Hidden Gem: ‘An Enemy of the People’ (Ganashatru, 1989)

Steve McQueen stars in the movie An Enemy of the People. It was released on March 17, 1978.

Photo Courtesy of IMDB

Steve McQueen stars in the movie “An Enemy of the People”. It was released on March 17, 1978.

By Syd Slobodnik, staff writer

There aren’t many films about epidemics or pandemics that aren’t just sensationalized science fiction or disaster films. Yet, in 1989, famed Indian director Satyajit Ray made a very thoughtful film about a fictionalized epidemic with compassionate wisdom. From the mid-1950s to his death in 1992, Ray was one of the finest international filmmakers. His Apu trilogy of the late 1950s was a classic tale of a young boy’s adventures, growth into manhood and surviving poverty.

“An Enemy of the People, one of Ray’s last films, was a clever adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People.In Ray’s updated version of the tale, he transforms the late Victorian-era play to present-day India that concerns an honest local doctor, Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee), who discovers a serious illness in the Chandrapur residents, which he traces to contaminated Holy Water from a local Bengali temple.

As the film begins, Gupta calls the local newspaper editor with his discovery of several jaundice cases from infective hepatitis, in addition to a rise in several local waterborne diseases. Initially, Gupta doesn’t know any sources or causes of these illnesses, yet once he traces a source and has water quality test results confirmed from Calcutta labs, he demands the authorities close down the temple. Initially, the local newspaper editor is excited about the discovery and eager to warn his readership of this potential health issue.

But officials, like Gupta’s businessman brother Nisith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), outright reject these findings, knowing it will hurt tourist business. The annual festival of Shivratri (in honor of the god Shiva) is just two months away, and local hotels are completely booked. Ray’s focus, like Ibsen’s, concerns the will of the honest man of principles standing up to the mob opinions of others who seem to outnumber him. But Ray’s adaptation directly addresses the conflicts between religion and science.

In the meantime, hundreds of regular worshipers come to the temple and sip the Holy Water offered to them. One day, the head of the temple, Mr. Bhargava, confronts Gupta by bringing him a jar of temple water, demanding it’s free of contaminants. “Your medical science can’t understand its properties,” he says. Bhargava contends that, according to many, “The use of tulsi leaves purify the holy waters.” Then adding insult to his charges, he explains: “You haven’t been to the temple in the last ten years. You don’t understand the Hindu religion.” Yet, Maya, the doctor’s loyal wife, believes a person can be honest and also religious.

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But Gupta can’t deny reality as his patients with jaundice symptoms rise to over 500. He must tell everyone of this obvious epidemic.

What’s also fascinating about Ray’s adaptation is whenever a specific character is most emphatic in his argument, he switches his dialect into English to stress his point. When younger brother Nisith warns Gupta that the release of the report will cause his family much hardship, he claims his brother’s actions are simply “irreligious.” Nisith adds pressure to the local editor and publisher that the findings are “malignant rumors.

When the local newspaper editor and publisher refused to publish the report and warnings of the epidemic, the principled Gupta refuses to back down from what he knows is the truth and plans to take his case to the people in a public meeting. There he pleads with his many detractors who call him an enemy of the people, “This is a question of health, not religion!”

Soumitra Chatterjee’s Gupta is a perfect spokesman for Ray’s passionate conviction and pursuit of the truth. Chatterjee had collaborated with Ray on 14 films in their careers going all the way back to 1959, with “The World of Apu. His principled man of science reminds one of the recent doctors and immunologists, like Anthony Fauci, whose guidance and wisdom helped so greatly during our present COVID-19 pandemic. Ray’s “An Enemy of the People” is an outstanding hidden gem.