‘Ganashatru’ review: Suddenly, chillingly relevant for our times

Returning from a near-debilitating illness, writer-director-composer Satyajit Ray kept his next venture off location, boxed inside a studio. And thus made Ganashatru (Enemy of the People), based on an 1882 work by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Revisiting this oft-criticized work, I found the movie strangely comforting — amidst all the razzmatazz of SFX, opulence, and sheen that’s often the selling, seductive point for a lot of cinema these days — the almost still camera in a living room and the confabulation that follows and builds up the characters and their motives was in a sense the stillness that I’m striving for in these disquieting times. And yet in that staged potential inertia is a waft of chill that’s hard to ignore or escape from. 

Dhritiman Chattopadhyay looks as Dipankar Dey thinks about the delicious samosa he’s polished off.

The terrific Soumitra Chatterjee plays Dr. Ashoke Gupta, a man of principles, who calls a spade a spade and, as we discover, a bacteria a bacteria. A man of stellar repute, Dr. Gupta and his wife Maya (a sadly underused Ruma Guha Thakurta) are grateful to be in the quiet town of Chandipur, away from the hustle and bustle of Calcutta. But as they’re about to find out, still waters run deep, especially if they’re infected. And especially if there’s a place of worship involved. In this case, it’s the local nonpareil for tourists, patronage, and consequently money. Worried about an epidemic breakout of jaundice in Chandipur the doctor confirms that the source is the water — that also runs through the Tripureshwar temple, where it’s offered as holy water for its devotees to drink. 

Soumitra Chattopadhyay’s worst fears are confirmed, as Ruma Guha Thakurta and Mamata Shankar look on.

Dr. Gupta sets out — a phrase that may be a dynamic choice for a movie that barely stirs out of his living room — to expose the local administration, and has a run-in with his younger brother Nishith (Dhritiman Chatterjee, absolutely top-notch) who’s the chairman of the municipal corporation and a beneficiary of the temple trust. This conflict between the brothers is brought out to superb effect in the doctor’s consulting room and then at the local paper’s office, Janabarta, where the good doctor’s submitted an exposé and is now wrangling for support with its editor Haridas Bagchi (Dipankar Dey, vacillating like his character between effectiveness and cold detachment). There’s a beautiful frame of Nishith unwrapping his smoke, while Ashoke and Haridas argue in the background. The corrupt Nishith is as sure of his brother’s unraveling as he is of the cigarette, and If there’s anyone on the hapless Ashoke’s side, it’s his daughter Indrani (played with muted sparks by Mamata Shankar) and her fiancé and activist Ranen (Bhishma Guhathakurta).  

The conflict of interests grips your interest.

While the conflicts and tensile stakes never quite reach the subtle high drama that you expect from a Ray outing (no pun intended), the horror that Ashoke Gupta and his family experience — be it the social ostracization, the religious rabble-rousing, political leanings that influence more than just tea-and-samosa addas, the chilling news of a known person’s passing because of the epidemic, or the wheel of information that the powers that be spin — suddenly come into sharp relief and relevance as a projection of and onto our times. There’s a scene where a town hall meeting’s hijacked in open secret, and there’s but a limited whimper of protest. Replace that meeting with troll farms and the speeches on stage with what we read in social media forwards and online screaming memes, and that terrifying projection is complete. 

Adapting a play scene-for-scene to a movie may not be the formula for a tight cinematic experience — but in a specious comparison, Roman Polanski did create a deliciously nasty turn with Carnage — and Ganashatru could have been much more in terms of its drama-scape and conflicts and done with some tighter editing. But director Ray’s quiet look at the epidemiological and societal epidemic, aided by his score, does provide for some breathing space and time to ruminate on the food for thought it provides in these anxious times. If any ray of hope in the movie feels like a cop-out, it could just be a sign of our times. We’d much rather stick to the zeitgeist of anxiety and darkness. 

Ganashatru (1989) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Ganashatru is rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition)

Director Satyajit Ray Time 1h 39min
Writer Satyajit Ray
Stars Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Dhritiman Chattopadhyay, Ruma Guhathakurta, Mamta Shankar, Dipankar Dey
Genres Drama