Directors: Abhishek Chaubey, Vasan Bala and Srijit Mukherji
Writers: Niren Bhatt, Sayantan Mukherjee and Siraj Ahmed
Starring: Manoj Bajpayee, Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor, Ali Fazal, Kay Kay Menon, Gajraj Rao, Bidita Bag, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Radhika Madan, Shweta Basu Prasad and Chandan Roy Sanyal
Streaming on: Netflix
In recent years, the anthology universe has been a congested one. More often than not, the results are underwhelming – celebrated filmmakers seem to be bamboozled by the parameters of short-form storytelling. The odd segment stands out, but they resemble little more than Brian Lara on a sinking West Indian ship. The irony is fitting, then, that the nadir of this streaming trend is inspired by the work of the most celebrated Indian filmmaker of all. The four segments of Ray are based on four handpicked short stories written by Satyajit Ray. The theme, ostensibly, is “identity” – comprising male characters at odds with the masks they tend to wear. The average length of each film is one hour: too long to be a short and too short to be a narrative feature. Arguably the tritest of the Netflix anthologies yet, Ray has three directors, at least two of whom appear to be crippled by the pressure of introducing the hallowed source material to modern-day cinephiles.
At the forefront – for reasons beyond cultural consonance – is Srijit Mukherji. I admittedly haven’t seen most of the National Award-winning director’s Bengali films. But it’s safe to say that “the guy responsible for the godawful Begum Jaan” is also the man behind the first two – and worst two – segments of Ray. (Ray gets its sequence right: start with the bad so that the viewer is left with an illusion of improvement.). Mukherji’s propensity to be edgy radiates an aimless brand of artistic radicalism bordering on hollow pretension. Darkness in his work is not an inquisitive tone but an empty style: a device to provoke the viewer rather than build a story. Let’s begin with Forget Me Not, a film starring Ali Fazal as an arrogant entrepreneur who develops a memory problem. The character, Ipsit, is the kind of ruthless, self-important jerk who probably idolizes Colin Farrell from Phone Booth: he speaks fast, walks fast, cusses hard and likes to look busy. You know he’s wronged a woman or three, because the maker won’t let you forget his “immoral” slant. The film opens with the camera following a girl walking through a posh restro-pub in an unnecessarily long take, before she recognizes Ipsit, who in turn gets offended and offensive once he can’t place her – their little conversation oozes the subtlety of a SoBo high-school chatroom. The rest of Ipsit’s unravelling occurs in the same vein. When they meet again, a crazed Ipsit yells about “being inside your vagina,” which by now is as good a sign as any to question Mukherji’s penetrative vision. Ali Fazal is an improved actor, and has come a long way from being sniggered at for landing an A-list brown role in Victoria & Abdul. He pulls off a decent Bangalore twang here, too, but his Ipsit will forever be reduced to the flatulence of a climax in which he is wheelchaired across literal “memory rooms” by his jilted lover. It looks infinitely more vacuous than it sounds.
Mukherji’s second outing, Bahrupiya, is even more incoherent and obnoxious. The master will not be pleased. Kay Kay Menon, a fine actor in his day, stars as a mild-mannered Kolkata-based make-up artist who begins to use facial prosthetics to punish the people who’ve wronged him. Or at least that’s what it looks like. We know he’s a conflicted man of many personas, because one of the first scenes features him speaking to himself in a room full of mirrors. The lighting – an orgy of vivid primary colours – evokes the insides of a stoned rainbow. It’s only a matter of time before we see the man mounting a sex worker who is wearing the mask of the girl (!) who rejected him. A million metaphors (and Kay Kay) are lost in crass shock value, as the narrative morphs into another one and then another one – a case of method storytelling so twisted that even the film eventually forgets what it’s about.
Which is why the third segment – Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa – feels like a welcome dose of levity after Mukherji’s nihilistic gimmickry. His is the only film that doesn’t try to “translate” the material, instead staying relatively loyal to the Ray spirit. Two curious strangers and a train journey remain two curious strangers and a train journey. Unlike Mukherji, Chaubey visibly trusts the talent of his actors – a smooth Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao – to inflate a punchline-premise into an amusing meditation on human nature. A famous poet named Musafar Ali (Bajpayee) shares a compartment with a sports writer, Aslam Baig (Rao) on a train from Bhopal to Delhi. The conceit is that these two had shared the same journey ten years ago as younger men, where a gold watch (“khushbakht”) is stolen and one of them is revealed to be a kleptomaniac. The interplay of awkwardness is nicely performed (the verbal equivalent of two wrestlers sizing each other up), and a neat montage of the past only exposes how badly a similar time-lapse is conveyed in Forget Me Not. Cameos by Raghubir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa elevate the magic realism and wit of the original writing: the twist is delivered in a shop called “Rooh Safa” (Soul Cleanse), where thieves with a conscience ‘donate’ their loot (including Mountbatten’s pyjamas and, well, Ray’s lost short stories). In spite of the film’s easy charm, however, it’s hard to stay engaged. One can’t help but sense that too little is stretched into a whole hour; the exchange drags in parts, and the playful suspense wears off within the first quarter. Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa is the best film of this anthology, but it’s also Chaubey’s weakest yet.
Given the director in charge, the final film is perhaps the most disappointing of the lot. Spotlight, starring Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor as an existential Bollywood superstar, is helmed by Vasan Bala (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota). The story – a statement on the shared cultdom of cinema and religion – is already satirical to begin with, but Bala’s craft aggressively reimagines it as a trippy parody. The industry jokes write themselves. Kapoor is Vikram Arora, a film star worshipped by the masses for a trademark ‘hero’ expression that film critics mock. (Picture this in Rajeev Masand’s voice: “His latest, Ruk Ruk Ruk, proves that one look is all Vikram has.”). Vikram wants to be taken seriously as an artist; his conflict comes to the fore when his hotel is hijacked by the hysteria surrounding the arrival of a Rajneesh-style Godwoman.
Kapoor basically plays Vikram as an extension of his self-deprecatory cameo in AK vs AK – except he severely lacks the aura of a (fictional) star. It’s all well and good to be a version of yourself on screen, but an hour-long film offers no escape for both the premise and the actor. When in doubt, hallucinatory drugs are ingested. It doesn’t help that the film collapses where it’s supposed to shine – during a climactic chat between the two “performers,” the movie star and the godwoman (a wicked Radhika Madan). The scene is interminably long, and the surreal ‘escape’ that follows looks like the kind of fever dream that appears when makers run out of ways to end things. As Leonardo DiCaprio proved in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, it’s deceptively difficult for an actor to play a bad actor on screen. Kapoor has a similar scene in Spotlight, where Vikram is supposed to keep messing up an entry shot with his facial inertia. The problem is you can’t tell whether Vikram is bad or Kapoor himself is. Towards the end, an inspired Vikram gives a perfect shot that has everyone on set in tears – which is strange, because it looks no different from his initial NG takes. That the director on the shoot is played by Vasan Bala himself adds a tragically meta dimension to this mess.
We’ve seen enough films about filmmaking to know that the idea itself can drive sane-minded directors to lose perspective and lose themselves in a fog of inside jokes. Spotlight is a film based on a filmmaker’s story about a film star on a film shoot – so maybe the makers can be forgiven. But Ray, on a whole, cannot be forgiven. Or forgotten. If this anthology were a character in a Satyajit Ray film, it would be running alongside a train on the platform and frantically knocking on the window-pane to get a glimpse of its elusive hero.