March 30, 2021
In 1881, the great Norwegian playwright and “the father of realism,” Henrik Ibsen, wrote a play addressing 19th-century morality. Ghosts, or Gengangere in Danish, is a tragedy about history repeating itself, touching on religion, incest, venereal disease, and euthanasia. Upon the play’s release, the press slammed it: “gross, almost putrid indecorum...literary carrion,” The Daily Telegraph wrote. People hurled words like “degenerate” and “immoral” at the wordsmith. In response, Ibsen released another play a year later, a scathing take on the public execution of the truth-teller, An Enemy of the People.
A century later, Satyajit Ray, seized upon the screenplay of An Enemy of the People and adapted it into the Bengali-language social drama, Ganashatru (1990). Ray was one of the most revered Indian filmmakers of all time; he even received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement at the 64th Academy Awards on this day in 1992. But the satirical — sometimes quietly comic but deeply tragic — Ganashatru is one of Ray’s lesser cited works compared to his greater relics, The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959), Charulata (1964), and Mahanagar (1963). In recent times, both the play and the movie are having a moment — a writer recalled the Ibsen play when former U.S. President Donald Trump referred to the New York Times as an “enemy of the people,” critics are reexamining Ganashatru, and Bangalore is currently hosting a Kannada version of the play. Against the context of the coronavirus pandemic and increasing politicization of society (and the media), Ganashatru feels loudly prescient.