Before we arrive at whether the uproar surrounding Ray is justified or not, it is imperative to discuss the stories in question to allow one to form an informed opinion on the subject
Ever since Ray dropped on Netflix, it has been the centre of much discussion and debate on social channels. Based on four short stories by the eminent film director, writer and polymath Satyajit Ray, the anthology has received divided opinions as many have dissected and interpreted the shorts based on their individual tastes and knowledge about Ray’s works.
Since the auteur is regarded as one of the foremost Bengali storytellers, it is no surprise that any interpretation of his works would be closely scrutinised by many in Bengal and a few states in East India. But before we arrive at whether the uproar surrounding Ray is justified or not, it is imperative to discuss the stories in question to allow one to form an informed opinion on the subject.
Ray’s Bengali short stories reflected his vivid imagination. Though some of his tales lost their sharpness and edge in translation (as some Bengali words don’t have an accurate equivalent in another language), they were surely stories that left a deep and resounding impact on readers. While many of them were written specifically for children, they would be equally stimulating and mentally invigorating as one read them as an adult. His stories also revealed his deep knowledge of human psychology and would resonate most with those interested in adventure, thrill and mystery.
A peculiar aspect about most of his short stories is that while they have an ordinary setting and were mostly about ordinary people, the characters would often possess eccentric traits, accentuated either by their loneliness or by their endeavour to become extraordinary. Most of his narratives also have an ambience of their own; a kind of spirit conjured to assess the gullibility of human life.
The Netflix production Ray is based on four such extraordinary stories. The original names of those stories that have inspired this anthology are Bipin Choudhary r Sritibhram (Memory Lapse of Bipin Choudhary), Bahurupi (Polymorphic), Barin Bhowmik er Byram (Barin Bhowmik’s illness) and Spotlight.
The plots of these stories are as follows:
Memory Lapse of Bipin Choudhary is the story of a conceited loner who prefers to keep to himself most of the time and has an appetite for thrillers. While he’s placed well in life, his self-centeredness keeps him from helping out his childhood friend in need of a job.
Bahurupi (Polymorphic) is about another loner who has a windfall when an uncle leaves him with a generous inheritance. Blessed without financial freedom, he decides to pursue his eccentric hobby of putting on makeup and assuming a different disguise and personality every day to check if it alters how he is received.
Barin Bhowmik’s illness is the story of a kleptomaniac and the consequences of his illness.
Spotlight is about an ageing actor who concocts a false story about himself. He projects himself as a man who is 126 years old to draw the attention of the public and not be ignored in the presence of a young established film star who happens to be visiting the same hill station where he was vacationing.
The first two episodes of the Netflix anthology are called Forget Me Not and Bahurupiya, both directed by Srijit Mukherjee. In Forget Me Not, every frame is rich and opulent and the performances can be deemed satisfactory. But the story has deviated a lot from the original. If you have read the story of Bipin Choudhary, you will realise that the beauty of Satyajit Ray’s pen is that his characters were not completely black or white. For many, Bipin Choudhary would appear perfectly normal. In fact, in his defense, we can say that if a man is not willing to help a friend in getting a job because he does not want to get involved, being a loner, it doesn’t make him a bad person or even selfish. In the film, however, the same character who goes by the name of Ipsit Rama Nair is portrayed as a completely self-centred, inconsiderate and negative individual. For instance, he impregnates his secretary and even compels her to abort. He is indifferent to everybody’s plight, be it a childhood friend or his apartment’s security guard. This is where director Srijit Mukherjee lost the plot. The treatment of the protagonist in this film goes completely against the spirit of the original short story.
What was particularly in bad taste was the macabre sight of a deceased foetus which was shown following the abortion scene. Tossing in a slew of swear words in every turn may be Mukherjee’s signature style, but it’s getting old and cliched. The ending also shows the character, Ipsit Nair, at the end of his tether, a harsh judgement Ray seldom extended to his characters.
One may even question Mukherjee’s decision to pack in multiple layers in what is essentially a revenge story. While it doesn’t elevate the story or make it more gripping, it only drives the narrative down a jerky and uneven path.
In Bahurupiya, the talented Kay Kay Menon tried to make the most of the material. But the sex scenes seemed a bit excessive and unecessary and the ending could’ve been a bit less harsh. Mukherjee showed promise when he made his debut with the 2010 Bengali film Autograph. And it only took a few hits for the local media to compare his work with that of the masters of Bengali cinema. In hindsight, it seems that praises may have come in a bit too early. Bahurupiya is disjointed and confusing with too many plot points tossed into the narrative, which is quite different from the original Ray story which was quite straight and simple.
The third short of Ray is called Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa (based on Barin Bhowmik’s illness), directed by Abhishek Chaubey. Chaubey, known best for his movies which range from the moody Ishqiya to the controversial yet telling Udta Punjab, is surely a maker who doesn’t hold his punches and is known for his bold treatment. However, one must agree that the third short film Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa is closest to the original Ray story, in both spirit and treatment. The characters, the settings, the antique shop etc, everything in this movie is aligned with an ambience that Ray would have originally envisaged while adapting this story to the screen. All the actors in this episode have given exemplary performances. No praises are enough for either the protagonists Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao, or the supporting characters played by Raghubir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa who were compelling in their brief parts. The director has also captured the comic timing, notable in many Ray characters, on point.
The most disappointing part of the Ray anthology is the fourth adaptation. Not only has this Spotlight deviated from the original Spotlight, this short gives a clear indication of the director’s inexperience in telling a story. The original story is a simple tale narrated from the point of view of an ordinary middle-class family who had gone for a vacation and chanced upon something bizarre. In this movie adaptation, director Vasan Bala has completely changed the focus and told the narrative from the point of view of an actor who is desperate to reinvent himself. When he arrives at a hotel for his scheduled shoot, he realises that his stardom is shadowed by the cult followers of a god woman called ‘Didi’ who happens to be residing in the same hotel. Harshvardhan Kapoor who plays the protagonist Vik is promising and Radhika Madan as Didi has a short role but manages to deliver with some conviction. But the most notable performance comes from Chandan Roy Sanyal who acted as Vik’s manager. Sanyal slips into character and owns it. That said, this episode is an overall drag and most may not survive this one till the end.
Any adaptation of Ray’s stories need to be better researched. That said, these four adaptations are also not entirely unwatchable but they could’ve been more nuanced in their telling. There was also no need to deviate from Ray’s narrative structure. In fact, it would serve purists and Ray fans well to consider this series as an independent film if they were to actually enjoy it, instead of being bogged down by comparisons. Since this film is on Netflix, it will reach people all over the world. And a concern that some may have is that since many wouldn’t have read Ray’s short stories, they may judge his writing based on this series and that would be an unfair judgment as it hardly gives audiences an insight into the fascinating worlds that the writer drew his readers into.
Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay