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Ray — wired to modern times

Somi Das | Updated on July 05, 2021

Ray of light: ‘Spotlight’ contains the richest references to Ray’s body of work   -  COURTESY: NETFLIX

The new Netflix anthology, based on the works of Satyajit Ray, is an exploration of minds in the throes of existential crises

* It was necessary that these simple unidirectional stories underwent massive rewriting and editing to become Netflix friendly

* So many millennials who suffer from impostor syndrome would relate to this

* More than just a tribute to Ray, this anthology offered a good opportunity for film-makers to do a temperature check with their audience — if they are ready for edgy content on the big screen

***

Satyajit Ray was a master storyteller. He was also a master adapter of works by doyens like Rabindranath Tagore (Charulata), Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (Pather Panchali), and Premchand (Shatranj Ke Khiladi). Ray’s cinematic masterpieces such as Ganashatru, Mahapurush, Hirak Rajar Deshe revealed his politics, his deep understanding of the human psyche and societal pull and push on hot button topics such as religion and fascism. In many of his films like Seemabaddha, Mahanagar, Kapurush, there is hardly any plot. You are merely a witness to a sliver of a character’s life when they are faced with difficult moral choices.

So what went behind the selection of stories in the Ray anthology, streaming on Netflix remains a mystery. Ray, released as a tribute to the celebrated film-maker on his centenary, has three contemporary directors come together to give us four seemingly unconnected films based on the stories written by the Bengali writer. These short stories were always published as a set of 12 — like Aro Baaro, Abaro Baaro — the kind of story book that keeps you company on a train journey. It was necessary that these simple unidirectional stories underwent massive rewriting and editing to become Netflix friendly. Climaxes have been changed and new characters introduced. But how much of Ray is visible in them is a matter of debate.

Thematically and genre wise, each film is different from the other. Director Srijit Mukherji helms two stories — the psycho thrillers Forget Me Not and Behrupiya. Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa is a comic-tragic take on a serious mental disorder. Vasan Bala’s Spotlight explores the millennial existential crisis employing elements of magic realism with gay abandon.

Despite being unique in style, tone and tenor, the film-makers are successful in creating a common thread running through the films. Each story gives us a pair of characters who play off each other’s behavioural patterns, and in this game, one gains an upper hand pushing a seemingly normal person to the territory of abnormal behaviour. We see a successful entrepreneur Ipsit Nair (played by Ali Fazal), a doting father and loving husband on the surface, losing his mind when a bunch of people wronged by him come together to teach him a lesson. They didn’t want this tragic end for him, but his own ego-centric idea of self-efficacy comes crashing down after an eerie encounter with a stranger sends him on a mental spiral down. Mukherji tries too hard to keep the mystery of this film going. The film is bogged down by too many unnecessary flashbacks and overt underlining of events to explain the plot twist. What, however, Mukherji gets correct is the gradual degeneration of Nair’s sanity. The auditory hallucinations that Nair experiences after his belief system and his idea of self are systematically attacked by people around him, is portrayed with unflinching accuracy.

Mukherji’s Behrupiya is slow-paced and difficult to watch. The climax, however, is the saving grace. In it Indrashish (played by Kay Kay Menon) is locked in a duel with a Peer Baba to establish his superiority over divine entities. The story is a good reminder of a very famous part from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground: “Man is stupid, you know, phenomenally stupid; or rather he is not at all stupid, but he is so ungrateful that you could not find another like him in all creation”.

One would assume, after receiving a hefty inheritance from his grandmother, Indrashish, who up until then was living a life in utter misery and penury, would use the money to buy himself comfort and dignity. Instead, he chooses to take revenge on people who had been unkind to him and eventually on god for having dealt him the wrong cards in life.

Beyond normal: Abhishek Chaubey’s ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ featuring Manoj Bajpayee is a comic-tragic take on a mental disorder   -  COURTESY: NETFLIX

 

From the minds of these irredeemable characters, Chaubey draws us into the world of Musafir Ali (played with great finesse by Manoj Bajpayee) and Aslam Baig (played by Gajraj Rao), men whose behaviour, unlike that of Nair and Indrashish, is not influenced by narcissism but by a psychological disorder — a condition absolutely beyond their control. The reason these characters are so loveable is because they choose healing over blaming. They start from a dark and heavy place, but end up in light and lightness of being. The beauty of this story is the way the feelings of guilt arising from actions beyond our conscious control is handled. To suffer from a mental disorder is no fault of yours. But certainly not choosing to heal yourself is. It hammers home the fact that once you have healed yourself, you not only become more compassionate to yourself but also treat others with kindness. Watch out for the therapeutic concept of rooh safa or soul cleansing. Wouldn’t it be great to have a safe place where we could literally and figuratively go and dump all our guilt, and learn to forgive and respect ourselves?

Finally, we come to Spotlight, probably the best of the lot which could have easily been a full-fledged feature length movie of its own. It also contains the richest references to Ray’s body of work. This is also where the rewriting of the original text is wired to modern times. We have the eccentric superstar Vik (played immaculately by Harshvardhan Kapoor) battling a major existential crisis — Is he just a “one look star”? Vik is fragile, anxious and perennially on the brink of self-destruction, desperate for social validation.

So many millennials who suffer from impostor syndrome would relate to this. In the course of the film, Vik’s need for the fame that he so despises is laid bare when he enters into a popularity contest with a godwoman known as Didi. Eventually, when he meets Didi, his hatred for her turns into admiration. Radhika Madan as godwoman lends authenticity to an absurdly risky scene with her ease and earthiness. Director Bala imbues his characters with a relatable wit and inherent likeability despite their flaws. He underlines the gravity of the issue at hand with subtle humour. The treatment of the film is avant-garde.

More than just a tribute to Ray, this anthology offered a good opportunity for film-makers to do a temperature check with their audience — if they are ready for edgy content on the big screen. While there are some forgettable attempts, some stood out for their sheer audacity to explore the whole spectrum of absurd comedy, symbolism and magic realism. Ray would certainly have been proud of this brave lot.

Somi Das is a freelance writer based in New Delhi

Published on July 05, 2021

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