There's no other feeling in the world like reading Satyajit Ray's short stories, in Bengali if you are lucky: unique, genre-bending mindfucks that could be about anything, but almost always an exercise in suspense building that reveal the mysterious workings of human behaviour. They are about the subconscious, memory, fear, anxiety, coincidences, disorders and obsessions. Part of the pleasure is the writing itself: clear, economical, and faultless. These stories, ageless as they are, were written for the Bengali children's magazines primarily targeted at a teen readership, and sometimes deal with elements of horror (Khagam, Fritz, Brihocchonchu), or sci-fi (Bonkubabu'r Bondhu, that served as the basis of his Hollywood screenplay, The Alien). Some of them make you want to reach out for that word, "unfilmable", but then, what's filmable anyway? The filmmakers (Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey, Vasan Bala) who have directed Ray, a new Netflix anthology series, were given a choice of stories to pick from—what fun! It's a game, a competition, a challenge, all at once.
It's nice to look at the films from the perspective of the stories because it takes you closer to where the filmmakers are coming from: what they do with the stories help you understand what they do, the ways they try to translate literature to cinema, how creatively they do it, and if they do it in style. One thing is for certain–no one is able to emulate the minimalism of the stories (maybe to an extent, Chaubey) and going into the films expecting no loss in translation is naive, and uninformed. The excellent opening credits, with bold graphic style like Ray's own, and a theme to boot, does a neat job in plunging us into the worlds of the stories. Now, over to the films:
Fans of Ray's short stories are aware of his weakness for a particular trope: revenge designed as elaborate pranks. I would even go as far as to say it's a trick he's used one too many times, as convenient resolutions in stories such as Spotlight and Bipin Chowdhury'r Smritibhrom (Bipin Chowdhury's Lapse of Memory). In the latter, Bipin babu is struck by the mystery of a missing memory–a highly efficient, top-rung employee in a company, he seems to have forgotten one, and only one, memory: a trip to Ranchi he apparently made nine years ago. He shrugs it off at first but it soon begins to bug the hell out of him. He calls up friends (who confirm the event), visits a shrink, and takes a trip to Ranchi in the hope that it will trigger back lost memories.
When the last option doesn't work, a real fear grips Bipin babu: Is he losing his mind. Will he, like his younger brother, end up in the mental asylum? Mukherji scales everything several notches up in his adaptation of the story: his Ipsit Rama Nair (Ali Fazal) is a hotshot, super successful entrepreneur living in Mumbai; the elaborate prank is even more elaborate (and as a result more convoluted); his misdeeds are graver; and the price he pays for them much, much higher.
The story loses some of its potency the moment it's not about one memory anymore, but a number of lapses that follow Ipsit, and there are segments (including the climax) where Mukherji loses control over the storytelling. But where the film works is building a physical world around the psychological scape of the character, the gleaming surfaces of glass-and-chrome architecture that embody his soullessness, and a low-register electronic score that adds to it. Surreal dream sequences (echoes of Ray's Nayak) pop up in a multiplex and a parking lot. One sequence is particularly effective: when Ipsit reaches the Ellora caves (a stand-in for Ranchi in the original story) in search of his missing memory—as if it's playing hide-and-seek with him—everything else mimics the action: the camera movement, sound design (echoes of laughter), music (spacey), location (the maze like architecture of the temples, special effect tricks (there are two Ali Fazals in one frame).
A sleekly designed uniformity reflects in all the departments: from the costumes to the pacing to the production design. It's proof what a big difference it makes when you have top-notch collaborators. Cinematographer Swapnil Sonawane (Newton, Sacred Games), editor Nitin Baid (Masaan, Raazi, Gully Boy), Peter Cat Recording Co and others in music, bring immense value to the production. It's been a while I have liked anything Mukherji has made, and this might be his most technically sophisticated work till date. Something about working in a brand new setup—that includes a fresh-faced cast, led by a charismatic Fazal, who dives into the role and loses himself in it—seems to have clicked.
One of the basic pleasures of Ray's short story is the protagonist Nikunja Saha's experiments with makeup (the death of whose uncle leaves him with enough money to quit his job and pursue his passion as full-time leisure). It's a weird hobby that turns into obsession. Ray does't judge him for it; his stories are full of loners, often unmarried, who have their quirks. Nikunja is driven by the pure pleasure of fooling people with the magic of makeup, going to the local tea shop and seeing his friends being unable to recognise him, or shocking his next door neighbour by taking off that fake beard and wig.
However, in his adaptation of the story, Mukherji wants to give him a greater reason. The character, rechristened Indrashish Saha (Kay Kay Menon), is turned into a sociopath. In the first scene, the woman he loves grabs his crotch and breaks his heart. It's not hard to guess where that goes: our meek, middle class Bengali clerk with side-parted hair—who is, at best, a cross between Bob Biswas from Kahaani and Tushar Kapoor in Gayab—goes to avenge the woman, his bad boss, his pain-in-the-ass landlord, and so on. Where Mukherji should have gone Stranger Things, he goes all Joker. But it's hard to sympathise with the character, or root for, with lousy makeup no less.
Ray's thrilling story plays like an adventure hurtling toward horror, when Nikunja, bored of his antics in Calcutta, decides to test his makeup skills in front of a sanyasi in Tarapith–that place of the holy and the unholy, tantrik legends and cult practises–an incredible passage in the book that Ray describes with vivid audio-visual possibilities. You get the feeling that Mukherji (and screenwriter Siraj Ahmad) has made too many unnecessary alterations to what was already ripe for cinema. They complicate the plot by giving Abhirup multiple motivations behind his con jobs, and an extended role for the peer baba (a cannily cast Dibyendu Bhattacharya), the sanyasi counterpart, who appears twice. And in doing so, he misses out on the essential elements of Bohurupi: the curse that follows Nikunja to Calcutta, the thin line between paranoia and paranormal, and the conscious and the subconscious. An ancient epithet calls to mind: If ain't broke, don't fix it.
Conventional wisdom says faithful adaptations are easier to do. The argument is–what's the filmmaker's contribution, if all he is doing is sticking to the source text? It's a judgement made on the presumption that a filmmaker is primarily a storyteller, not a film artist who can strategise how to translate those very ideas into cinema, rather than making alterations that suit him. Abhishek Chaubey's adaptation of Ray's short story (Bipin Bhowmick's Ailment, in English) stand apart from the rest because it's the most sincere, uncynical adaptation of the text, which says a great deal about his confidence in his own craft.
It's also the smartest choice for two reasons: one, by choosing a story—a one-setting, two-character story—he narrows down his area of operation (and therefore, frees himself to be as creative as possible within that framework); two, by transposing the setting to the lost world of Awadhi etiquette, he is in home ground (while simultaneously paying tribute to Ray's only Hindi feature film, Shatranj Ke Khiladi). Ray's Barin Bhowmick—a singer who is traveling by train from Calcutta to perform by invitation at a musical programme organised by the Bengali association in Delhi—becomes Chaubey's Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee), a ghazal singer who is travelling from Bhopal to Delhi. It's named after that wonderful Ghulam Ali song.
Ray's short stories are written like a running voice in the head of the protagonist, and Barin Bhowmick just isn't able to place whether he has met his only co-passenger for the trip, Aslam Baig (Gajraj Rao), in the past. Once Barin Bhowmick remembers that his co-passenger is the same man whose Swiss traveling clock he had nicked, on a similar train journey a few years ago, he starts trying to second guess if Baig has recognised him, and vice versa. This is harder to do in film than in literature–we can listen to the voice in his head, and be easily transported to their train journey in the past. How does Chaubey (and writer Niren Bhatt) make it visual? They find a simple solution to show that both men get a feeling that they have seen each other by making them physically bump against each other's back (while trying to deposit their luggage in the upper bunks) prompting them to exchange a glance, and then another.
Even before Musafir has got on the train, we get an impression that he is a romantic who loves the adulation of his admirers (illustrated by a scene with two swooning female fans, one of who, delightfully lifts the veil of her burkha to smile). And even before he meets Rao, we get a dreamy cutaway to a mushaira by way of a mirror. It sets up the foundation for more such cuts, easing the path for passages that will take us closer to Musafir's mind, and flashbacks that will take us to the earlier train journey. And by using the mirror as a device to switch between the present and Musafir's imaginary world right at the beginning, Chaubey liberates the film from spatial realism (later doors, rooms, and more mirrors are used).
It's not that he uses these cuts only when he needs to use them as portal to the past, or when Bajpayee is talking to an imagery audience—that would make it monotonous. To keep a visual consistency, Chaubey also uses it for a regular scene when Musafir and Baig, in their past train journey, have a conversation; the clock in question becomes a giant graphic scene-transition device, transporting the two men into a void of blank, black vastness.
Ray's story is set completely inside the train. So how else does he break the monotony? By giving Musafir a backstory, by inserting episodes like the Raghubir Yadav track—who is either a hakim, or a wizard, or both, who not only articulates Musafir's illness but also suggests a way to pronounce it—Ki-le-pato…maa-ni-ya—and prescribes as medicine…another illness: a life of music and shayeri. There's one more factor that informs Chaubey's inspired choice of setting; Urdu is the most musical, and aurally pleasurable, of all Indian languages. And if I have to see two actors talk in a room, it'd rather be a Bajpayee-Rao jugalbandi, relishing their lines and yielding such comic gems as the confusion between paimana and paikhana.
The first few paragraphs of Ray's short story revolve around movie star Angshuman Chatterjee. And then, it kind of forgets about him. The setting is Chhotanagpur, where the narrator's family has gone for their annual Puja holiday. The entry of a 126-year-old man—who could be the oldest man alive—quite literally takes the spotlight away from him. From the story being ALL about Chatterjee, it becomes ALL about this super-centenarian, who enchants visitors with stories from a time when Calcutta had horse-drawn trams, and seeing Tagore perform recitations at cultural events was no big deal. Angshuman Chatterjee is mentioned again only towards the end; we are told that he left the place earlier than he was supposed to, probably because he was unable to accept that he was no longer the life of the party.
If Ray's story becomes all about the person who steals the spotlight, leaving how the star must have felt to the reader's imagination, Bala imagines it and makes it all about the star. He and writer Niren Bhatt shifts the setting to a luxury hotel presumably somewhere in Rajasthan, that has been taken over by a North Indian spiritual cult leader and her cabals. That's pretty much where the similarities end. From here, Bala goes on his own long, unpredictable trip that proves that the "spirit-of-the-original" theory is not without exceptions. This is Ray reimagined as a stoner comedy, with Bala's movie-mad filtering: a shaggy dog story about how Bollywood star–and Juhu-bred cinephile brat–Vik Arora (a perfectly vacuous Harshvardhan Kapoor, in on the joke) undergoes a great crisis and eventually overcomes it.
As in Ray's Nayak, it's both a critique and a character study, and as in Zoya Akhtar's Luck By Chance, it's both a satire and a love letter to Bollywood; Vik hopes to attain the artistic nirvana he is seeking by staying in a room that had once hosted Madonna; when the hotel authorities ask him to vacate his room for the cult leader (mysteriously titled 'Didi', that sounds like Mamata Banerjee, but also rhymes with another real-life "cult leader" with a blind following) it screws him up even more. Spotlight is the kind of movie that wouldn't exist if there were no movies before it. Hats are doffed and echoed back—like the mirror reflection scene in Luck By Chance; Vik gets a dose of his own medicine when a group of children, looking at him, from outside the glass windows of a restaurant, turn their attention to a passing procession of 'Didi'. Vik lounges all day with a half-smoked joint in hand, and in a very serious conversation with his girlfriend, he goes, 'Dude, that's just, like, your opinion, man'. Real conversations merge into wordplays ('Mirchandani/Macchardani'; 'Pritish/British') that merge into movie references. Rhymes abound–as is appropriate for a tribute to someone for who nonsense humour runs in the family. Bala mounts his movies like Edgar Wright's small-scale, inventive genre flicks. The jokes and gags are there, but so is big drama. The clever climactic action set piece works on an internal logic, as if endowed with the superpowers granted by the film's Bhooter Raja inspired sequence (the psychedelia of which is marked by jazz drumming and a blast of neon colours).
Spotlight is a strong contender for the number 1 film of the anthology for two reasons. One, it's mad fun. Two, it liberates Ray from the shackles of estate conservatism. Bala has done with a Ray property what Bengali filmmakers weren't allowed to think of in their wildest dreams. The Feluda stories are still unavailable for Bengali filmmakers—only recently has it been permitted to be done as web series; and the short stories weren't available until now. Sure, it's easier for a Hindi filmmaker to do so from a safe distance, and the real revolution will be somebody attempting Feluda on acid, defying purist backlash. But at least, this is a start.