As a storyteller, Satyajit Ray was marked by a curious dichotomy.
He adapted weighty literary texts – including the works of such giants as Rabindranath Tagore and Munshi Premchand – making cerebral, yet humane, dramas. Then there was another Ray, known for quirky short fiction bookended by charming climactic twists. Now four such stories inform a Netflix anthology, Ray, each adaptation nearly an hour long, directed by Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey, and Vasan Bala.
As if doffing its hat to the master’s two-pronged storytelling (in cinema and literature), this collection, too, is underpinned by fascinating contrasts. All stories, for instance, contemplate duality and deception. Sometimes that conflict is overt – such as the protagonists searching, changing, or hiding their selves (in the first three films) – and sometimes subtle (in the last movie, a famous actor is stranded between person and persona). Every film unfolds as a singular duel and, furthering that motif, often uses mirrors to reinforce the eternal duality – the interplay between perception and soul – tugging at a universal human trait: identity.
The first film, Forget Me Not (directed by Mukherji), is centred on a Mumbai multinational executive, Ipsit Rama Nair (Ali Fazal), a “man with the memory of a computer”. For a distant observer, Ipsit has indeed won it all: a successful career, close friends, loving family. The world revolves around, and tries to catch up with, Ipsit, but he’s always sharper, faster, better.
One evening, a young woman (Anindita Bose) bumps into him at a bar. She recognises Ipsit, saying they had met a few years ago in Aurangabad, spending nights in a plush hotel and exploring the Ajanta Caves, where he, then engaged, was smitten with her. Unable to remember anything, Ipsit gets angry and dismisses her. But the thought of a failed memory begins to haunt him. He asks his secretary (Shweta Basu Prasad), close friend, colleagues; all of them say the same thing. He had, of course, gone to Aurangabad. How does he not remember?
Forget Me Not spreads like slow poison, depicting escalating levels of exasperation, disintegration, and panic. Mukherji keeps us as disoriented as the protagonist, whose head begins to resemble a carnivorous labyrinth: misleading clues, dead ends, debilitating despair. The limited point of view also makes us empathise with Ipsit. His confusion is our confusion, his frustration our frustration – all of them leading to a question framing our latent fear: What if we lose our minds and continue to remain oblivious?
But then comes the climax. A piece like Forget Me Not invests a bit too much in the twist, so much so that it stands out as a separate film. So, we get (overlong) explanations and flashbacks – and more explanations and more flashbacks – spelling out every motivational detail, stalling tension and intrigue, eventually devolving the movie into a tedious argument.
The second film, Bahrupiya, also directed by Mukherji, is about a timid make-up artist, Indrashish (Kay Kay Menon), who has recently received a hefty inheritance from his deceased grandmother. The world has not been kind to him: His landlord insults him; the woman he loves, an ambitious actress Debashree (Bidita Bag), disregards his presence; his supervisor (Rajesh Sharma) wants to fire him. So, digging deep into a book left by his grandmother, who used to design prosthetics for American film studios, Indrashish decides to literally change his face – and extract revenge from those who have wronged him.
This dark foreboding story has immense potential. It deals with the notions of identity: Is changing your appearance the same as changing your Self? It probes the attendant self-defence mechanism: Is being ruthless the only way to tackle a ruthless world? Indrashish’s grandmother likens make-up artists to God – as they have the power to create to a new form – prompting a fascinating question: If some human beings were omnipotent, how would they recast the lives of lesser mortals?
But good ideas, or sincere intentions, don’t automatically become good films. The movie flashes empty provocations and stale lines – and embarrassing lunges to seem ‘intellectual’ – eliciting nothing more than an ‘ugh’. (Some sample lines: “If you want to fuck me, you can fuck me anytime,” says Debashree to Indrashish; “If someone had used a condom 40 years ago, I could have lived in peace today,” says the landlord.) When Indrashish is with a sex worker, she’s wearing a mask of… Debashree (you can almost hear the filmmaker exult, “Did you see what I did there?”).
Mukherji both shows and tells – and retells, via flashbacks, what he’s already shown. The overt duality, such as the conflict between the real and the prosthetic Indrashish, comes to life through ample objects of reflection. It makes sense where symbolisms serve the story (say, in scenes where the bespectacled protagonist is transforming himself in front of the mirror). But this is a movie by Mukherji, who hammers his metaphors till they squeal and sob, “Auteur! Auteur!”
The subplot around a Peer Baba (an excellent Dibyendu Bhattacharya), making Indrashish realise his futile vanity, is a rare stretch where themes don’t drown the story. The climactic twist, too, works to an extent, but it is ultimately let down by a trite build-up. Bahrupiya is inadvertently ironic: a movie about shifting identities that never finds itself.
Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa opens to a famous ghazal singer, Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee), about to board a train. As he starts talking to a fellow passenger, Aslam Baig (Gajraj Rao), a wrestler turned sports journalist, in the cabin of a first-class compartment, he’s pierced by a sense of failing memory. Musafir believes he’s met Baig before but can’t place where. Baig is as confused. After some time, it all comes back. Once a compulsive kleptomaniac, he had met Baig 10 years ago in a similar compartment and stolen his watch. Clean for many years, Musafir feels a pang of guilt.
Chaubey adapts this story with considerable (and pleasant) ease. Even though the tension is simmering under the surface – at times literally, as Musafir is carrying the watch in a suitcase below his seat – the droll conversations lighten the grave premise. He also plays around with the material: some ingenious cuts meld the past and the present; some of them dramatically alter the settings – to the scenes of Musafir performing before an audience – as he looks into a mirror or walks a few steps. Bajpayee and Rao share compelling chemistry, playing a unique game of one-upmanship, where only person is an aware participant. Amid such levity, we get some unexpected profound lines, such as Musafir straining for a circuitous apology, telling Baig, “Perhaps he’s a good man inside, and his circumstances are bad.”
But there’s also some sloppiness. An imagined exchange between Musafir and Baig in the past, where the singer is besotted with the watch while walking across a giant ticking clock – a literal manifestation of his obsession – is both overlong and painfully obvious. Chaubey also takes refuge in clichéd anti-climactic moments, escalating and defusing false moments of tension, that add nothing to the story. Yet unlike the first two segments, Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa eventually rises above its sporadic mediocrity, becoming a drama that is a mélange of deception, delight, and self-examination.
The last film in the series, Spotlight, by Vasan Bala, revolves around a Bollywood star, Vik (Harshvarrdhan Kapoor), going through an identity crisis. Dismissed by critics as a “one look actor”, he wants to be considered a ‘serious’ performer. A curious split marks his life: the whole country dotes on him, but he’s troubled by his own mediocrity. Vik, however, still uses his stardom like a remote control – one press of a button and he gets what he wants. He constantly tries to sound profound, especially when he’s high, only to end up spouting, according to his girlfriend, “psycho spiritual bullshit”.
Vik’s only solace, his fame, is threatened, when he reaches a resort to shoot for an ad. The same hotel has a new guest, a wildly popular godwoman, Didi (Radhika Madan). The tussle between cinema and religion – the country’s two abiding passions – makes for an intriguing premise because, through Vik’s insecurity, the film pits one ‘God’ against the other. That conflict can also be flipped to ask a cheeky question: Who is the real performer – an actor or a Guru?
Spotlight is elevated by a consistent comedic track glowing with charming innocence and uncomfortable realism. “The whole shoot has become a Kafkaesque nightmare,” Vik whines to his girlfriend. When she asks its meaning, he says, “I don’t know, that’s what people say.” Vik wants to stand out so desperately that he’ll latch onto anything, even a joke he doesn’t understand – or investing in an obscure start-up. Artistic dilemmas and existential crisis run throughout the film, but it never gets too somber. The kinetic background music – via ballistic drumbeats – reminds us to not take this piece too seriously. The chemistry between Vik and his manager, Roby (a superb Chandan Roy Sanyal), keeps the story level-headed, busting Bollywood’s self-mythologising narratives.
A decidedly modern adaptation, this is Ray seen through the stifling bylanes of Versova and Bandra, where complacency can outsize ingenuity and cocoons can become prisons. As evidenced in his last performance, AK vs AK, Kapoor is a near-perfect choice to channel such exasperations. A ‘postmodern’ actor, who is comfortable riffing on the meta meanings in a text, his Vik is all manufactured tension and nervous energy. Kapoor plays him like a marathon runner beating a treadmill. He runs, sweats, and pants, but doesn’t move an inch.
An ode to the messy business of myth and moviemaking, Spotlight is packed with film references: a “Lynchian nightmare”, a Big Lebowski wink (“Dude, that’s, just like, your opinion, man”), a Ray hat-doff (the working title of Vik’s ad film is Chiriyaghar; the maestro’s 1967 crime thriller was called Chiriyakhana). But like his last film, Bala gets carried away at times. One sequence, where Vik imagines talking to his mother, sounds like a Wikipedia entry of Ray’s films: Agantuk, Parash Pathar, Nayak, Pratidwandi, Devi, Kapurush, Mahapurush, Jai Baba Felunath. That indulgence also taints the last segment, where the film gets lost in its own cleverness, stretching a whimsical set-piece so much that it loses its bite. Even the climactic conversation between Didi and Vik – comprising a twist that heightens the jovial meta commentary – would have worked if Madan weren’t saddled with an affected accent and a clichéd sob story.
Yet Spotlight is largely impressive: It takes risks and speaks its mind – and remains unencumbered by the traditional notions of reverence, while tweaking the work of a legendary filmmaker. It’s the best film of the lot and almost a good film on its own. It’s as good as it gets for an anthology that is high on ideas, low on execution.
Featured image: Netflix
This review was first published on The Wire.