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, Akansha Ranjan Kapoor, Radhika Madan, Shweta Basu Prasad and Chandan Roy Sanyal
Streaming on: Netflix
The first thing to admire in Ray is the gorgeous animated title sequence, created by Improper Design and Animation studio. The anthology series features four films inspired by the short stories of Satyajit Ray. These stories, filled with twists, whimsy and humour, showcase the frailties of men. Women might prod or even propel the plot but the focus of these stories are male protagonists grappling with neuroses, breakdowns, arrogance and insecurities. The titles, which start with a man falling through space, echoing the iconic poster of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, give us intriguing hints of the nightmares to come.
Like most anthologies, Ray is a mix of dazzling and mediocre – the standout is Abhishek Chaubey's Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa. With films such as Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya, Abhishek has established himself as the teller of gritty tales that scar. But here he abandons his trademark realism for artifice, elegance and poetry. The title comes from the celebrated Ghulam Ali ghazal, in which the poet Akbar Allahabadi asks why there is such chaos when all he has done is had a little to drink. The lines of the couplet are: Daka toh nahi dala, chori toh nahi ki hai. But chori is precisely what this story hinges on.
The film is about a ghazal singer named Musafir Ali who embarks on an overnight train journey from Bhopal to Delhi. His co-passenger in the compartment, Aslam Baig, seems instantly familiar. As it turns out, the two have an earlier connection. Musafir of course means traveler and fittingly, the pivotal moments of his life take place on a train.
I haven't read the original story, called 'Barin Bhowmik's Ailment', but in the hands of Abhishek and writer Niren Bhatt, it becomes a witty meditation on the eccentricities of human nature, destiny and time. At one point Aslam says: Yeh jo waqt hai na miya, badi kutti cheez hai. The vicissitudes of life can't be controlled – or, the story asks, can they? One of the pleasures here is the language. It's so soothing to hear Musafir's mellifluous expressions. When Aslam asks, karte kya ho?, Musafir replies, koshish.
The language is enhanced by the visuals – in a lovely, fluid dream sequence, Abhishek establishes Musafir's ascent to fame and glory. Production designer Aditya Kanwar, DOP Anuj Rakesh Dhawan and editor Manas Mittal do top-notch work. And I suspect that Abhishek and casting director Honey Trehan decided to cram in as many stellar actors as they could into the frame – apart from Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao as Musafir and Aslam, Raghubir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa also pop in.
There is a certain romance about stories set on trains because the journey is at once, literal and metaphorical. The idea of chance encounters with strangers is in itself, thrilling and mysterious. Abhishek taps into this without letting go of the humour – note the meta reference to Ray's short stories. The films in the Ray anthology clock in at about an hour each. If you're only watching one film, make it Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa.
Vasan Bala creates occasional sparks with his entry Spotlight, about a self-absorbed movie star trying to find his mojo and struggling with insecurity after he encounters a bigger star – Didi. Didi is a self-styled godwoman – imagine Radhe Maa meets Osho. In India, movies and especially film stars serve as opium for the masses but ultimately, religion trumps everything else. The highlight is Harshvardhan Kapoor playing Vikram Arora, a popular Bollywood actor, whose stardom is based on one look – sort of like Derek Zoolander in Zoolander whose trademark look is called Blue Steel. Vikram is called One look Vik.
Harsh gamely set himself up for laughs in Vikramaditya Motwane's AK vs AK. Here he goes further. Vikram is joyless, demanding and not very talented. Harsh plays him with a nice touch of petulance and childishness. Chandan Roy Sanyal as his beleaguered manager and confidant Roby, adds to the laughs. When Vikram calls himself an artist, Roby helpfully reminds him that he did a shoe ad with the hashtag #HowFarCanYouGo. And then follows that up with the killer line that Vikram, who has invested in a tech start-up, can never achieve the Ryan-Gosling-meets-Elon-Musk look.
The writing, again by Niren Bhatt, distils the absurdity and comedy of showbiz and spirituality. After all, Didi, like Vikram, is a performer. She is also a prisoner of her stardom. But Spotlight doesn't offer any new insights. And there isn't enough meat or wit here to sustain the duration – at a little over an hour, Spotlight is the longest film in the series. The entry of Radhika Madan as Didi revives the sagging film a little. She's fierce and funny and like in Vasan's earlier film Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, an absolute scene stealer.
The weakest links in the anthology are the first two films – Forget Me Not and Behrupiya – directed by Srijit Mukherji and written by Siraj Ahmed. Both are about men who slowly become unhinged and lose their connection to reality. The first features Ali Fazal as Ipsit, a ruthless corporate man, who author Tom Wolfe would classify as a master of the universe. The second features Kay Kay Menon as Indrashish, a timid man who uses his skill at the art of prosthetics and make-up to avenge himself against the cruel world. The actors are both solid but Srijit's telling is overripe. There is little room for nuance here. Everything is underlined. So Indrashish's grandmother, a prosthetics expert who passed on her knowledge to him, says that they are god-like because they also create. And of course, Indrashish develops a Ganesh Gaitonde-like God complex and starts to believe that 'apun hi bhagwan hai.'
The colours are lurid. The lensing reflects a world going off-kilter. And the dialogue is clumsy – in Forget Me Not, the word 'fuck' is used 13 times in the first sequence. I counted because I got tired of hearing it. Forget Me Not is mostly set in swanky offices and apartments – the film opens at a rooftop bar with a glittering city in the backdrop. Srijit and DOP Swapnil S. Sonawane create some striking visuals including a climactic sequence in which the mystery is explained. But it isn't enough to shore up these lengthy stories.
The idea of contemporary directors interpreting Ray's writing is instantly magical but this anthology is too uneven to do it justice. The master deserves more sparkling filmmaking.
You can watch Ray on Netflix India.