Satyajit Ray's short stories have always been a fascinating read. They were primarily written for Bengali children's magazines and were targeted towards young adults, but most of them dealt with the mysterious ways in which the human mind operates. They include fear, deceit, obsession, coincidences, identity. The stories are complex, but what makes them enjoyable is the way they are written - peppered with humour and full of vivid details.
Among the most popular of Ray's short stories is Bonkubabur Bondhu, that served as the basis for his Hollywood screenplay, The Alien.
On Satyajit Ray's centenary, Netflix has dropped an anthology (Ray) as a tribute to the maestro. It comprises four films, directed by three filmmakers - Srijit Mukerji, Abhishek Chaubey and Vasan Bala. All of them draw inspiration from Ray's short stories. The excellent opening credits, following Ray's own style, draws us into the fantastical world. Each filmmaker exercises his own creative liberty but are the films satisfactory? Let's find out.
Forget Me Not/Bipin Chowdhury-r Smritibhrom
Revenge designed as pranks - many of Satyajit Ray’s short stories have explored this trope. Bipin Chowdhury-r Smritibhrom is no exception. The short story follows an efficient, high-rung employee Bipin Chowdhury, who spends his days drowned in books and flinches at the idea of having to socialise.
Bipin Chowdhury prides himself in being able to navigate impossible situations without losing his cool. But one day a chance encounter shatters Bipin’s confidence. He seems to have forgotten one, and only one, memory of taking a trip to Ranchi some eight years back. Initially, he shrugs it off but the very thought of not being able to recall an entire trip gives him sleepless nights. In utter panic, Bipin calls up friends to confirm certain events, visits a psychiatrist and even goes to Ranchi, hoping that he will be able to remember something.
When all his attempts fail, fear grips Bipin Chowdhury - is he losing his mind? Will he end up in the mental asylum just like his brother? Satyajit Ray ends his story on a lighter note.
Srijit Mukerji, on the other hand, takes his film Forget Me Not to a much darker place. Mukerji’s world is filled with glitz and glamour. The protagonist, Ipsit Rama Nair (Ali Fazal), is a successful entrepreneur living in a swanky apartment in Mumbai. From birthdays to business transactions, Ipsit does not forget anything.
He even manages to visit his newborn daughter and crack a deal in one breath. But then Ipsit meets a woman, Rhea Saran (Anindita Bose), who speaks in details about a trip to Aurangabad that he has no recollection of. Forget Me Not, in fact, opens with a long, totally unnecessary shot of Rhea walking up to Ipsit at a restaurant to introduce herself and drop the bomb.
While Bipin Chowdhury-r Smritibhrom is only focused on one memory, Forget Me Not deals with multiple memory lapses. Bipin Chowdhury is guilty of one crime, while Ipsit wrongs multiple people. Therefore, the consequences for Ipsit will have to be fatal. In attempting to build a complex narrative, the film loses its grip.
Srijit introduces three crucial women in his film, while Ray’s story had none. But are all these women convincingly portrayed? No. Be it Ipsit’s secretary Maggie (Shweta Basu Prasad), his wife (Shruthy Menon) or Rhea Saran (Anindita Bose) - all the women in this hotshot’s life are mere pawns to be used and then forgotten. While Maggie decides to avenge the wrongdoing, the others don’t have much agency.
Ray’s stories have always stood out when it comes to dialogues. Be it speaking about Bipin babu’s obsession with reading or his hesitancy in calling a judgemental friend who might taunt him for forgetting stuff, Ray makes sure that we remain engrossed in the narrative.
Forget Me Not’s dialogues are obnoxious, to say the least. There is a particular sequence wherein Ipsit yells at Rhea about “being inside your vagina”, and the film ends with him being wheeled across “memory rooms”. It’s the enthusiasm with which Srijit’s attempts to explain everything that steals the flavour of the movie.
To give credit where it’s due, the surreal dream sequences, a nod to Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, are a win. A scene inside a multiplex is quite effective. Ipsit dreams about going for a movie with his wife and daughter, leaving the infant at the popcorn counter and forgetting about her. Ipsit jolts awake from the nightmare, but what ensues is nothing short of a movie.
Ali Fazal and Shweta Basu Prasad are a refreshing pair, but Forget Me Not works best if forgotten.
Nikunja Saha, a salesperson at College Street’s Orient Book Company, is the central character in Satyajit Ray’s Bohurupi. Like Bipin Chowdhury, Saha has no one to call his own. As fate would have it, Saha’s distant uncle passes away, leaving behind enough wealth for him to spend his years in luxury. Apart from money, the uncle also leaves behind a precious possession - a book about make-up.
Nikunja quits his job and decides to turn his passion into a full-time hobby. Once rejected by a theatre company (where he wanted to join as a make-up artist), Nikunja begins experimenting with make-up on himself. Slowly, he becomes a master of disguises and this very passion turns into obsession. It gives Nikunja great pleasure to see friends and acquaintances being unable to recognise him.
Srijit Mukerji’s Behrupiya arms Kolkata-based make-up artist Indrashish Saha (Kay Kay Menon) with a purpose. An otherwise shy and soft-spoken person, Indrashish abuses facial prosthetics to avenge people he feels have treated him unjustly. He goes after a woman he works with, his neighbour, boss and so on. The lousy make-up and cheap shock value add to the mediocrity of the film.
Bohurupi is one of my favourite short stories of Ray. The story gets even more interesting when Nikunja Saha, bored of pulling pranks in Calcutta, lands in Tarapith to test his skills on a sanyasi. In arresting, vivid details Satyajit Ray describes how Nikunja’s near-perfect make-up makes him indistinguishable from the other sadhus in Tarapith. But does Nikunja succeed in fooling the sanyasi? Or does he get trapped by the latter’s curse? Read the story to find out.
Mukerji makes changes to the story that didn’t need fixing at all. He spends too much time on the peer baba and conjures a climax that could have been easily lifted from the original. All the stories in Ray deal with ‘identity’. Bohurupi is a fascinating tale about belief, faith, fear, obsession. Ray does not judge Nikunja Saha or offer any redemption.
Mukerji fails to make Indrashish engaging. Knowing his backstory do we sympathise with him? Did he deserve what happened in the end? Behrupiya does not answer these questions, rather it becomes a half-baked revenge story without even retaining the humour from the original.
Hungama Hai Kyun Barpa/ Barin Bhowmick–er Byaram
Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyun Barpa is the most honest adaptation and the best one in the anthology. Ray’s Barin Bhowmick is a Nazrul Geeti singer who travels from Calcutta to Delhi to perform at an event organised by the Bengali Association of Delhi.
Initially, Bhowmick is elated that he doesn’t have to share the first-class coupe with anyone else. But his joy is short-lived. In comes another passenger. As the train speeds towards Delhi, Bhowmick realises, to his horror, that the gentlemen sitting opposite him (Mr C) is someone whose Swiss travelling watch he had stolen 10 years back. The whole story takes place inside the train with the singer trying to guess whether his co-passenger has recognised him.
Chaubey’s Barin Bhowmick is Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee), a ghazal singer travelling from Bhopal to Delhi. Ali’s bumps into Mr Baig (Gajraj Rao), who is travelling in the same compartment, and at first glance they seem to remember meeting each other but can’t place where they met.
Barin Bhowmick is reserved and questions from his fellow passenger are met with monosyllabic answers. Also, Bhowmick is interested in thrillers and detective novels, as he pretends to concentrate on a Hadley Chase book while praying hard that Mr C never recalls who he is. Musafir Ali, on the other hand, is mild-mannered. He reads poetry books and entertains Baig’s questions, albeit with extreme caution.
By setting his story in the world of Urdu ghazal and poetry, Abhishek Chaubey lends a lyrical quality to it. Ray’s story is written as a commentary that takes place inside the head of the protagonist, but how does one ensure that the audience buys into a film that mostly comprises of two people talking to each other?
The makers of Hungama Hai Kyo Barpa pepper the tale with incidents from Musafir Ali’s past. We see him as a little boy, stealing things from friends because his family couldn’t afford it. We also see him visit a shrink in order to find a cure for kleptomania. The shrink, a terrific Raghubir Yadav, says that this ailment can be cured by another 'ailment' - music and poetry. Ali immerses himself in them, thus getting rid of his byaram.
The viewers get inside Ali’s mind through a mirror. Ali loves the attention that his female fans shower him with. Even before he meets Baig, a mirror offers a glimpse of one of Ali’s successful performances and closes in on a woman in awe of him. Throughout, the mirror is used as a tool to switch between the present and Ali’s world. The watch is also used to delve into the psyche of Ali and Baig.
Chaubey is also mindful of little details. In Barin Bhowmick's Byaram (Barin Bhowmick's Ailment), Bhowmick recognises Mr C when he calls for 'Raw Tea'. Similarly, Baig's preference for a particular type of Arabian tea digs up forgotten memories. Not to forget the humour, which is on point. Nothing is more joyful than seeing Bajpayee and Rao discuss the difference between paimana and paikhana. Also, Rao jokingly declaring, "Yeh kuch bhi karke pee jaane ka jo jazba hai na, bada pasand hai hume".
Film star Anshuman Chatterjee makes a small appearance in Ray’s story by the same name. The setting is Chhotanagpur, where the narrator’s family has gone for their annual Durga Puja holiday. The quiet location’s peace is interfered by the loud entry of Chatterjee. People queue up outside the homestay, where he has put up, for autographs. Suddenly, the arrival of a 126-year-old man creates buzz, thus shifting the spotlight away from the actor. The super-centenarian regales everyone with stories about horse-drawn trams and Rabindranath Tagore performing at cultural events.
Anshuman Chatterjee again arrives much later, and we are told that he has cut short his vacation and left in a hurry. That’s where the character is forgotten.
For those wondering how Anshuman must have felt when the gaze shifted towards the ‘ancient’ man, Vasan Bala has the answer. His film is all about the ‘star’. Set in a five-star hotel presumably in Rajasthan, Vikram Arora (Harsh Vardhan Kapoor) basks in the glory of his stardom. He gets the suite he demands, orders everyone around and is the centre of attention. But did his talent help him climb the ladder? Spotlight suggests otherwise. It takes us back to the short story, where the narrator’s relative gruffly says that Anshuman Chatterjee’s films have no substance.
Vikram Arora’s ‘spotlight’ is threatened when a North Indian spiritual cult leader and her followers take over the hotel. Everyone seems to be in a trance upon the arrival of Didi. Vik gets a reality check when hotel authorities ask him to vacate his room, a group of children gazing at him turn their attention towards Didi’s procession and he is forbidden to access the hotel amenities as and when he wishes.
A terribly insecure Vik lounges all day with a joint in hand, oblivious as to how to address the crisis he is going through. Wordplays (‘Mirchandani/Macchardani’; ‘Pritish/British’), rhymes and jokes abound in this narrative - a befitting tribute to Satyajit Ray. However, more often than not, the jokes fall flat and movie references pop up randomly.
But Vasan Bala does something which probably no filmmaker has attempted with Sayajit Ray - he lets his imagination run wild and frees Ray from conservatism that has prevented from venturing into territories one can only dream about. Take, for instance, the climax. Accompanied by drums and neon colours, the trippy sequence is heavily inspired by Bhooter Raja.
There's an immense pressure when it comes to adapting or remaking the works of Satyajit Ray. While Forget Me Not and Behrupiya seem to have collapsed under this pressure, Hungama Hai Kyo Barpa drops the cynical hat and decides to gift us a delightful story. Spotlight, on the other hand, fails in parts but there's something unusual about the narration.
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