Like many of his films, Satyajit Ray’s short stories are an adolescent’s delight. The Feluda series looms over his literary output, but he wrote just as enthusiastically about benign aliens, insecure film stars and man-eating plants. Take the story Spotlight, which though narrated by a tertiary character — oozes his sense of mischief and psychological depth.
Often aimed at children, these stories have endured for their brevity and wit. When not making globe-conquering humanist dramas, India’s greatest writer-director was churning out his delicious 10-pagers. Inspired by his stories, three contemporary filmmakers have created Ray, a 4-part anthology series on Netflix. Ray himself would have approved of the format – his 1961 triptych, Teen Kanya, was the first of its kind in India.
But would he have approved of the films? My guess is that he would admire their experimental sheen, while being ambivalent about doing them all in Hindi. Since all four segments stretch the 50-minute mark, I’ve discussed them individually. The running order remains the same, though you’d be well advised to shake it up a bit. It’s a fitting approach to view a show like this.
Forget Me Not
At a glitzy rooftop bar, a woman walks down with her drink. She picks out Ipsit (Ali Fazal) and attempts striking up a conversation. Ipsit is stumped. He just can’t place her. Worse, his award-winning ‘computer memory’ brain can’t fetch the particulars of a romantic night she claims to have spent with him. “Try your recycle bin,” his friend jokes a few days later, confirming that Ipsit did take such a trip a few years ago.
Why, then, can’t he remember it? Srijit Mukherji’s film sets the general tone of the series. Written by Siraj Ahmed, this is a relentlessly slick adaptation of Ray, both visually and in narrative terms. Ali Fazal nails the mannerism of a man about to go off his rails. The sequence by the pool, where Ipsit finally blows a fuse, is starkly unsettling. My only problem is with how the whole thing ends. The extended climax Srijit designs and shoots is too expository – the cardinal sin of short story adaptations.
Also directed by Srijit, this one follows a makeup artist with a peculiar bout of god complex. If Forget Me Not is a modern take, Behrupiya feels more like a peace offering to Ray purists. The Calcutta setting comes complete with trams, old theatres and dingy chinese restaurants. I was put off by the exaggerated production design and bad dialogue (“You make me feel like Juliet”).
In a series sold on innovation, this is the weakest link. Indrashish (Kay Kay Menon) is a clerk with an unhealthy obsession for prosthetics. His grandmother was a make-up supplier for Hollywood studios; when she passes, she leaves him a fortune and her book of tricks. Needless to say, Indrashish puts it to good use, fooling his landlord at first and then quickly dialing up the stakes. It all adds up to a simplistic moral yarn, more tired and predictable than gleefully grotesque.
Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa
Easily, the pick of the lot. Abhishek Chaubey’s film is a charming parable on time, transience and authenticity. It begins with Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee), a celebrated ghazal singer, boarding a train from Bhopal to Delhi. His co-passenger is Aslam Baig (Gajraj Rao), a one-time wrestler turned journalist. We learn that ten years ago, on a similar train ride, Musafir had stolen a watch belonging to Baig. He was cured of his kleptomania soon after, but the guilt had lingered on.
Now he must sit across from Baig and wait for the penny to drop. Written by Niren Bhatt, this is a playful, elegantly realised adaptation. The central journey is peppered with flashes into Musafir’s past and psyche. These ideas are present in Ray’s original story, but acquire a unique flavour in cinematic form. Abhishek, coming off two heavy-hitters like Sonchiriya and Udta Punjab, seems to be enjoying himself.
The film reminded me of his Ishqiya days, with his penchant for language, music and cultural ephemera. Within the confines of a luxury coach, Manoj and Gajraj work up a storm. You can watch the entire film as a grudge match between these two giants. The word ‘registan’ (desert), issuing poetically from Musafir’s lips, turns appropriately arid when repeated by Baig. Before they part at Delhi station, Musafir gives a striking assessment of self. “Mael-e-fidraat,” he calls himself. ‘Dirty-natured.’ Ain’t we all?
In 1966, Satyajit Ray directed Nayak, a seminal meditation on the pitfalls of fame. The protagonist of Spotlight, a star named Vik, is no Uttam Kumar. If anything, he’s played by Harshvardhan Kapoor, the actor’s mousy, self-effacing manner falling in nicely with director Vasan Bala’s plans. Arriving at a small-town resort for a shoot, Vik smiles broadly for the cameras. His thunder, though, is quickly stolen by Didi (Radhika Madan), an enigmatic cult leader who’s also put up there.
A battle of egos ensues. While not as consistently pleasurable as Hungama…, Spotlight struck me as the bravest attempt in the series. Screenwriter Niren Bhatt takes his source material and pushes it in odd, fascinating directions. Getting Vik to calm down, his manager details the distinctions between cinema and religion. It’s a funny speech, though the film really unwinds with the arrival of Vik’s girlfriend (Akansha Ranjan). Vik is strung out, while she happily stars in Punjabi Game of Thrones.
Like his last feature, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Vasan creates a distinct visual world. There are a dozen Ray references, though the best one comes near the end. Didi a child of superstition who learned to wield it as a weapon — is a loving update on Sharmila Tagore’s Doyamoyee in Devi (1960). Ray’s film ends with Doyamoyee disappearing into a field; here, we see Didi riding off on a bike. In the final shot, she’s wearing shades, without the tortured gleam of Doyamoyee’s eyes. It’s the sort of empowerment arc Ray would smile at.
Director: Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey, Vasan Bala
Cast: Ali Fazal, Kay Kay Menon, Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, Harshvardhan Kapoor, Shweta
Basu Prasad, Akansha Ranjan
Streaming on: Netflix