Written by Siddhartha Krishnan . 6 Min Read
In Satyajit Ray’s short story Bonku Babu’s Friend (1962) a spaceship on its way to Pluto, lands by mistake into a pond in Kankurgachi (North Kolkata). From it emerges an alien, by the name Ang, with slender legs and arms, and a disproportionately large head, wearing a pink outfit covering everything but its face. A shocked bystander, a geography teacher, by the name Bonkubihari Datta is the only witness to this event. Ang manages to befriend its human counterpart, dazzle him with its technology, and fulfill all his wishes. On the surface, this might seem like science fiction; but at its core, this is a human story. Ray cleverly uses the allegory of the alien, to tell the story of a man, who thinks and acts differently from his milieu. In other words, an outcast — an “alien” among his friends!
Ray, the auteur, was also a prolific short story writer among other things. He wrote in multiple genres but was most famous for his science fiction fantasies like the Pterodactyl’s Egg (1962), Bonku Babu’s Friend (1962), and The Hungry Septopus (1962), as well as his horror classics like Khagam (1973) and Indigo (1968). His stories were tightly written, highly entertaining, and had elements of fantasy in them. But there was one indispensable quality which was as clear as daylight, and that was his understanding of human behavior and motivations. Ray’s humanism is what elevated his stories from the category of popular fiction into the realm of literature. This is the essence of his storytelling and without it, an adaptation of his classics will be incomplete. It is in this light that I will be reviewing the Netflix anthology Ray.
Forget me not – Srijit Mukherjee’s adaptation of the short story Bipin Chowdhury’s Loss of Memory (1963) is the story of a man’s fall from grace. This modern retelling is darker and more twisted compared to the original story. The director takes you to Mumbai, where we meet Ipsit Nair, the blue-eyed boy of the city’s corporate scene, whose memory is believed to be as sharp as a computer. But this notion is challenged early in the film when a mysterious woman appears before Ipsit and tells him about their first meeting in Aurangabad, which ended up being a short intimate affair. An incident he doesn’t have any memory of! This triggers a series of events that keeps the suspense alive till the end.
The commendable aspects of the storytelling are the camerawork and exceptional set design. The performances too are noteworthy, especially by Ali Fazal who tries his best to deliver a nuanced performance to capture the inner conflict of the lead character. But the film falters in its writing, and while you are intrigued by what is happening to Ipsit, you do not fully connect with him in a way that you end up either hating or empathizing with him. The film is entertaining but it could have been a lot more if it had sacrificed a few twists in the tale and invested that time in adding much-needed layers to Ipsit’s character.
Rating – 3/5
Behrupiya – Based on the short story Bohurupi, Srijit Mukherjee’s second film in this anthology is about a makeup artist, too timid, to confront the cruel world. But he finds a way to get back at the people who have wronged him by using the masks he has created as his armor. But will he succeed?
The film is set in the dark underbelly of Kolkata, and again Srijit manages to make a visually stunning film. This is also the darkest film in this anthology and the protagonist Indrashish’s character is perhaps the most complex. But, here too, the film falters with the writing, and with a skillful actor like Kay Kay Menon in the role of Indrashish, a lot more could have been achieved to show the mental conflict. Instead, the film becomes too verbose as it progresses. This for me was the weakest film in the anthology.
Rating – 2.5/5
Hungama Kyon Hai Barpa – Directed by Abhishek Chaubey and based on the short story Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment (1973), this film is widely regarded as the best in this anthology. In this adapted version, a vivacious ex-wrestler and a seemingly poised but self-absorbed ghazal singer, meet on a train journey. The conversation that takes place thereafter unravels the story through a non-linear narrative, and the audience is made to believe that these are two very different people. But are they?
With two powerhouse acting talents, Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao on screen, we are in for a treat. And they deliver, with their comic timing, and exemplary understanding of their craft! The director pays a near-perfect tribute to the master storyteller, with a generous dose of surrealism, and an ode to his frames. The imagination and execution were both immaculate. All through the interest of the audience is kept alive, by not indulging in excesses and sticking to the essence of the original story in this modern retelling. This is a film that is bound to leave a smile on your face at the end of it.
Rating – 4/5
Spotlight – At a little over an hour, director Vasan Bala’s adaptation of Ray’s short story Spotlight (1983) does test your patience. Also, this is an unusual adaptation, drifting the furthest from the original story in this anthology. But, the consistent caustic humor and a sprinkling of magic realism in the narrative manages to take the audience on a trippy ride.
At the forefront is a famous actor whose only claim to fame is a stare that he has been able to master. But he suffers a blow to his ego when he is confronted by a religious cult leader lovingly called “Didi” by her followers. Her popularity far surpasses his, which sends the self-centered actor on a path of self-discovery. What we get in return through the subsequent soliloquies is a homage to the master storyteller, through some interesting imagery and intelligently written dialogues. Also, through the social and political commentary, blended cleverly into the screenplay, we hear Ray’s voice but in a modern cinematic language. This was a brave film to make and the outlandish climax scenes justifies this statement. However, despite the evident departure from the original story, it still manages to preserve the essence of the original. This for me was the best of the lot.
Rating – 4.25/5
Overall Rating – 3.5/5
In the words of Charlie Chaplin, “the deeper the truth in creative work, the longer it will live”. The stories of the Aesop Fables, Panchatantra, and Arabian Nights have stood the test of time for precisely this reason. Through fiction, the greatest writers of the past, and the present have been able to convey truths about humanity. Ray is undoubtedly one of them. However, if his stories have to truly cross over to all cultures within India, and not be limited to the bookshelves of bibliophiles then such adaptations are necessary. These stories are for mankind, and they need to be told.
In the distant future, if an alien were to visit our planet after we were gone from it; I hope it discovers a scrap dealer’s shop like “Roohi Safa” (just like Musafir Ali did in the film Hungama Kyon Hai Barpa) which houses a rare collection of Satyajit Ray’s short stories. The book may not serve its purpose for visiting Earth, but the visitor is sure to gain an understanding of how we humans thought, and what our aspirations were through it.
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and, on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues, and movie reviews.
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