An odd sparkle than a ray of brilliance
Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa is the pick of the lot in the new Ray anthology series
It’s an obvious thing to state; that Satyajit Ray is a towering legend. Making short films inspired by his stories is no mean task. It comes with its own burden of awe, reverence and expectation attached, not just from the viewers but the filmmakers themselves. And there’s always a danger of buckling under this immense pressure. The good thing about Ray, the anthology series by Viacom18 Studios’ Tipping Point, currently playing on Netflix, is that none of the filmmakers—Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey and Vasan Bala—appear to be daunted by the legacy; neither are creator/showrunner Sayantan Mukherjee and writers Niren Bhatt and Siraj Ahmed. They boldly go ahead with their respective visions. Now for whether their interpretations work well as films, independent of Ray: that’s another story.
Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, Abhishek Chaubey’s delightful take on “Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram” (Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment) quite clearly does stand its own ground. It adheres to all the rules of a classic short, complete with a twist in the tale and the most impish, playful and self-reflexive nod to Ray.
There is something extremely satisfying in the way Chaubey knits many lovely threads seamlessly together in a film that spans two train journeys and the many meanderings in life of two characters—musician Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee) and wrestler-turned-sports journalist Aslam Baig (Gajraj Rao). And how a watch called Khusbakht, a harbinger of good fortune, ties their destinies together in unforeseen ways. It’s about how their individual passion and obsession, lead them astray and also make them stay on course; it’s about misdemeanour, guilt, the pricks of conscience, the attempts at atonement and redemption.
In about an hour Chaubey makes Ray his own, packs in all that his own cinema is best known for. The sparring and banter and the play with words, the descriptions of people and things, the life lessons, the articulation of thoughts and expression of feelings—the Hindustani is music to the ears. Where would you find a pawnshop called Rooh Safa which claims to be a hamaam (bath), not a dukaan (shop), a place to cleanse your soul of all the wrong doings.
Like in Dedh Ishqiya there’s the evocation of a lost culture with all its etiquettes and protocols, finery and regalia and little details, down to the dried lemon in the Afghani chai. Chaubey acknowledges the popular icons who are the prime-movers in the film—Ghulam Ali and Dara Singh. As in Ishqiya the love for popular music shines through, not just in the obviousness of the title but in the deft touch with which Chaubey slips in a reference to Gulzar-Madan Mohan composition from Mausam: “Ghadi re ghadi kaisi gale mein padi”. The deliberate replacement of chhadi (cane) in the original brings on a smile and how. As does the connect between kleptomania and Anand’s lymphosarcoma of the intestines which is taken further back to Dada “Ashok Kumar” Moni, Shakespeare and Bahadur Shah Zafar.
As the narrative propels ahead, Chaubey keeps moving from the real space to the stylised performative world, from the stage of life to the proscenium of a theatre. Eventually he turns the film into one that is all about kissagoi—the art of story-telling—how the truth in the tale rests with the narrator, what he chooses to reveal and what he hides.
In doing all of this Chaubey displays sure-footedness and a lightness of touch. Never once do things weigh heavy or feel laboured. Of course, it has a lot to do with two of India’s most talented actors, Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao, who are perfectly in tune with each other and make acting, interacting and reacting seem so easy. They help Chaubey in turning Hungama... into a charming, rooted whimsy of a film.
Superb actors that Ali Fazal and Shweta Basu Prasad (though one wishes she had more to do in the film) are, they bring in the welcome gravitas to Srijit Mukherji’s Forget Me Not inspired from “Bipin Chowdhury’r Smritibhrom” (Bipin Chowdhury’s Memory Loss). Ipsit (Fazal), the man with the memory of a computer can’t remember his close encounter with the femme fatale Rhea Saran (Aninidita Bose). Mukherji tries to build tension and suspense and hurtles things into a dark zone in the chase for the truth behind the man in decline. Alas, despite the sheen of outward contemporaneity and slickness, the narrative tools and mindgames he deploys feel outdated, harking back to the plot twists in some of the psychological thrillers of the 60s and 70s Bollywood. The shift in perspective on the same character and the whole expository element leave nothing to the imagination of the audience. It’s a film in a hurry to explain everything.
Mukherji’s take on “Bahurupi” titled Bahurupiya works marginally better. He takes the theme of God complex into the supernatural realm with Kay Kay Menon playing the ordinary Joe Indradhish who inherits the art of makeup and prosthetics from his grandmother. This, combined with his skills as a performer, make him feel like God—one who can create and destroy characters and personalities, who can assume and let go of identities at will. Can he change his own destiny? Can he become invincible? Will he find his core or lose himself in the process? There’s the psychological strain here—a humiliated man getting back at the world—which had potential that doesn’t seem to have been fully realised. There’s something too gimmicky, showy and deliberate about taking on the work of Ray. What irks most, however, is the single note portrayal of women as sex objects, exploiting their own sexuality or being used and abused by men.
Vasan Bala Spotlight has an interesting premise—seeing religion and cinema as two sides of the same coin with superstar Vikram Arora (Harshvarrdhan Kapoor) locking horns with the religious leader Didi (Radhika Madan) when their paths cross at his outdoor shoot in a hotel. Even though he doesn’t get to meet her, her presence affects his life—professional as well as personal.
Like Chaubey’s film, Spotlight is also packed with references—from a Didi in Kolkata to hashtag wars of Twitter, from Daniel Day Lewis and Robert de Niro to Ryan Gosling and Elon Musk. In capturing the world of moviemaking, Vasan also doffs a hat to Ray. The millennial Nayak is shooting a film called Chiriaghar (Ray’s 1967 Chiriyakhana anyone) directed by Ramen Mullick and with Byomkesh Bakshi as DOP (both, incidentally, are characters in Chiriyakhana). Be it the striped kurta Vikram wears for the mahurat or his cool T Shirt embossed with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne poster or the “The Song of the Little Road” (Pather Panchali) T Shirt of Didi. Or even Vikram’s mother in his dream parroting Ray titles like Nayak, Devi, Agantuk, Pratidwandi, Parash Patthar, Kapurush Mahapurush, Joi Baba Felunath. Ray is omnipresent.
But the references feel too glib than smooth and offhand. The peep into the business of movie making, be it repeat takes or ad shoots for products like mosquito nets, fight for the front-page interview or the smuggler producer, are all too obvious and done to death. Even the characters, be it the hero or his manager are types that don’t get the much-desired roundedness. The arrogance and insecurity of the star, the validation sought in the crowd of fans and selfies evoke no empathy.
I would have wanted to see the theme of divine power of religious leaders as opposed to the fandom of film stars explored further. How, as Roby puts it, 100-year-old cinema can’t hold a candle to religion that has been around for 10000 years. Or as he says of Didi and the pandemic of bhakti engendered by her: “She has powers beyond logical reasoning”.
Didi and Vikram come together eventually at the end. By which time it’s too little too late. Even though there is a restoration of balance between the two opium of the masses and synergy and cross-pollination, it leaves one dissatisfied than satiated.
Spotlight is a film searching for a focus, lost as it gets in its own kitsch, fluorescent colours and coolness.