In a year of feature films, web series, and anthologies, two of his short films have made the loudest noise, establishing Abhishek Chaubey as arguably the best Hindi film-maker of our generation.
It almost feels like a joke that the film the country’s obsessed about the most this year was a short. Starring heavyweights such as Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, Raghubir Yadav, and Manoj Pahwa, Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, the third film in Netflix’s anthology, Ray, is the only one worth watching. Similarly, his delicate and vulnerable, and almost-silent Madhyantar, is the only film you should bother watching in Netflix’s second anthology of the year, Ankahi Kahaniya. If HHKB was boisterous and animated, with Bajpayee and Rao in a veritable acting arm-wrestle trying to outdo each other’s brilliance, Madhyantar, starring the young pair.
Rinku Rajguru (Sairat) and Delzad Hiwale (Hindi Medium), is quiet, poignant, and scintillatingly delicate. The common thread, of course, is Chaubey’s masterful handling of the vintage and nostalgia, of world’s disappearing, and of spaces that, though cultural definers of the country at one time, now exists only as memories, or in the shadows. From the warm-tone, romantic mushairas of HHKB, to the charm of single-screen theatres in Madhyantar, from the intimacy of the first-class coupe of long-distance trains, to the bustling cacophony of small-town bus depots, Chaubey is in his element with both of these films, conjuring worlds and creating indelible moments, truly enigmatic and forgettable.
The country went through a heated debate when Ray released, on adaptations, inspirations, and artistic interpretations. “My primary effort, while adapting a piece, is to satisfy all the readers of the story,” Chaubey told MW, during a conversation after Ray released. The man is, of course, not new to adapting for screen. “They should not be disappointed watching your interpretation. The attempt should be to take the story a notch higher. If you are changing something that is crucial to the story; make sure you do it deliberately and consciously so that it does not look like a mistake. When you adapt a film, the world you set it in becomes very important, more so when you change the language of the piece.”
While the original story HHKB is based on also takes place in a first-class compartment, the poetry and magic realism that Chaubey introduced to the short — he has already flexed his authority on that space in Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya earlier — takes the story, like he mentions, a notch higher. “I wanted it to have an old-world charm and the mood of an evening mushaira. They are usually lit by lamps which give a warm and slightly under-lit tone. We wanted to create a feel of nostalgia. When you are creating a unique world for the audience, there is an effort to work out the details that populate that world,” said Chaubey. “It is these details that make that world believable to the viewer.
I do find it a lot of fun. Also, I was sure that I didn’t want the film to be very realistic. Hence, you have the kind of dream sequences as you have. Even the production design was done keeping this in mind. We wanted it to have its own look — one that resembles reality but is not exactly real. So, you don’t see the squalor or filth that you have inside a train. Train stories are a very Ray thing to do. Not only Nayak, but even in Sonar Kella, the train journey plays a very important part. Apart from taking the story from the master, I wanted to pay homage to Ray the director as well, without making it look as if we are trying too hard.” And did he think of setting the film in a Bengali milieu? “I am very eager to do a film set in the Bengali milieu and culture and I am hoping that will happen very soon. But I had to make this film in Hindi and the idea of Bengali bhadralok speaking in Hindi was not very appealing to me as that would not sound authentic. Right from the beginning, I was sure that I had to adapt it to a milieu where I can justify the use of Hindi language in it. Also, I didn’t want a generic milieu but a specific world. Since the protagonist was a singer, making him a ghazal singer was a natural choice. That’s how the world came to being and I changed the journey into one from Bhopal to Delhi,” Chaubey clarified.
Also, the concept of a store where one can cleanse one’s thieving soul — not a part of the OG — is exceptional writing, delicious humour, and quirky imagination. “The shop at the end was something I devised to plant a seed of doubt in the audience’s mind that if all that happened in the story is even real. Also, I chose this story because although it checks almost all the boxes of Ray’s short stories — it has the surrealism, the psychological exploration — it was a fun story to tell too. It had the potential for a lot of humour, it had its tongue in its cheek. And that enabled me to have a rather unique interpretation of the story. I wanted to do something that was a bit light-hearted,” Chaubey had told us.
With Madhyantar, he does a full one-eighty, and creates an almost-silent, heart wrenching love story between two young adults who don’t know what love is, but it fills them like an explosion. It is old-school sweet, it is loveletters-roses-soft-drinks-after-movies cute, and it is about young love going up against the Goliath that is reality, and hopelessly losing the bout. Madhyantar doesn’t have the flamboyance of HHKB, or the music and humour, it is heavily desat, mirroring the mundane realities of the characters, and is quiet, simple, and speaks in whispers. The film flaunts Chaubey’s versatility, and his confident mastery over his craft, establishing the man in the top rung of storytellers in India right now.