It's one thing to adapt the works of a writer. But it's a different ball game altogether to adapt the works of a writer who also happens to be one of the most celebrated filmmakers of all time.
Ray, the new Netflix series based on the short stories of Satyajit Ray, is just as uneven as the streamer's other anthologies. And unsurprisingly, it's the usual suspects who stand out.
Watch the trailer of "Ray" here
Unlike the recent Ajeeb Daastaans, which was presented as a feature film told in four chapters — a move that made it vulnerable to collective judgement — Ray is modelled after shows like Black Mirror and similar anthologies based on the works of Stephen King or Ray Bradbury. The 'episodes' are actually films in their own right, connected only by the thinnest thematic tissue.
The first, a paranoid thriller directed by Srijit Mukherji and titled Forget Me Not, is some sort of monument to cancel culture. Ali Fazal plays Ipsit, a corporate shark who is described by his colleagues as a human computer. But a chance encounter with a former flame sends him spiralling into self-doubt.
What Ipsit does for a living is very vague; he's somewhat of a stock CEO-type who's always on call with his assistant, and perpetually surrounded by a gaggle of admirers. Ipsit's rise to the top of the corporate food chain, it is heavily implied, has left a trail of casualties. But his self-obsession prevents him from even registering the men and women in his orbit. The premise of this film — about a man coming to the gradual realisation that is greatest superpower is fading before his eyes — is undeniably intriguing, but the execution gives it an air of preposterousness that is difficult to shake.
Forget Me Not is hauntingly shot by Swapnil Sonawane, a man who knows a thing or two about capturing Mumbai at nighttime; and the everreliable Ali Fazal's performance is admirably reigned-in, but the script, by Siraj Ahmed, is too clunky to examine the story's core themes with any sort of depth. The ending, although flashily filmed, robs the chapter of all ambiguity.
But the most unmemorable of Ray's four films isn't Forget Me Not. That dubious honour must go to Mukherji's other entry, the Kolkata-set Bahupriya, starring Kay Kay Menon in essentially a one-man show. Menon is great at playing unassuming psychos, and Bahupriya, in which he stars as an overlooked makeup artist, gives him a fascinating Joker-esque character to sink his teeth into. But once again, it's the oversimplified execution and derivative storytelling that proves to be the film's undoing.
Fortunately for us all — Ray included — director Abhishek Chaubey comes to the rescue with his delightfully delicate film, Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, starring Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao as two men who meet on a rail journey, but can't seem to shake the feeling that they've seen each other before. It's a terrific two-hander that on paper must've read like a chamber piece, but is given cinematic flair by Chaubey's confident direction and Niren Bhatt's playful screenplay.
Chaubey relies heavily on the performances of his two stars, yes, but isn't afraid to stamp the material with his unique sensibilities. There's a mystery box quality to the film that Chaubey and his actors gleefully unravel, with support from a couple of cameos that I won't spoil by revealing here.
More than the films of Satyajit Ray, whose fascination with trains even inspired Wes Anderson, Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa brings to mind two of Alfred Hitchcock's best rail-themed movies — The Lady Vanishes and Strangers on a Train. We've come full circle, in a way; the train, as it were, has returned to its station of origin.
Like Ipsit, the protagonist of Vasan Bala's Spotlight — a typecast actor played by Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor — also finds that he is losing his X-factor. In Vik's case, it's a 'look' — a literal look that sends his fans into a frenzy and forces critics to rip his films to shreds. Like Chaubey's Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, Spotlight also opens with a quirky title card — an idiosyncratic touch that randomly unites the two best entries in this anthology, but also seems very arbitrary, stylistically speaking, since Srijit Mukherji's films don't tag along on the ride.
Spotlight is, however, the best of the lot — it's a social satire masquerading as a showbiz satire. "Are you a puddle or a sea," Vik asks in one of his many moments of existential crisis.
Trapped inside a hotel during a location shoot, he finds himself being overshadowed by a mysterious godwoman who moves into the same hotel and has him evicted from his room. Played by Radhika Madan, Didi, as she is affectionately known by her followers, is revealed only in the third act, but her presence is felt throughout its 63-minute runtime. Madan, working for the second time with Vasan Bala, is really good here, alluring and alienating in equal measure. I'm fascinated by her choice to play Didi like some Gen Z influencer who found overnight fame on Instagram.
But the spotlight, so to speak, is on Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor. This is his film, and Vik is a fine addition to the rogue's gallery of cult characters that he's played in his short career. There are long stretches of Coen Brothers-inspired absurdity in which Kapoor is required to act opposite thin air, and tap into Vik's insecurities and effortless charm at the turn of a dime.
Spotlight is an aggressively strange film in the best way possible, right down to its dreamlike final stretch, in which Vik appears to acquire The Force. It's risky business, having a unique voice in this industry (and this country), but Vasan Bala somehow wrangles his wild sensibilities into a cohesive whole.
Now, depending on if you're a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty sort of person, a 50-50 hit-rate could either be good or bad. It is, therefore, effectively impossible to recommend Ray in its entirety. However, the two most expressionistic entries in this lowkey homage are well worth checking out.