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Another anthology after Ajeeb Dastaans from the Netflix stable is Ray – a supposed tribute to Satyajit Ray on his birth centenary. The offering, four of Satyajit Ray’s short stories, interpreted by three directors, is a mixed bag – one is superlative, one passes muster, and it’s a tie between the last two about which one strays farther from the writer’s intent — both are wince-worthy adaptations.
While most of us are familiar with Ray, it was filmmaker Akira Kurosawa who said it best: “Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon. I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it (Pather Panchali).”
A few things which make one return repeatedly to his stories are his deft touch, his innate humanity, wonder, and the unique taste each story leaves you with. The least one expects from cinematic adaptations of his stories is to stay faithful to that aesthetic. ‘Ray’ attempts to translate four of his beloved stories on screen and except for ‘Hungama…’ all fall woefully short of this expectation.
Most of Ray’s heroes are loners with some quirk and mostly belonged to the middle-class, the typical Bengali bhadralok, grounded in the milieu of 60s-80s Bengal. Sayantan Mukherjee, whose brainchild the anthology is, contemporizes the hero in three out of the four anthologies and they seem to veer too far from Ray’s protagonists.
Abhishek Chaubey’s ‘Hangama Hai Kyon Barpa’ based on Barin Bhowmick er Bairam (Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment) is the only one where the hero is out of Ray’s stories. The director has enough faith in his art to stick as closely as possible to the original story and he has a superb set of actors to translate his vision on the screen. We come across the ghazal singer Musafir Ali (Bajpayee) a debonair ladies’-man and the stolid wrestler Aslam Baig (Rao) in an almost forgotten splendor of a train’s first-class coach. Just being ‘inside’ a luxuriously appointed coach, complete with a liveried attendant is like a breath of fresh air to our lockdown weary souls.
Ali has the uncomfortable feeling that he has met his co-passenger in the past, but is initially unable to place him. But when he does, all he can do is to pray that the other does not do so. The sense of mystery is sustained till the twist at the end which is different from the original but makes for an organic, more satisfying finale to a great story well-retold. Bajapyee and Rao bring alive the laidback genteel flavors from the bygone era. Cinematically, the seamless segue of the past and present via the magic-realism like the washroom mirror or the coach transforming into Ali’s audience is something Ray, the finicky director, would have applauded. Another point in its favor is the colloquial (saying ‘Agre’ instead of ‘Agra’) lingo, complete with the lyricism of the Lucknowi tehzeeb (culture, sophistication) is in stark contrast to the expletive-laden language of the other three stories and this general, unfortunate trend on OTT these days.
The first and the second stories of the anthology, ‘Forget-Me-Not’ based on Bipin Chowdhary’s Smritibhrom (Bipin Chowdhary’s Memory Loss) and ‘Bahurupiya’ based on Bahuroopi, both directed by Mukherji, may have passed muster for slick direction had they not proclaimed themselves to be interpretations of Ray’s stories.
In ‘Forget-Me-Not’ Fazal as Ipsit Nair is the typical brash, over-achieving CEO, nick-named ‘human computer’ for his eidetic memory till he runs across this girl at a bar, who seems surprised that he cannot remember their tryst in Khajurao. From the anxiety of losing his most prized possession, his memory, a downward spiral brings the proud CEO to his knees. How and why his mammoth pride is struck the blow is what keeps the viewer hooked but the loopholes loom up after the film ends. As far as the performances go, Fazal nails the brash and the bemused, and Prasad does complete justice to her wide-eyed Maggie. However, the villainy of the protagonist is more Black Mirror than Ray.
The same is true for ‘Bahurupia’, which makes it everything that Ray’s story is emphatically not. What the maker has done is to take the kernel of the idea, shorn it of its aesthetic created another Joker. ‘Bahurupia’ is also about pride, about Indrashish (Menon), who for all his general nincompoop-ness, excels in the art of disguise. Soon this hobby turns into obsession and he uses it to get back at everyone who crosses him. An encounter with talents beyond human pitches the story into macabre. Menon slips into this role with ease and brings to life the twisted character of Indrashish.
The weakest and perhaps the most tedious is Bala’s ‘Spotlight’, the story by the same title. It is marred further by the lackluster Kapoor and mostly behind a veil, Didi (Madan), who had delivered stellar performances in Bala’s earlier venture ‘Mard ko Dard Nahi Hota’. Here, Kapoor is hampered by his single expression character, and Madan is made to hide her vibrancy under the veil for the larger part of the film. A delightful Sanyal, stands out in his role as the star’s manager.
The story deviates completely from the original story, and is unable to stand on its feet despite the fantastic premise of devious women-empowerment; despite the possibilities of a scintillating story of a star scrabbling to hang on to his stardom; despite the deliciousness of the battle-of-wits between the wildly successful religious leader ‘didi’ and the fading star. The plot fizzles into cheap gimmickry of props imitating Game-of-Thrones and weird supposed-to-be-funny scenes of supernatural power. Like the hero’s oft-referred ‘one look’ acting, the story remains steadfastly mired in one repetitive groove.
Once again, it seems, the written word has won – the films are not a patch on the stories. The exception that proves the rule is ‘Hungama…’. The rest would appear more blasphemies than odes. The unnecessary sleaze and smut that the director resorts to indicates that he does not have faith in the strength of the writing or his own talent. Go ahead with these ambitious extensions but why piggyback on Ray’s name?
Sincere advice, watch Doordarshan’s ‘Satyajit Ray Presents’ by his son Sandip Ray instead.
Madhumita Gupta is a freelance writer based in India. A dreamer by nature, a teacher by default, and crazy about all things books, movies, dogs, oceans, mountains, and flowers.