I must have been 5 or 6 years old when I had my first encounter with Bengali cinema. As I saw my parents and grandparents revisiting their favourite moments from the film and raving about the director's expertise, I sat there with a blank face, not knowing what all the jazz was about. And now, I must have watched that film countless times. And every time I put it on, it leaves a smile on my face. That film is none other than Sonar Kella.
Today, as we celebrate the birth centenary of the master storyteller who gave us iconic films like Charulata, Pather Panchali, Ghare Baire and many more, three directors have come together with a modern retelling of four timeless stories written by Ray. These stories may leave you with a smile or may leave you shocked, but they will surely entertain you. With stories ranging from psychological thrillers to comical satires, Ray has the stage set to introduce his work to a wider audience.
Throughout the anthology, it seems that every story paid tribute to some of the most memorable qualities or scenes for which Ray was known. For example, there are many moments in Forget Me Not that will remind you of the technical brilliance of Nayak. Behrupiya will remind you of Ray's representation of the middle-class Bengali man. Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa pays tribute to Ray using trains as a motif and his witty humour. And Spotlight introduces to the mystery/fantasy universe he had set up through films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and the Feluda series.
The series starts with Forget Me Not, directed by Srijit Mukherji. Based on "Bipin Chowdhary's Memory Loss", the story is set around Ipsit Nair, a successful yet hauntingly robotic businessman. He finds himself spiralling downward when a former flame shows up and tries to remind him of her existence. At certain moments, I felt an eerie similarity to a Black Mirror episode titled "The Entire History Of You", especially during the pre-climactic sequence as his descent into madness amplifies. Ali Fazal sheds his "Guddu Bhaiya" image and transforms himself into Nair. It seems that Nair's mind is constantly working on something or another, right from the way he handles his company's business to the way he emotes. During a scene, he says to a friend that there is an opportunity cost in remembering college memories. The friend replies, "You're like a computer. What's data for you are memories for me. I can't delete them." What starts off as a thriller with a commentary on how social interactions have become more robotic and apathetic is bogged down by the episode's length.
What Mukherji lacks in Forget Me Not, he instantly recovers in the next story, Behrupiya, based on Ray's eponymous story. I remember every time I sat down for a Ray film, there would be a sense of excitement and thrill, which is what I felt when I watched this episode. Indrashish, a middle-class man broken by the outside world, gets a chance to avenge himself when his grandmother leaves him her fortune, i.e. a book on make-up and prosthetics, and 75 lakh rupees. His grandmother has always taught him that they are creators or, as she terms it, the "shrishtikarta", making them equivalent to God. What happens is a rollercoaster ride, with Indrashish receiving enough warning signs to give up his path of revenge, especially from a fakir (played exceptionally well by Dibyendu Bhattacharya). It is clear that while the supporting cast puts their best foot forward, Kay Kay Menon steals the show. There is something about the actor that makes Indrashish relatable to many, especially to me. Could the story have been adapted in a better way? Maybe. But did it celebrate Ray's sense of thrill? Wholeheartedly, yes!
The third episode, Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, is possibly the closest a director can get to adapting a Ray story. Inspired by "Barin Bhowmick's Ailment", the story is centred around renowned ghazal singer Musafir Ali and his co-passenger Aslam Baig, who meet after 10 years, coincidentally, on a train journey. Through various dream and flashback sequences, and impeccable dialogues written by Niren Bhatt, this story will surely leave a smile on your face. As Musafir constantly breaks the fourth wall, you instantly feel that you are a part of this journey. Abhishek Chaubey's direction keeps you hooked, while weaving in occasional laughs to lighten the atmosphere. I don't think anyone could have played the role of Musafir Ali better than Manoj Bajpayee. The way he constantly corrects Baig in the pronunciation of certain lyrics from his ghazals, or how he senses that the walls are closing in on him, you can't help but laugh and at the same time feel sorry for the situation his character is stuck in. The same can be said for Gajraj Rao, who plays Baig. There are moments when you sense him getting closer to the truth about their previous encounter. And what do I say about his expressions? They are priceless. The supporting cast, Raghubir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa, are just the cherry on top. The scene in which Yadav tries to pronounce the word "Kleptomania" will have you rolling on the floor laughing.
We come to the final entry in this mixed bag, which is Spotlight, directed by Vasan Bala. Vikram Kapoor, a beloved star, finds himself in crisis as the spotlight gets snatched away by a self-styled Godwoman named Didi. Firstly, take a bow, Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor and Radhika Madan. Both of them effectively capture the inner turmoil they face as they are trapped in their own stardom. There are countless references to the themes Ray has explored through his films, the most prominent ones being star power and its intoxication, and religious dogmatism. There is a scene in which Vikram's manager (played by Chandan Roy Sanyal) states that while star power has its own charm, religion is something that has existed for thousands of years, and will always have the higher power, above everything else. Vikram's character arc reminded me of a dialogue in the Harry Potter series: "Fame is a fickle friend. Celebrity is as celebrity does." While some may find the references to Ray's work overbearing, this is an adaptation that will surely make Ray fans nostalgic.
While Ray may not be the ideal tribute to the master storyteller, it definitely sets the ball running for audiences across the globe to explore his work further. A special shout-out to the opening titles and title theme, which hauntingly remind you of the posters designed by Ray for his films as well as his musical prowess.