"I've written all types of stories, but I usually like to write about lonely people and things happening to them." ~ Satyajit Ray.
And thus begins Netflix's attempted love affair with the auteur's short stories in its latest anthology, succinctly titled Ray.
Proudly showcasing a coveted cast of old and new talents, Ray promises a world of cinematic nirvana, one thickly laced with compelling storytelling and unforgettable performances (news of Kay Kay Menon's "comeback" alone has the ability to bring butterflies to the stomach, if we are being honest).
Srijit Mukherji, Vasan Bala, and Abhishek Chaubey take up helming responsibilities to portray four of Ray's shorts " Spotlight (Bala), Bahurupi (Bahrupiya, Mukherji), Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram (Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, Chaubey), and Bipin Chowdhury'r Smritibhrom (Forget Me Not, Mukherji).
Touted as modern retellings of the author-turned-filmmaker's works, Ray was supposed to contextualise the much-celebrated man and his ideologies which surrounded a tumultuous Bengal of the '60-'80s, when the state was between the throes of liberalisation and communism. Come to think of it, our present times are no bed of roses either (a probable reason that creator Sayantan Mukherji felt the connection with Ray's way of thinking).
However, in an attempt to intellectualise Ray through a contemporary lens, the series completely alienates his humanism and effortlessness in portraying people's vulnerabilities.
Much like his literary contemporary, Russian author Anton Chekov, Ray was famous for his aversion to take sides, either with characters or with ideologies. Since he was interested above all in the complexly human, there were never real heroes or villains in his works; no simple winners or losers.
It is clear that the four men leading the shorts " Manoj Bajpayee as Musafir Ali (Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa), Ali Fazal as Ipsit Rama-Nair (Forget Me Not), Kay Kay Menon as Indrashish Shah (Bahrupiya), and Harshvardhan Kapoor as Vikram Arora (Spotlight) " are indeed layered and obviously complex. They can even be termed lonely in their spheres despite fame, adulation, and wealth, but never are they fully human; never are they exposed enough for viewers to invest in their mental struggles or champion their cause.
In a bid to fit the brief, both Mukherji and Bala pump their stories with meta-narratives, multiple Ray references, and deft camerawork (a department the noted filmmaker was infamously finicky about).
Left: Still from Spotlight. Right: Still from Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne
Especially worthy of the lot is Bala's use of a dream sequence in Spotlight where Vikram sees his mother in a Bhooter Raja-esque (a' la Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne) dressage, stringing random titles of Ray's films like a prophetess. Her gibberish equivocates her son's future, and warns him of his own misgivings (much like in the original, where Bhooter Raja guided Goopy and Bagha).
Mukherji (a noted Bengali filmmaker himself) chooses to embed his odes to Ray in a more subtle manner. In Forget Me Not's suspenseful climax, a continuous long-shot follows Ipsit and his secretary Maggie till the film's end credits. It is understandably the director's hat-tip to a cinematic trope that Ray loved using, especially to portray moments of epiphany or deep contemplation in his subjects (like the zoomed-in long shots of Madhabi Mukherji's iconic lost stare in Charulata or Uttam Kumar's raspy breaths and consternation-laiden face in Nayak).
Stills from Forget Me Not
But try as they might, the sizeable cast and crew are unable to bring out the depth in Ray's stories. As an artist, it is important to understand the context in which Satyajit Ray created his oeuvre.
In the early '70s, Bengal was ushering a new era of corporate bigwigs. Under an ever-growing capitalistic market, the cultural babus were choosing to denounce years of arrogance from ancestral zamindari days and join the workforce to earn an honest living. Ray's works then became a mirror to society, a direct naysayer to the reigning communist government of the time.
His films and books spoke about the then-modern cosmopolitan Bengali, who travelled to remote lands and picked up artefacts from native tribes (Agantuk), mercilessly fought for the managerial position in a foreign conglomerate (Seemabaddha), or tried to reconcile with his own middle-class, unemployed status while caught between an idealistic Naxalite brother and career-driven sister (Pratidwandi).
Ray neither uses the auteur's incisive storytelling to punch up to privilege, nor questions social mores to provide an alternate way of thinking.
Despite often denying that he made films to "change the world," Ray was front-and-centre of a revolution that he inadvertently pioneered. His narratives might be classical and characters complexly delineated, but the filmmaker never had an all-forgiving take on his protagonists. Even though his most negative characters are always given a chance to speak and opine freely, it is that very freedom that exposes their immoral worthlessness.
But in Netflix's adaptation, the main characters constantly battle with a misplaced sense of villainy.
That Ipsit was an asshole to his loved ones is established well, but their motives to avenge themselves (except Maggie's) are too weak and shallow to either justify Forget Me Not's ending or fully portray Ipsit's mean nature.
Similarly, Bahrupiya's Indrashish is never actualised on screen as a flesh-and-blood character. His presence hovers over the plot like a thin veil, with the occasional human tic, included almost like a shortcut to tell audiences that he was 'different.'
Stills from Bahrupiya
The half-baked and misunderstood negativism in both of Mukherji's shorts are clear proof of how he missed the mark in capturing Ray's nuances that produced full-bodied stories.
Even Bala's Spotlight doggedly trudges on despite shoddy performances by Harshvardhan, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, and Chandan Roy Sanyal. Radhika Madan's brief appearance comes in like a much-needed breather to assure audiences that the film is not a complete waste of time.
Though Bala's was the only short consciously trying to use MacGuffins in portraying India's religion-obsessed culture (a theme Ray experiments with, in Devi), the depiction is too unidimensional to conjure credit.
The only film that comes close to justifying Ray's aesthetic is Bajpayee's Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa. It is evident that The Family Man actor is in the prime of his career (coincidentally, like his poet protagonist in Chaubey's film).
With Urdu seamlessly coating his patient words, Musafir Ali is an exemplar of Ray's favourite prototype " that of the respected, middle-class, affable man, hilariously caught in awkward social situations (like Lalmohan Ganguly in the Feluda series). Leaving behind a shady past riddled with what we are told is "kalipto-maania" (kleptomania), Ali is now a renowned poet-cum-singer, who performs beautiful ghazals in many a reputed majlis (gatherings).
Still from Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa
Full of himself, Musafir boards a train to Delhi, only to come face-to-face with Baig saahab (an erstwhile wrestler, played by Gajraj Rao). Though Baig is unable to place Musafir, the latter is well aware of the stolen khushbakht (a pocket watch) that he had nabbed from Baig's handbag a decade ago. Musafir's life took a turn for the fortunes after khushbakht, a stroke of good luck that the watch inevitably brought to any who owned it. Meanwhile, Baig experienced episodes of ill-luck, lost his job, and remained childless.
Chaubey expertly navigates the interplay of class struggles and superstition through his film, a trademark of Ray's treatment. Both Baig and Musafir are products of their weaknesses and their wrongdoings, a mere consequence of hard circumstances. But the humour behind their helplessness is adequately amplified. Even the title of the film (a shortened version of Ghulam Ali's famous ghazal) is an ironical dig at its protagonists " "Hungama hai kyon barpa, thodi si jo pee li hai/ Daaka toh nahi daala, chori toh nahi kee hai."
When Netflix announced Ray as part of the year-long celebrations of Satyajit Ray's 100th birth anniversary, the excitement was palpable. And following suit of its predecessors like Game of Thrones Season 8 and Avengers: Endgame in the expectations department, Ray left this writer frustrated and yearning for a redo.
Making film stalwarts' works more accessible is something that ought to be encouraged, but adaptations need to validate the essence and milieu of the filmmaker. To just include verbal or thematic references of Ray while completely side-stepping the quality of work, is (for the lack of a better word) criminal.
For the unversed, Netflix's Ray is a rather poor option to begin exploring the auteur's wonderful works. This one, viewers can safely skip, considering the anthology itself skips meaningful storytelling.
Ray is streaming on Netflix India.