Once Geoffrey Hill, legendary British poet, had remarked, ‘Human beings as mysterious to self and others’. And this is exactly the essence of Satyajit Ray’s literary world. An observant writer, Ray was fascinated by the peculiarities of human behaviour. His stories chartered into grey areas of the human mind, often without any prelude. Many of his protagonists, mostly men and boys, remain unusual yet commonplace in their presence in a Bengali society; often owners of zero materialistic assets, but simply quirky minds.
This, the world from which Netflix’s anthology, Ray, is inspired, is adapted from four stories namely — Forget Me Not (Bipin Chowdhury’s Smritibram or Bipin Chowdhury’s Ailment), Bahurupiya (Bahurupi or The Polymorphic), Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa (Barin Bhowmick-er Byram or Barin Bhowmick’s Disease) and Spotlight (same title as the original). Srijit Mukherjee directs Forget Me Not and Bahurupiya, and Abhishek Chaubey and Vasan Bala respectively craft Hungama Kyon Hai Barpa and Spotlight.
Forget Me Not is a story of a successful corporate leader with a phenomenal memory. One day, his life falls apart as his biggest skill — his memory — is in shambles. While Bipin Chowdhury’s Ailment is a quirky story of an old friend in distress playing a rather believable prank on the successful protagonist, Mukherjee’s Forget Me Not is a much-stretched existential tale about the life of Ipsit Rama Nair [Ali Fazal] a man with unbridled ambition. Nothing much is remarkable in this storytelling other than Swapnil Sonawane’s camerawork that’s never overboard and Ali Fazal’s attempt to look like the typecast corporate honcho.
If Ray was puritan in avoiding women in his short stories, perhaps a deliberate act keeping in mind his young adult readership, an extreme strategy in hindsight, portrayal of Mukherjee’s women characters as either prolific sexual performers or vulnerable women is another extreme. A hackneyed plot device that was once formula of 1960s-1970s.
Bahurupiya is by all means the story of a repressed makeup artist, Indrasish (Kay Kay Menon) and his prosaic life when things suddenly change after he inherits some unexpected wealth. Soon, he uses makeup skills to fulfil his desires, only to meet with a dark end. Bahurupiya merely picks on the seed idea of makeup as an art from Ray’s Bahurupi (The Polymorphic) and is farthest from its source material.
A stellar performance by Menon as Indrasish and Rajesh Sharma as Suresh keeps Bahurupiya afloat. And, yes, not all are seamless in using fantasy as a tool to sexual gratification. Only a few like Bergman still stand out.
Spotlight is an interesting adaptation. A story of two crowd-pullers, a present day film star and a godwoman. Vasan Bala plays with the idea of ‘temporal’ as he plants a godwoman pitted against a successful superstar on a location shoot. Bala knows the world of film production and he drives his story with ease, setting it up within that world. Effectively using superficiality and fakeness of both the filmy and spiritual world of godmen and women, represented by Harshavardhan Kapoor and Radhika Madan respectively, Bala makes the two leads confront each other.
Bala’s Spotlight is miles away from Ray’s original story, where an octogenarian man hogs limelight in a sleepy mofussil town of Bihar by professing himself as the oldest man on earth. I would consider Bala’s version as fresh content and nothing to do with Ray.
Hungama Kyun Hai Barpa is intelligently crafted. Abhishek Chaubey knows his audience and what they recall when it comes to his cinema — Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya, etc. Together with writer Niren Bhatt, Chaubey plays on that mood, situating his story in an era where first class train travel had its appeal and kusti magazines had takers. While Chaubey introduces his two leads — Musafir Ali [Manoj Bajpayee] and Aslam Baig [Gajraj Rao] — on a Bhopal-Delhi train journey, he shuttles between the past of both the men.
While the audience is engrossed in the shining brilliance of Bajpayee and Rao, the director has started weaving the world, which he knows best. The north of the country, the ghazal-singing populace and the chaste Urdu speakers — while all the time shots influenced by one of Ray’s films, Nayak (The Hero), where cinematographer Subrata Mitra uses mirrors in most aesthete manner, are cleverly incorporated here in Adiya Kanwar’s production design. Incidentally, Nayak too was set on a train journey from Kolkata to New Delhi. In two brief roles, Raghubir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa prove again that actors of their stature are not everyday incidents.
Abhishek Chaubey’s understanding of Ray’s world seems closest to the original works that were peppered with a strange shiny ordinariness that by the end of story transformed into extraordinary.
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, Raghubir Yadav, Manoj Pahwa, Kay Kay Menon, Rajesh Sharma, Bidita Bag, Dibyendu Bhattacharya, Kharaj Mukherjee; Ali Afzal, Shweta Basu Prasad, Anindita Ghosh, Harshavardhan Kapoor, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Radhika Madan
Director: Abhishek Chaubey, Srijit Mukerjee, Vasan Bala
Rating: 3 stars
(Nilosree Biswas is an author and filmmaker, trained in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, and cinema. Her interests include Hindi cinema, cultural studies of pre-modern and colonial South Asia. Her works, both film and writing, have appeared in various print media and screened worldwide including at Cannes Film Festival)