It took the spirit of Satyajit Ray to make us pause and introspect. Over the last week, film enthusiasts and cinephiles across the country have been locked in impassioned debates. The talking point is not a Bollywood blockbuster or a Malayalam masterpiece. At the epicenter of this cultural tremor is Ray, the four-part Netflix anthology series inspired by the literary fiction of the great Satyajit Ray. Ray is the latest of the "big ticket" Indian streaming anthologies – succeeding the Hindi-language Ajeeb Daastaans and preceding perhaps the most high-profile of these titles, the upcoming Mani Ratnam-created Tamil-language Navarasa. Ray is also the latest anthology to activate an explosion of review headlines featuring the terms, "mixed bag," "uneven," "middling," "hit and miss," "all but one" and "underwhelming."
While the nostalgic Abhishek Chaubey segment Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa is widely considered to have won the sprint, the jury has been out on Vasan Bala's daring Spotlight and Srijit Mukherji's two dark dashes, Forget Me Not and Bahrupiya. Mukherji's adaptations, in particular, have been the most divisive in recent memory. But what's unanimous is the verdict that Ray – like several of its short-form predecessors – is a frustrating fusion of the good, the bad and the mediocre. This lack of consistency is not unusual. While it's natural to measure one piece of storytelling against another – an anthology is designed to service the binary thrills of comparison – the cumulative sum often feels smaller than its parts. The sign of a solid anthology lies in the viewer's inability to identify a standout segment. But the Indian compilations make it disconcertingly simple to choose a favourite.
Transitive verbs like "rescue" and "elevate" tend to dot our reviews. For instance, Neeraj Ghaywan's Geeli Pucchi rescues the disparate and desperate Ajeeb Daastaans. Avinash Arun's Vishanoo elevates the forgettable pandemic anthology, Unpaused. Tharun Bhascker's Ramula is the only competent short from the Telugu-language Pitta Kathalu. Ravi Jadhav's Mitraa, a lyrical same-sex drama, redeems the Marathi-language Bioscope. Arguably the most striking anthology yet, Paava Kadhaigal, is marked by the pathos of Sudha Kongara's Thangam, a story about the fate of a Muslim transwoman in a '80s village; filmmakers like Vetrimaaran and Gautham Vasudev Menon struggle with the brevity of the medium despite hard-hitting narratives. Despite Karthik Subbaraj's whimsical departure, the sappy-sweet lockdown anthology Putham Pudhu Kaalai is again elevated by Sudha Kongara's playful take on middle-aged love. Dibakar Banerjee's meta-political zombie short is the only passable segment of the ghastly Ghost Stories. Zoya Akhtar's minimalistic love story between a housemaid and her employer is the highlight of the messy Lust Stories, while Vinay Chhawal's 'spaghetti eastern' Thappad is the most memorable of the Flipkart Original, Zingadi inShort.
With anthology fatigue now starting to set in, the questions are simple: Why are there so many? And why is it so difficult to get right? The answer to the first is fairly obvious. In light of the financial ramifications of the pandemic, an anthology promises more at the cost of less. Not just from the viewer's perspective, where the 'buffet system' allows one to access a versatile group of stories from the same table at the same price. It is also more logistically durable. Getting talent to commit to short production schedules is matched by the flexibility to shoot multiple segments simultaneously with separate crews, thus accounting for a quick start-to-finish turnaround. A web series can take upto two years from beginning to end, and a feature-length film anywhere between six months and a year. So an anthology becomes the easy filler in a prolific content war.
This also hints at an answer to the second question. The intent of an anthology – both commercial and artistic – is very different from what it was a decade ago. Just as standalone shorts are now commissioned by production houses with a goal of digital virality (as opposed to, say, film festival acclaim), even anthologies today are conceived as a status advertisement rather than a creative experiment. The project is first envisioned, after which established directors are handpicked to play within a theme. The names take precedence over the work itself. Consequently, people watch a Ghost Stories to see the latest Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar film, and a Paava Kadhaigal to sample the newest GVM and Vetrimaaran effort. None of the segments then feel like movies that the directors truly wanted – or needed – to make. They are simply presented as famous names offering condensed versions of their voices.
And that's the main problem. It is erroneously assumed that, just as short filmmakers eventually make the leap 'up' to features, feature-length directors can easily scale down and operate at a "lower level." In the process, narrative length is mistaken as the currency of craft. Short storytelling has a distinct language of its own. To draw a cricketing analogy, it's organic for T20 specialists to 'graduate' to ODI and Test cricket, but it's deceptively tougher for Test specialists to thrive in the shorter formats. The results support this theory. One of the most accomplished shorts across anthologies, the Konkona Sen Sharma-starring Geeli Pucchi, is directed by Neeraj Ghaywan – a refined player of the short-format game, with credits like Shor and Juice to his name. Of the three anthologies featuring the Bollywood quartet of Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, the most diverse and interesting shorts have come from Kashyap and Banerjee, each of whom have a history in the medium (Banerjee's Love Sex Aur Dhokha was a spiritual harbinger of the digital era). Similarly, the most awkward titles have come from those well-versed in the excesses of mainstream Indian cinema: Johar (Ghost Stories), Shashank Khaitan (Ajeeb Daastaans), Gautham Vasudev Menon (Paava Kadhaigal) and Srijit Mukherji (Ray).
Then there's the fundamentally flawed perception of what an anthology means. While an anthology is rooted in the essence of plurality, the Indian rendition is an extension of mainstream movie culture. The formula – of composing an all-in-one product – mirrors the masala film template, where every element is created to address a distinct desire of the audience. But the ideal anthology should be a symphony, not a showcase. Each film must act as a different flavour, yet the outcome cannot be a singular dish so much as a collective dinner experience; the tastes do not compete so much as combine with each other. The perfect anthology sounds utopian, but it does exist. Wild Tales, the Oscar-nominated Argentine black comedy, is a prime example. It's no coincidence that all the six shorts, united by the theme of vengeance, are helmed by a single director. Which means that even though it's designed as an anthology film, Wild Tales is produced with the logistical eye of a feature. The plots and settings vary, but there is a near-episodical harmony of purpose – as though six organs conspire to stimulate the whole body rather than individual parts of it.
Wild Tales hit the screens in 2014, back when the concept of an anthology film was yet to be appropriated by the streaming ecosystem. Those were purer times. In the same year, HumaraMovie's Shuruaat Ka Interval – an omnibus of eight shorts – had a theatrical release. The selling point was the name of the four mentors: Vikamaditya Motwane, Imtiaz Ali, Anand Gandhi and Vikas Bahl. The result was a 'mixed bag,' but there was a novel sense of innocence and potential about the format. This perhaps stemmed from the fact that each short was directed by an aspiring filmmaker on a shoestring budget, not by a veteran with limitless resources. The consistency was defined not by quality but ambition, not by prestige but curiosity. A lot of this rawness has been replaced by an interplay of reputation in today's anthologies. It's hardly surprising, then, that the best Ray segment is not even a part of Ray. The honour instead belongs to a piece of Bombay Talkies (2013), which was based on a Satyajit Ray short story called Patol Babu, Film Star. The Dibakar Banerjee-directed film featured Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a failed stage actor meeting the spirit of his late mentor (Sadashiv Amrapurkar). Its title, Star, could ironically be used to express the clinical method behind the commercial madness of the modern Indian anthology.
Maybe it's fitting that Bombay Talkies came the closest to tapping the truth of an anthology movie: Each of the four segments were standout shorts without being standalone films. Choosing a favourite was futile. What's more, they were made solely for the big screen. The official theme was "100 Years of Indian Cinema," but the real theme felt closer to home: storytellers revealing themselves through the story of film. Back in the day, the stars reached for the earth and not vice versa.