The latest addition to the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse Series is a package of three of the last films of Satyajit Ray. Appropriately titled Late Ray, I have no idea how these late-period works stand up against Ray’s earlier acknowledged masterpieces, since the only Ray I have any familiarity with is Nicholas. As first exposures to the titan of Indian cinema go, this one was largely positive, although at one point Ray’s seemingly boundless faith in humanity got in the way of a great story.
The Home And The World (1984), based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore (who apparently did everything under the sun except Formula One racing), is a tense, tragic and romantic examination of the moral complexities of social revolution. Nikhilesh (Victor Banerjee) is a well-to-do guy who seems pretty progressive, even to the extent of wanting his wife Bimala (Swatilekha Sengupta) to have more freedom than most wives in arranged marriages would presumably have in that time and culture; yet somehow, his progressive nature seems to stop short of endorsing the growing nationalist boycott of all foreign goods as a reaction to the 1905 Partition Of Bengal, which divided the region into Hindu and Muslim sides. Into this hot mess comes Nikhilesh’s old friend Sandip (Soumitra Chatterjee), a fiery radical who is firmly on the side of the boycott, and presto: political debate and love triangle. While one could easily take one side or another, Ray has sympathy for all his characters, and expertly balances the growing turmoil of the world with the slow-boiling passions in the home. The story builds to inevitable unpleasantness, and Ray’s final series of shots of Sengupta are quietly devastating.
The Stranger (1991), Ray’s last film, is a family comedy/drama with a hint of mystery. A woman is visited by a man claiming to be her uncle, who disappeared 35 years ago. The woman, Anila (Mamata Shankar), is thrilled to see her long-lost relative, but her husband Sudhindra (Dipankar Dey) is suspicious that Uncle Manomohan (Utpal Dutt) is some kind of fraudster. Manomohan is certainly eccentric, just enough to keep those in the film and those watching it uncertain as to whether he truly is who he claims. Ray’s film, based on one of his short stories, is a gentle examination of faith and trust, in humanity in general but in family specifically, and while he seems to be making mischief for the viewer at first, Ray ultimately builds to a warm and satisfying conclusion. The performances are admirable and the family is a believable unit; Manomohan is a compelling character who only gets more complex and interesting as the story unfolds. I think I was half-expecting something incredibly sinister to erupt a la Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt, but clearly Ray is not that kind of guy.
Which is not always to his benefit. Ray suffered a heart attack while working on The Home And The World, and it was five years before he was given the all-clear to make another picture, with the caveat that he had to stick to the great indoors. This happens to be perfect for the film he made, a 1989 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy Of The People, as the claustrophobic settings of various rooms only enhance the nightmarish ordeal of Dr. Ashoke Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee). Dr. Gupta discovers that the holy water of his town’s temple is contaminated, and naturally does the right thing by attempting to alert the populace so that they won’t, you know, get sick and die and suchlike. But his efforts have disastrous consequences, as nobody wants to hear a word against the temple, which is the main source of revenue for the community, and the good doctor quickly finds his pleas for sanity falling on deaf and increasingly pissed-off ears. (Think Jaws, except with holy water instead of a great white shark.) The townspeople are so outraged that the doctor and his family quickly become outcasts, and everybody sinks into despair.
I’m going to go ahead and spoil the ending for you in the next paragraph, because the ending is exactly what is wrong with this picture. I went into An Enemy Of The People with a certain amount of trepidation, since the last adaptation of European literature by an Asian filmmaker that I saw was Kurosawa’s film of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a film that remains the sole letdown in Kurosawa’s otherwise ridiculously splendid career. (To be fair, The Idiot was taken from him and chopped down to its present length, which explains the disjointed nature of the film but does not help it; sadly, the four-hour-plus original version Kurosawa intended is lost forever.) And I am a great admirer of Ibsen’s play, because the idea of a guy who knows stuff versus a bunch of dumdums who ought to know better (Stalag 17, the aforementioned Jaws) is enormously appealing to me, to the point that I have even seen the mid-70’s film version starring Steve McQueen as the doctor. You heard me. It was McQueen’s bid to be taken more seriously as an actor, and bless him for trying, but it just doesn’t pan out; if he had had to escape from the angry townspeople in a Mustang GT 390 Fastback, he might have had something. As Ray’s film unspooled, it seemed as though he had gotten it right, but alas, he stumbled badly at the finish line.
The end of Ibsen’s play is pretty bleak, yet a glimmer of hope remains: the doctor is still an “enemy of the people”, outcast, despised and windowless (people threw rocks at them), but resolves to carry on with his family regardless; we know they will have a hard time, but let’s face it — if you just hang around long enough for everybody to start dropping like flies from contaminated water, vindication is in the bag. Ray, on the other hand, completely dispenses with the bleakness of the ending by creating a deus ex machina finale that would put It’s A Wonderful Life to shame. It completely undercuts one of Ibsen’s fundamental points — you can’t have a scathing exposé about the corruption of leadership and the stupidity of the masses if everybody suddenly finds their balls and the masses abruptly rally around the doctor at the end. (Incidentally, this is pretty much why I dislike It’s A Wonderful Life: after everything they put him through, Bedford Falls would have let George Bailey die a frozen Jack Torrance death without a second thought and you bloody well know it.) I appreciate Satyajit Ray’s compassionate humanism and whatnot, but my admiration stops short of letting the guy fiddle about with somebody else’s masterpiece. A quiet, bloodied-but-unbowed stoicism is called for in the finale, not a joyous it’s-all-gonna-work-out, join-your-hands-together-and-sing happy ending. I’m not just being some grumbling killjoy here — I don’t say every story has to be a downer (hell, I’ll never figure out in a million years why they had to kill the dog at the end of Turner & Hooch), but now and then a more realistic approach, to say nothing of a little more fidelity to the source material, wouldn’t hurt anyone. Ray’s An Enemy Of The People is 95 minutes of a great movie and four minutes of a goofball Hallmark Channel lovefest. But even if you agree with me, there is still much good to be found in the other two pictures in the Late Ray set… and if you disagree with me, well then you’ve hit a trifecta. Enjoy it!