elder brother, but the younger brother, Nishith Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee). Ray made this change, perhaps to heighten the effect of the injustice. He is the chairman of the municipality and a trustee for a very popular ‘Tripureshwar’ temple that has been constructed in recent times. Following a similar story arc, Dr. Gupta collects a sample of water from the most populated area of the town and sends it for analysis to Calcutta (the capital of West Bengal). The report comes back, confirming his suspicions; the water is to blame. The fact of it being used as the holy water (‘choronamrito’) in the temple (which people drink) situated in the same area, has turned it into a vector for the diseases.
This revelation comes to the doctor when the editor is present in his house and he requests that his article on this along with the report be published in the newspaper, to which Haridas agrees. Dr. Gupta also sends the report to his brother. As expected, Nishith comes to his house and vehemently opposes the idea that the temple needs to be closed to repair the piping for drinking water. He severely discourages his elder brother from publishing the report. Failing at that, he visits the office of ‘Janabarta‘ and pressurizes Haridas and publisher Adhir Mukherjee (=Aslaksen, played by Manoj Mitra) to stop the article from getting printed. He also brings a circular declaring all the deductions to be rumors; and insists that it be printed in the daily.
Ray here makes an interesting extrapolation, through Mrs. Gupta (Ruma Guha Thakurta) telling her daughter Ranu (=Petra, played by Mamata Shankar) about the time when her father-in-law had died with a lot of debts and Dr. Gupta had to clear all the accounts with no help from Nishith. This highlights the selfish and opportunist nature of Nishith, which further explains why he would risk an epidemic, but not his profits.
Dr. Gupta next tries to convey the message in a public meeting, which Nishith impairs by appointing Adhir as the chairperson and not letting Dr. Gupta speak. He also creates a perception that Ashok is trying to defame the temple, at which the public gets enraged and calls Dr. Gupta ‘Ganashatru’.
The final scene initially plays out in the same way (as the play) with stones being hurled through the windows, Dr. Gupta being terminated from the hospital, Ranu being fired from the school where she teaches etc; but there is a significant difference, because of a few changes. One is that Biresh Gupta (Subhendu Chatterjee), the counterpart of Billing, is an honest journalist. Being a man of sound morals, he sides with Dr. Gupta, in a departure from the source text. He comes to the doctor’s house, telling him that he has resigned from ‘Janabarta’ and plans to send a review of the previous day’s meeting fiasco and an interview of Dr. Gupta on the controversy to leading newspapers in Calcutta.
The second change from the play is that the character of Captain Horster is replaced by Ronen (Bhisma Guhathakurta) who runs a theater group, publishes a quarterly magazine and is also the fiancé of Ranu. He is supportive of Dr. Gupta’s cause from the beginning. In the final scene, he arrives to tell that he intends to print several copies of the doctor’s rejected article as pamphlets to be distributed to every household. He also assures that his group and other educated local youth are campaigning in Dr. Gupta’s favour. Soon enough, a crowd shouting praises in the doctor’s name is heard. The film ends with Ashok Gupta declaring, “I may be an enemy of the people, but I have a lot of friends”.
The film ends on a more optimistic note than the play. The correct way to interpret this story is to look at the meta-narrative. Both the film and the play depict an honest man, a whistleblower, being censored in his attempts to tell the truth, yet he persists in his effort. Ray understood this core theme and transposed it to something that seemed very relevant at that time, in the Indian context. He even took it to a level further, to show that if a man takes a stand for truth, there would always be some people by his side. At the surface, the narrative seems to be a conflict between commerce and science, but the meta-narrative could be applied to various scenarios. It could be manipulation vs intuition, commercialized/hijacked science (scientism at times) vs true science and the likes.
In our present times, we have come across many such examples where the truth seekers/speakers have been mocked, censored, threatened, even vilified and yet they have never ceased in their quest to enlighten. The original play and Ray’s effective transposition are a tribute to such staunchly veracious personalities, something that is forever relevant!
More to read
Satyajit Ray’s Sakha Prosakha: A Critic of Contemporary Ethics
From Apurba Kumar Roy to Manomohan Mitra: Ray’s Shifting World-view
‘Soumitra Became Ray’s Voice’ – Interview with Catherine Berge, Director of ‘Gaach’
Soumitra Chatterjee on Acting in Satyajit Ray’s Films – Exclusive Video Interview (Part 1)
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