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Copyright 2004




Ganashatru: The sure touch of Ray

Satyajit Ray perhaps holds the unique distinction of being one of the first to create an awareness for sensible, sensitive and realistic cinema. Much before his first film, "Pather Panchali" (already discussed in this column earlier) won India international recognition in 1955, the Bengali director started the Calcutta Film Society the year the British left the country(1947). The purpose of the society was to screen classics from home and abroad, and help the layman cultivate a finer sense of celluloid aesthetics.

Ray's own innumerable movies, which he made till his death in 1992, were extraordinarily great studies of this moving art. His eye for detail, his ear for music, his settings, his camera placements and, above all, his ability to draw the best out of an actor or actress, even a child artist, were the ingredients, so to say, of a certain brilliance that reflected on the screen. He wielded this power till the very end, undiminished by time and untainted by the cross-currents trying to tear the images apart.

In fact, one of his last works, "Ganashatru" (An Enemy of the People), which he shot in 1989, showed that the master's magic was still intact. This despite the fact that he had by then suffered a heart attack, which forced him to work mainly indoors.

"Ganashatru", an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People", went on the floors with certain differences that a Ray watcher could easily distinguish. The director's son, Sandip (himself a good filmmaker today), had graduated from being a mere, though alert, observer to an active cameraman. Ray told one of his friends, "thank God for Babu (Sandip). He knows exactly what I want".

The master's biographer, Andrew Robinson, says: "Ray himself now spent most of his time sitting down, watching and listening, getting up only to look through the camera or, occasionally, to demonstrate a point to an actor. Often, he seemed less in evidence than he had earlier".

Yet, nobody, not even his arch critics, could say that his absorption in this movie was less than total. He made important alterations and guided his cast with usual patience and affection. And when his baritone voice cried out "cut" at the end of a take, one could not miss the fact that the man was still in full command.

Ray changed Ibsen's play to make it contemporary. It is 1989. It is a small town, close to Kolkata, where Dr. Ashok Gupta (excellently played by Soumitra Chatterjee in his fourteenth role for Ray) heads a hospital, owned by a trust which also runs a temple. An outbreak of jaundice in the town leads the doctor to conclude that the temple's holy water ("Charanamrita") is to blame, the result of shoddy pipe-laying work when the place was built.

But the doctor's motive is questioned by his own brother, who heads the trust. Gupta's credentials as a Hindu are at stake, because few are inclined to believe that the water - which contains sacred basil leaves -can ever be contaminated.

Robinson makes an apt observation here. "Once again, Ray has accurately sensed the mood of the times in selecting 'Ganashatru' - not just in India, where the scientific attitude has a tenuous hold, and religious fanaticism is just below the surface of democratic debate, but all over the world. It is, after all, no more irrational for Hindus to believe that 'charanamrita' is always free from germs than it is to believe that AIDS is God's curse on Man".

"Ganashatru" was, and continues to be, a provocative experience, the like of which only a Ray could have handled with ease and without causing a riotous situation.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated March 2 2001)

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