By Papri Sri Raman
Playing with the germ of an Idea, Ray, the new series on Netflix, is brilliantly iconoclast and innovative from several points of view. Released in June, coinciding with the Ray birth anniversary, these four short films, harvested from four short stories Satyajit Ray wrote in Bangla, have, however, not drawn much viewer attention and criticism has been sharp, possibly because in the aged and established critic’s mind it is Ray films (which we have grown up with since the 1960s) that they are being compared with. First thing to remember is, these are not films made by Satyajit Ray.
Today we are not going to discuss Satyajit Ray, the film maker. Despite all the brouhaha about his being one of India’s great filmmakers, we must know, films like Charulata (1964) were inspired by stories from Tagore. Much of Ray’s films were based on others’ stories. To understand the Netflix show, one must really know more about the Other Ray.
Ray came from a family of storytellers. Remember the ‘tuntuni’ story by Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, his grandfather. Bengali readers will know the Tuntuni (the little tailor bird) aar Rajar (and the king) Katha. It was a traditional tale handed down by grandmothers that Upendrakishore converted into an exquisite satirical fable as long ago as 1911.
He was a publisher-printer and a brilliant illustrator and block-maker. From his press and pen came the first iconic children’s magazine in Bangla in 1913, Sandesh, that all of us used to eagerly wait for every month all our growing years. If nothing else, it taught us, defiance is good. To be naughty or different is good. To question is okay. Sandesh was kept alive and thriving by the grandson, Satyajit, till he breathed his last in 1992. Now Sandesh is available online from many vendors.
Upendrakishore’s son and Satyajit’s father Sukumar Ray wrote Abol Tabol in 1923. It is one of the world’s finest works taking a dig at the system. Kumropatash, illustrated with Sukunar’s own sketches [(যদি) কুম্ড়োপটাশনাচে—
খবরদারএসোনাকেউআস্তাবলেরকাছে] is a brilliant portrait of an egomaniac, any political scientist will tell you. Another classic attack on authoritarianism is Ramgarurer Chanaa, where this mythical creatures’ progeny and followers cannot even laugh or sneeze. Satyajit Ray took his inherited parody of this so-called ‘authority’ to another level in his film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. The story is Upendrakishore’s and the two characters first made their appearance in Sandesh, in 1915.
In 2000, Penguin first brought out a volume of Feluda stories in English, Ray’s famous detective. In a foreword to a later edition, Bijoya Ray, his wife writes in 1995, ‘my husband was always deeply interested in science fiction’ and goes on to say, since they were both interested in detective stories, writing the Feluda stories were natural. So was creating Professor Shanku. Ray wrote the stories, created the characters and devised their dialogues.
The first Feluda film in Bangla was in 1974, only two were directed by Ray himself. From Soumitra Chatterjee to Sashi Kapoor to Abir Chatterjee, the role has been played by many in the many versions of the stories filmed in Bengali, now subtitled and can be seen on OTT platforms. So are the Prof Shanku films. The storyline is quintessentially Ray.
The Netflix four need to be compared with these. The ‘germ of the Idea’ is Ray’s. The inventiveness is creator Sayantan Mukherjee‘s. The innovation is the respective directors’, Srijit Mukherji, Vasan Bala and Abhishek Chaubey. The settings are 2017-2020, modern urban India. The smartphone, the online corporate deals from fancy cars all make us realise how futuristic these Ray stories were.
Forget Me Not is an adaptation of the story Bipin Chowdhury’r Smritibhrom. The story trolls corporate culture. The corporate honcho is played by Ali Fazal. The prop on the centrestage here is the beautiful Ajanta caves. Like in Ray’s Sonar Kella, where the golden fort is the prop around which the story plays out.
Bahrupiya is an adaptation of the story, Bahurupi, in the lead is Kay Kay Menon. There is one futuristic line, grandmother leaves the makeup artiste hero her book of secrets, herbal facepack and cucumber eyes and false lashes. Also a substantial income. She was a supplier to Americans, possibly in the 1950s, that long ago, much before Sahnaz Husain et al.Here is the prop makeup around which the story revolves. It lays bare the split-persons we all are.
Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, Ghulam Ali’s catchy song line is the title of the adaptation of Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram (ailment). The lead role of the kleptomaniac is played by Manoj Vajpayee. The prop here is an antique watch. And the last laugh is on the viewer.
Spotlight is based on Ray’s short story by the same name. Here the prop is ‘Didi’ and her band, baaja. The viewer connect is immediately made, political or religious as it may be; only godmen and women can be bigger stars than Bollywood ones. The use of Ruk, Ruk, Ruk (a halt, a la Shah Rukh style) is not lost if one is watching it critically. Harshvardhan Kapoor plays the lead role of the attention-hungry actor. His existential issues bring back to mind Sushant Singh Rajput. I won’t tell you what happens at the encounter of the icons. Here is a very good parody of icons, including tv anchors.
All Ray stories play out against a prop. One doesn’t know if Ray laughed at godmen (and women), in both Spotlight and Bahurupiya, there is this third party involvement. All four leads have wonderfully underplayed the roles, just like Abir as Feluda. Subtlety, the hallmark of a good actor. This Netflix episode just proved, like Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, O Henry, Satyajit Ray is among the world’s best story writers, stories that can be globally adapted to cinema of all times. He has a twist in every tale. (IPA Service)