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Satyajit Ray Inspired Short Story Anthology ‘Ray’ Keeps You Biting Your Nails to the End

Satyajit Ray Inspired Short Story Anthology ‘Ray’ Keeps You Biting Your Nails to the End

  • The four classic short stories play out like the Indian version of Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone”, with stories that are a bit more risque.

As a Bengali, needless to say, I am a huge fan of the legendary writer and Oscar-honored filmmaker Satyajit Ray. So, when Netflix dropped the anthology “Ray” this past weekend, a compilation of Satyajit Ray’s four classic short stories as a homage to the maestro to mark his centenary, they had me at Ray.

What I found was a mixed bag. The collection of four classic Ray films, created by Sayantan Mukherjee, two of them helmed by Srijit Mukherji, the other two directed by Abhishek Chaubey and Vasan Bala, all with a modern-day twist, had one miss, two hits, and one…a maybe.

The first in the anthology is “Forget me Not”, based on Ray’s “Bipin Choudhurir Smritibhram”. A revenge drama that center’s around Ipsit Rama Nair (Ali Fazal), a successful entrepreneur with a brilliant memory, a trait he is proud of, this short will have you guessing from the start. Life is coming up roses for Ipsit. He’s on the top of his game professionally and personally. But soon, things spiral out of control when he meets a woman Rhea Saran (Anindita Bose) at a rooftop bar.

The woman insists they’ve met before – regaling him with personal details from his life. Ipsit is stumped. He just can’t place this woman. Worse, his award-winning ‘computer memory’ brain can’t remember the particulars of a supposed romantic night she claims to have spent with him.

So, he’s rightfully angry when this woman tells them they spent time together, especially because it was six months into his engagement with his now-wife, Amala (Shruthy Menon), who has just birthed his first child.

“Try your recycle bin,” his friend jokes a few days later, confirming that Ipsit did take such a trip a few years ago, leading him to get further paranoid about losing his memory since he ‘never forgets anything’.

Ipsit is confident that he can handle those first days as a new dad as well as broker a huge deal he’s in the middle of – as well as winning an award and going baby clothes shopping with his assistant Maggie (Shweta Basu Prasad). And amidst all this chaos, he still makes time to welcome his old college buddy Anil (Yatendra Bahuguna) aka “Patchy,” whom he just hired to a low-level position, and go running. However, there’s no explanation for why Ipsit calls his friend “Patchy.” It seems like the kind of nickname that someone wouldn’t want following him to work.

As Ipsit tries to figure out why Rhea thinks the two of them spent days together in a town he never visited, he finds himself forgetting other things, like important meetings or gassing up his car. His business partner Rahui (Neeraj Purohit) starts to get concerned over Ipsit’s mental health, and Ipsit’s psychiatrist is suggesting there might be signs of dementia, even though he’s only 33 years old.

After another member of his team, Gary (Gavin Methalaka) — another old friend, by the way — sends him pictures from the DSLR Rhea claims Ipsit had with him that week. As he starts to flip through the pictures while driving and gets into an accident. When Maggie comes to visit him in the hospital, we find out that Ipsit’s lost weekend with Rhea may be the least of his worries.

Written by Siraj Ahmed, this is a slick adaptation of Ray’s original, both visually and in narrative terms. Srijit Mukherji’s expert direction will have you on the edge of your seat and will keep you guessing if Ipsit ever went to Aurangabad or not. Spoiler alert – the dark, twisted ending, a deviation from the original is sure to take you by surprise, although it does little to elevate this short from being sub-par.

Ali Fazal nails the mannerisms of a man about to lose his mind. The sequence by the pool, where Ipsit finally blows a fuse, will leave audiences starkly unsettled – the dark underpinnings very visible. My only problem is with how the whole thing ends. The extended climax, a plot twist we won’t go into here, director Mukherji designs and shoots is just a wee bit too over-the-top and will leave people trying to figure out how we got there.

One of the other issues I have here is that we are told that Ipsit has a vivid memory, almost computerlike, but we’re not shown any examples of it. We just have to take it on faith that Ipsit has this kind of photographic memory. Some verbal exposition may have been a more efficient way to get the message across.

However, “Forget Me Not” scores as a slow-burn suspense drama that has an intriguing story of vengeance at its core. Mukherji inserts the right twists at the right moment, and his trump card in the cast is Shweta Basu Prasad, Ipsit’s secretary Maggie, who walks into the narrative as discreetly as a secretary might walk into a senior’s room. It is a casting that value-adds to the story and, without giving away spoilers, Prasad impresses with a role that although has minimum footage and limited dialogues, keeps you engrossed till the end.

The second story, also by Mukherji is Bahrupiya, inspired by the short story Bahuroopi, easily the most twisted of the four stories and highlighted by Kay Kay Menon’s outstanding performance, is sure to leave you delighted.

The screenplays for both these films have been written by Siraj Ahmed. A disturbing psychological thriller, that revolves around Indrashish Saha (Kay Kay Menon), a timid make-up artist, who is a loser in life. A spiteful loner, an anti-hero, think “Joker”, who is bitter about his living and working conditions.

Humiliation follows him like a shadow. First, comes the humiliation of rejection by his true love, when he goes down on his knee to propose only to be harshly scorned by words that are meaner than the rejection itself. Then, there is the humiliation at the workplace and from his house owner.

When his grandmother passes away, leaving him a substantial amount of money and, more importantly, a book called Impersonation by his grandmother (also an artist who is into prosthetics), he finds a sense of purpose.

Indrashish, suddenly is equipped with the power to ‘become’ just anybody. He begins to imagine he is invincible and starts abusing his newfound ‘power’, to his peril.

From being an almost faceless man, Shah becomes the devil with a thousand faces, wreaking havoc on the lives of those that wronged him. This transformation is the most interesting aspect of the short, although it does not have the intended effect given the time constraint of the short itself.

He decides to confront those who he feels have wronged him. With makeup and prosthetics, he manages to create a different identity for himself, but his hubris proves to be his ultimate undoing. In both the first two films, the protagonists, pushed to a frightening brink are unable to get a hold of themselves.

This story, in many ways, is the high point of “Ray”. It is a story well told, is engaging for the way it gradually introduces the metaphorical subtext, and, importantly, lets the fantastic Kay Kay Menon take center stage and do what he does best.

It is not the revenge plot that makes “Bahrupiya”, a compelling watch but the philosophical musings that come with it. Come to think of it, Shah is allured by the devil and when he succumbs to the temptations, he becomes the devil himself. By rejecting the idea of God and by impersonating other people, Shah begins to think of himself as the Supreme One who rewrites destinies. Until he comes across Peer Baba, a Muslim fortune-teller who “reads” into a person’s face. When their paths cross, it becomes an allegory between God and the Devil. This is what makes “Bahupriya” rise a notch above the ordinary.

But no prizes for guessing which short tops the list. The crown rests on ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ with its host of Bollywood’s bests. Abhishek Chaubey, who has films like Ishqiya, Udta Punjab, and Sonchiriya to his credit, adapts Ray’s Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment for this short.

Manoj Bajpayee plays Musafar Ali, a dapper ‘dil-phenk’ (flirtatious) celebrated ghazal singer, oozing with old-style ‘shayarana andaaz’. He meets Aslam Baig (Gajraj Rao), a former wrestler turned sports journalist whose ‘dhobhi pacchhaad’, a complicated ‘kushti’ move, is famous from ‘Dilli to Agra.

We learn that ten years ago, on a similar train ride, Musafir, a childhood klepto had filched a pocket watch (nicknamed Khushbakht) belonging to Baig, starting Baig down a path of alcoholism, impotency, and a string of bad luck. A guilt-torn Musafir seeks help from a medical baba. He is cured of his kleptomania soon after, but the guilt had lingered on.

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Now he must sit across from Baig in one of those near-forgotten cosey coupes and wait for the shoe to drop. Written by Niren Bhatt, this is a playful, elegant adaptation of Ray’s classic. The central journey is peppered with flashes into Musafir’s past and psyche. These ideas are present in Ray’s original story but acquire a unique flavor in cinematic form.

The clattering of the rails, the swaying of the compartment, the shayri and the melodious beauty of forgotten Urdu, all come together in this segment, in which Bajpayee shines from behind his spectacles and Rao is on the top of his game.

Raghubir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa have walk-on parts, and that’s all they need to sparkle. Exuberant performances by stalwarts Bajpayee, Rao, and the rest of the ensemble, along with very aptly used music, keep the proceedings buoyant.

My only complaint…very tiny though it may be with this well-produced, well-designed segment is that this journey remains determinedly pleasant and placid. I kept waiting for the customary sharp cut, an integral part of Chaubey’s arsenal, and very much missing.

Vasan Bala’s “Spotlight” ends the quartet. Based on Ray’s story by the same name, the finale focuses on Vik (Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor), a young actor whose stardom seems to rest on a particular ‘look’ he gives to the camera. “One Look Vik”, as critics dub him, is gunning to enter Hollywood, although he wears a fake T-shirt that has ‘Scorse Dada’ written on it in Bangla (he means Scorsese, right?).

On an outdoor trip to Agra, Vik finds himself in a quandary. A Godwoman who goes by the name Didi checks in at the hotel where Vik stays and, just like the rest of the town, the managerial staff and his fan base and entourage fall at her feet. Vik is upset because, suddenly, he is no longer the main star. Didi has stolen his spotlight.

“Spotlight” is a moody and strange piece, uneven in parts, although it does have a fascinating concept: the umbilical cord that runs between Bollywood and the government. Just like Vik’s ‘one look’, the segment seems to be salvaged by a single incidence — the entry of Radhika Madan around 10 minutes from the end. Madan enters the narrative just when you were wondering if Didi exists at all. Her act gives the story — indeed the anthology — a fitting closure, as she (literally) runs away with the “Spotlight”.

Harshvardhan Kapoor does a decent job though he cannot bring the Bollywood actor charisma to life on-screen. Radhika Madan and Chandan Roy Sanyal (Vik’s PR guy) are unforgettable.

Despite this, there is something tonally off about “Spotlight”. It needed to be punchier. Instead, it meanders quite a bit, going in circles to arrive at its point, losing its impact in the process.

“Ray” definitely plays out like the Indian version of Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone”, with stories that are a bit more risque and swear-filled than the ones in the original, and not nearly as creepy or scary. Competently executed, it manages to sustain interest despite the uneven patches. Definitely worth a watch.

“Ray” is streaming on Netflix.

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