From what he has said about a film-maker’s freedom to adapt literature, we can conjecture that the master would have no problem with the way Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey, and Vasan Bala have interpreted his stories in Ray

“There is always some room for improvisation.” This terse but loaded quote from Satyajit Ray precedes the last featurette of this much debated quartet inspired by Ray short stories on Netflix. The quote can be expanded to an entire new narrative from the germ of a story by the master. Reading what Ray wrote about a film-maker’s freedom to adapt literature, we can safely conjecture that the master would have no problem with what a later generation has done to his stories. 

He might lift a sardonic brow at where Spotlight shifted, even though the director lets loose a fusillade of Ray titles in overblown tribute, even as he takes the narrative far, far away from the original. The other three are more skilful and intelligent, intriguing, disturbing, and satisfying. Ray would be the first to concede the first law of literary adaptation: there is no point in a faithful rendition of the written word to a visual medium. 

Interpreting Satyajit Ray

Inspiration doesn’t mean copy-pasting. It should free the imagination to soar and find its own style, narrative, voice, and interpretation of character, undaunted by the achievements and reputation of the colossus. The three directors in focus — Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey, and Vasan Bala — must be fully aware of purists who are quick to outrage, and would look at the text as Holy Grail. Any departure would be blasphemy in their book. 

Vasan Bala

The real challenge is how individualistic the adaptation is, and how it works in a contemporary setting as cinema. To tell an engaging story in just under 60 minutes is paradoxically both easy and challenging. The time frame imposes a tight screenplay where the beginning has to hook you straightaway, the middle takes the narrative forward while working in psychological and situational details, and organically culminates in the end, which also needs the unexpected twist. The twist is normative,  even obligatory. 

Bipin Chowdhurir Smritibhram becomes the edgy Forget Me Not, set in glitzy Bombay of rooftop bars, jazzy offices, high rise apartments with panoramic views. Ipsit Rama Nair (Ali Fazal), a suave, selfish bastard who can also be a charmer, strides across the narrative nattily dressed in a three-piece suit (most of the time), shooting multiple orders to subordinates, who rush around, doing his bidding. The film begins most intriguingly. A woman in a slinky black dress, holding a wine glass, sashays down a long corridor, walks up to Ipsit alone at his table, and starts reminiscing about a long weekend in Ajanta three years ago. She reminds him she is Rhea Saran (Anindita Bose). It is fascinating to see Ipsit’s face mirroring amusement, indulgence, irritation, and finally, the rude brush off. The scene looks like a set up of a glamorous woman hitting on a man with an arresting presence. Even though the personal details Rhea reels off could be gleaned from Googling the target, there is an unsettling tone to the encounter.

Shrijit Mukerji

Ipsit is the more dynamic partner of a start-up that has investors asking inconvenient questions about money owed. He is sure he will get the entrepreneur of the year award the same evening. His wife has also had their first baby, and his efficient, pretty PA Maggie (Shweta Basu Prasad) helps him shop for baby clothes. Ipsit can soothe the sceptical investors from the car, reeling off precise numbers without looking at his laptop or phone. After all, he is famous as the human computer. 

Mukherji slowly inserts small doubts into this assured swag. The lost weekend, the precise details, and his blanked out memory, begin to obsess Ipsit to such an extent that he meets with an accident while thinking about it, is hospitalised with bruises and other injuries. 

Mukherji shoots most of the interiors in monotone greys, and the underlying grey mood pervades scenes set in bright outdoors. The background music is often an eerie hum — sonic, at times, given more body with the organ and a monotonous rhythm by the piano striking the same note. Revenge unfolds scene after scene, as Ipsit humiliating old friends passes like a slideshow, as Maggie wheels the catatonic broken man mumbling random numbers, names. When she finally wheels him into a long room with graffiti running all over the looming walls — different birth dates, incomplete sentences that begin with ‘my name…’, Maggie, with her outsize round glasses, peers at him from the round glass set in the door. Ray’s short stories usually don’t have women in prominent roles. Seemingly solicitous, Maggie is the avenger, narrating his sins to a man lost in his own incoherent world. Forget Me Not is remarkably well shot and edited. Even more remarkably, the protagonist is not a man you like, but you can see the pity of it all when karma catches up. 

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In Behrupiya, Srijit Mukherji has yet another good actor to centre the narrative of whimsy taken to the extreme. A timid man, over whom everyone can ride roughshod, inherits money and a book on make-up and prosthetics from his grandmother – the only person who cared for him. Kay Kay Menon, as the man obsessed with disguises, enters the timid skin and woebegone face of Indrashish Shah seamlessly. It is as if he has realised that his unremarkable face can be made to look like anyone, especially people who have tormented and humiliated him. 

Indrashish has two targets. First, the stage actress he loves. He is her make-up man. She mocks him, spurns his ring, and says she’ll sleep with him instead. So he disguises himself as a bald, sleazy producer, and has sex with her as some kind of punishment. His anger has built up against his immediate superior at work. He spins an elaborate plan and implicates the rude, aggressive Suresh Shah (Rajesh Sharma) in a fraudulent scheme, where he is seen siphoning off money deposited in the big boss’s account. Sweet revenge for years of humiliation. So far, so good.  

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But soon, hubris overtakes him. He now sports the face of a runaway rapist, Rakesh, and confronts a saint at the dargah who can foretell a person’s fate from his face. He repeats his claim that he is Rakesh, and is condemned to live with that face. Srijit Mukherji splashes colour, to compensate for his deprivation in Forget Me Not. Indrashish comes close to looking like Batman’s Joker, but he just can’t summon up the essential chutzpah. His personality is muted. 

Now, a crowd-pleaser often carries a mild pejorative connotation. Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa (the first line of a ghazal made famous by Ghulam Ali) is not only a total delight to watch, but somehow, conveys the feeling that Ray would have found equal delight in Abhishek Chaubey’s masterly relocation of Barin Bhowmick-er Byaram’s Bangla ethos to the joys of elegant Urdu, shero shayari, and wry humour. The train journey is from Bhopal to Delhi. Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee), a popular ghazal singer with all the elegant mannerisms of a stage performer, meets a fellow traveller Aslam Baig (Gajraj Rao), who makes no apology for his philistine attitude to music. Oh, cassette waley, he sums up, on learning the co-passenger’s vocation. 

Abhishek Chaubey

Baig, carrying a wrestling magazine, is vaguely trying to recall where he met the singer before. The guessing game is fun, but strewn with some interesting clues. Like Baig carrying a box of dried lemon to give his tea its fragrance. The elusive first meeting is the crux of the story, and the flashback is as smooth as a Ghulam Ali ghazal. Chaubey inserts a surreal touch during one of his gliding transitions. The watch dial fills the screen, and Musafir is poised uncertainly on it. 

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What sets off Musafir’s agitation is the pocket watch, glorying in its name, Khushbakt. Years ago when he was a mere nondescript Raju wearing a skull cap, Musafir had stolen the irresistible object that Baig had dangled before him. Beautiful, and a harbinger of luck. Speeding off with the prize, Musafir had fainted on the street, and woken up to a haakim peering into his eyes, which, to the patient, seems as though he looked deep into his soul. Raju confesses how he had started stealing as a child, but is reassured that what he is suffering from is a disease many great men had suffered from – including Shakespeare. Ki-li- pato- maania. The way the consonants are split is hilarious. It reminded me of Ray’s Agantuk, where Utpal Dutt tries to talk to a deaf Harindranath Chatopadhyay. Ray sometimes did favour broad humour. Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao play off each other with wonderful timing.

Chaubey relishes the felicities of Urdu, and Niren Bhatt’s writing is playful and melancholic as the situation varies in mood. Overcome by guilt, Musafir tries to put the lucky watch back in Baig’s bag, but is caught in the act. With unruffled placidity, Baig tells Musafir to go to a shop called Rooh Safa in an Old Delhi lane, famous as the location of Ghalib’s house. The genial owner is not surprised. People keep returning stuff they had filched – there is an object used by Jehangir, Mountbatten’s striped pyjama , and the piece de resistance, a volume of Satyajit Ray’s stories bound in red leather. What a lovely tribute.

The surreal-paranormal is touched upon in many Ray stories. How you film it tests the director’s skill. Vasan Bala is stranded between realism and the surreal, satire, and serendipity in Spotlight, where the focus is on an insecure Bollywood star Vik Arora (Harshvardhan Kapoor turns a striking profile to the camera) who is famous for inventing his signature ‘look’. He is driving to a location shoot and wants the suite occupied by Madonna. The obsequious staff is only too happy to oblige. That is, till the God Woman Didi (Radhika Madan, who finally breaks all rules of human godliness) comes with her entourage that eclipses the star’s, and sends him packing to another suite. 

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There are clever lines when Vik talks of a Kafkaesque nightmare, and follows it up with Lynchian nightmare. When his girlfriend asks what it means, he says, he doesn’t know, they just use the expression. That jibe does hit home. As do the barbs at hyperventilating Bollywood producers and capricious advertisers. The truly delightful character is Vik’s manager/mentor/trouble-shooter/handholder Roby Ghosh, played with tone perfection by Chandan Roy Sanyal.

Interpreting Satyajit Ray

Parts of Spotlight have an undeniable spark, but the light gets too diffused. Bengali friends have told me that there is no Didi-like character in Ray’s story. So did the writer and director have in mind the very much contemporary Didi (TMC colour is blue) who gave Modi-Shah the comeuppance? Blue is this plucky Didi’s colour. We are all free to draw inferences, aren’t we?