Sometime in 2017, Ajit Andhare, COO of Viacom18 Studios, found himself at his daughter’s school library. Greeting him from the shelves was a collection of Satyajit Ray short stories. Ajit confesses having a slight sinking feeling. “Oh god,” he remembers thinking. “This is going to be some heavy stuff.” Instead, he was surprised by the relatable nature of these stories, some half a century after they were written.
“Ray’s stories start off in an accessible world, with almost Wodehousian characters, and then something striking happens in them,” Ajit says. This realization was enough to make him greenlit Ray, an anthology of four stories on Netflix. The show’s creator, Sayantan Mukherjee, says that growing up, Ray’s stories were like a rite of passage into adolescence. “It’s the first time you get a sense of that looming darkness. They become part of your guilty pleasure because you are reading Tintin but you are also reading this.” Their vision, Mukherjee says, was to offer a slick, contemporary, delocalized adaptation of Ray.
Naturally, the response to the four films has been mixed. This writer enjoyed two of them, could halfway tolerate one, and found Behrupiya - starring Kay Kay Menon as a Kolkata make-up artist - supremely off-putting. Other reactions have been more irate. Srijit Mukerji, director of Behrupiya and Forget Me Not, says he never made his films for purists. “The series I did before this, Feluda Pherot, was a loyal, textual interpretation of Ray where I even took lines from his stories,” Mukerji says. “So that was a delight for the purists and they were actually quite happy.” With Ray, he knew “it will ruffle a few feathers because we have taken it to a dark place and introduced characters not there in the original story.” While Mukerji is from Bengal, it’s interesting to trace the influence of Ray on the other two directors.
Vasan Bala, director of Spotlight, says he grew up watching Ray’s films on Doordarshan, praising the ‘good minds’ who curated film programmes back then. Still, it wasn’t until college that he saw The Apu Trilogy and his other masterworks. “Also the filmmakers I love - from Scorsese to Wes Anderson to Mani Ratnam - have been influenced by Ray. So it’s inescapable in that sense.” Abhishek Chaubey, director of Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, describes Ray as an ideal in Indian filmmaking. “All Indian filmmakers owe a huge debt to Ray that cannot be paid,” Abhishek says. “I grew up on a staple diet of Hindi cinema but I did manage to see Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne as a child.
Also, I read his short stories in my early 20s, and it was quite shocking because by then I had seen quite a few of his films and I found them quite different in style. They were fascinating.” Chaubey’s segment has been the most widely praised in the series. A comic parable, it revolves around a train journey from Bhopal to Delhi, drawing marvelous performances from Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao. Initially, the makers had approached Abhishek for a different story, but were surprised to find him respond to Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, about a kleptomaniac on a train.
“My last two films (Udta Panjab, Sonchiriya) were quite heavy,” Chaubey says. “So I did want to do something that’s slightly lighter in tone.” Working with screenwriter Niren Bhatt, he kept the basic conflict intact, tinkering instead with the setting and flavor of the story. The performances, he knew, would be the centerpiece. “I have worked with Manoj before and this was the first time I worked with Gajraj. They’ve known each other since their college days. They just played off each other and made my life so much easier.” Vasan, meanwhile, went all out with his segment. Ray’s original story, Spotlight, unfolds over a vacation in Chota Nagpur, and is narrated by a tertiary character.
In Bala’s film, the concerns are starkly different, focusing on a young superstar’s struggle with fame and identity. Also written by Niren and starring Harshvardhan Kapoor, Spotlight is the most distinct entry in the series. “The film is about the futility of art and artists and how seriously we take ourselves,” Bala says. “We took a range of different ideas and went wild.” Were their qualms about pushing the aesthetic too far? “Ultimately when you are making a film you have to own it. That is what Ray would have wanted. Even if he hated it, he would be like, “This has to be yours.’”