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How Satyajit Ray’s films throw up prescient images of viruses afflicting societies

An epidemic silencing Shundi, three bottles of Dettol, contaminated holy water and other stories of viruses in Ray's films, who would have turned 100 today

New Delhi |
May 2, 2021 6:30:37 am
Satyajit Ray, Satyajit Ray’s films, Satyajit Ray films on virus, Satyajit Ray film on epidemic, viruses, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsInterpreter of Maladies: Still from the film Jana Aranya (1976) (Photo: Express Archive)

By Amrit Gangar

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In Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963), when Arati’s (Madhabi Mukherjee) chatty boss Mr Mukherjee (Haradhan Banerjee) drops her home one evening, while navigating the congested lanes of Calcutta’s Kalighat area, he speaks — in an attempt to impress her, perhaps — of how he feels for the pedestrians and tries to give them a lift in his car. It upsets his wife, a stickler for hygiene, who requires “three bottles of Dettol per month”, he says. She tells him, “How do you know they aren’t carrying infectious germs? Disinfect the car or I won’t ride in it”. In one seamless sequence, director Satyajit Ray masterfully establishes class divide, “othering”, and prejudice of how the haves consider those off the streets as “carrier of germs” and obsess over sanitising themselves. The scene has uncanny resemblance to our times when the coronavirus has made people socially distant, every human a “carrier of germs”, and every class of people relying on sanitising liquid to keep the virus at bay!

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the country virtually into a necropolis. The glaring apathy of the State evokes a silence similar to that in the Kingdom of Shundi in Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, 1969), in which the people of Shundi had become mute owing to a devastating plague epidemic. More than five decades later, that catastrophic hush seems to have descended on our metropolises, as caregivers scramble around for oxygen and hospital beds for their loved ones.

While reason/science often clash with faith/tradition in many of his films, with tangential references to diseases, Ray’s Ganashatru (1990), adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s Norwegian play An Enemy of the People (1882), is entirely the story of an epidemic. Ashok Gupta (Soumitra Chatterjee) is an upright doctor who diagnoses the alarming spread of “jaundice/infective hepatitis” among his patients.

Satyajit Ray, Satyajit Ray’s films, Satyajit Ray films on virus, Satyajit Ray film on epidemic, viruses, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Actors Madhabi Mukherjee and Anil Chatterjee in the film Mahanagar. (Express Archive photo)

To locate the cause, he sends a sample of the water from the populated part of his town of Chandipur for testing. The report reveals dangerous contamination. The contamination is because of damage to underground drain pipes, suspects Dr Gupta. The popular Tripureshwar temple in that part of the town doles out the same water to pilgrims as charanamrita (holy water, mixed with river Ganges water, peddled as a medicinal panacea). Arguments such as “tulsi (holy basil), added to the charanamrita, will kill all germs” are put forth when the doctor protests. The temple boosts tourism and the coffers of corrupt politicians, that include Dr Gupta’s younger brother Nishith (Dhritiman Chatterjee), the chairman of the local municipality.

All of them try to prevent the doctor from alerting the public through the press. It, however, strengthens the doctor’s resolve to further fight corruption. Ray’s transformation of Ibsen’s spa into a temple is a masterstroke, and even more pertinent in present-day India, where the COVID-19 catastrophe still cannot contain absolutely the people’s will to congregate.

The charanamrita of Ganashatru harks back to the holy water of Ray’s 1960 classic Devi (The Goddess), an adaptation of a short story by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee. The villagers, including Dayamoyee’s (Sharmila Tagore) father-in-law, not only put her on a pedestal as the devi or goddess, but believe the water with which Devi’s feet are washed is the holy charanamrita, the panacea for all diseases. In the end, her own nephew dies of fever, no holy water helps the unfortunate little boy.

Satyajit Ray, Satyajit Ray’s films, Satyajit Ray films on virus, Satyajit Ray film on epidemic, viruses, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news A still from the film Ganashatru (1990). (Express Archive photo)

Viral fever makes yet another appearance, in Ray’s Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976), when Somnath (Pradip Mukherjee) after getting his first salary, visits his ailing college friend Sukumar (Gautam Chakraborty) in a Calcutta basti (slum) with the “promised cake”, to find that even his younger brother — whom Sukumar calls “Virus Number 2” — is down with fever.

In these times of the pandemic, Ray’s films — with viruses and germs, disinfectants and superstitions spreading fatal epidemics — are both a panacea and a warning from the visionary auteur, who would have turned 100 today. They remind us to remain cautious, to not be complacent, and to always question blind faith, just like Dr Ashok Gupta did in Ganashatru. Actor Soumitra Chatterjee (arguably Ray’s favourite actor, who played the sleuth Feluda in films like Sonar Kella, 1971 and Joi Baba Felunath, 1979) died last year, aged 85, owing to COVID-19 complications, right after the Feluda Test (named after Ray’s famed detective) for the coronavirus got the regulatory approval. What an irony of our time!

(Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based film theorist, curator and historian)

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