Tuesday, 1 October 2013

An Enemy of the People

29 September 2013

Trailer for the film.

Sadly, this simplistic tale of truth vs belief isn't likely to lose its relevance.

Part of the British Film Institute’s season of films by director Satyajit Ray, I imagine and hope this is one of the weaker instalments, though it has some merits.

As an interpretation of Ibsen’s serious comedy, this is worthless. Ray is fully sympathetic to his hero, so removes the original’s great misanthropic speech, and completely reverse the original climax: in Ibsen Dr Stockmann claims the strongest man stands alone, in Ray Dr Gupta is delighted he does not in fact stand alone.

It also isn’t really a cinema film, as it consists mostly of domestic scenes. The budget appears to be only a little more than an average TV drama from the period (1989), and that is probably the relevant comparison.

So this was effectively a TV drama about the politics of religion and science in a small Indian town. Despite Ray’s hopeful ending, suggesting that younger people will side with science over religion, the film fairly clearly makes the case that religion will actually win this battle.

Or rather, religion can be used by those in power to enrich themselves, and in democracy a dissenting view, even if correct, can be crushed. Ray’s doctor probably stands for a wider range of dissenters; it is simply that as he can prove his claims, he can more easily stand for all that is progressive.

As in Ibsen, Ray circles his protagonist with progressive youth, who will eventually champion him, and the progressive ‘establishment’ that will be co-opted by power and money.

For such a political, public, film, the family dimension is stressed more than in Ibsen. Gupta’s wife, played by Ruma Guha Thakurta with a profound sadness, stands by her man, though in the film’s greatest moment, she turns her back is to him when she reveals that she is religious and has been unhappy that he isn’t.

It’s the film’s only moment of great subtlety. There are other striking moments, for example two separate shots of Gupta hand-in-hand with either his wife or his daughter. These images are humane and given almost the level of importance of God’s outstretched hand to Adam in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but this serves to highlight the banal nature of the images’ surroundings.

Disease in the temple’s holy water. I can’t find a way to describe this without it forming a metaphor. In a contemporary interview in Sight & Sound, Ray himself described the film as being about pollution in the water, again a loaded phrase.

We can immediately see why this would create opposition among believers. By definition, holy water cannot be polluted, it cannot be diseased, it cannot be unclean. The potent clash inherent even in describing the situation is Ray’s single improvement on his source.

For Ibsen, there was no religious dimension in his drama – the polluted water was rather a symbol of our polluted society, in total.

Ray narrows his focus, and poorly illuminates a serious, and perhaps eternal, dilemma. While we can abstractly accept there is a gap between what we believe and what is actually true, we cannot easily live according to the truth. Indeed, as Nietzsche put it, in words Ibsen would have approved, we have art lest we perish of the truth.

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