In his new film The Storyteller, Anant Mahadevan marks the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray with one of his untranslated Bengali stories. The Storyteller, based on Golpo Boliye Tarini Khuro (Tarini Uncle Tells a Story), stars Paresh Rawal as a Bengali raconteur and Adil Hussain as a Gujarati cotton exporter.
The Storyteller is being screened in the International Film Festival of Kerala’s Indian Cinema Now section. An overstretched adaptation of a miniature study of human nature, the 115-minute film benefits from a warm performance by Paresh Rawal.
Rawal is Tarini Bandopadhyay, who has been flitting from one job to the next but whose real passion is storytelling. Yet, Tarini has failed to put pen to paper – write down the stories that delight his listeners.
An intriguing advertisement in Ahmedabad lures Tarini away from the familiar comforts of Kolkata. Businessman Ratan Garodia (Adil Hussain) will pay Tarini good money for narrating a story to him every night. Scheherazade spun yarns that kept her husband Shahryar from murdering her in The Thousand and One Nights. In The Storyteller, Ratan’s excuse for hiring Tarini is chronic insomnia.
Ratan says he hasn’t slept in 30 years, although he doesn’t look like it. Mahadevan has a twist tucked away that even half-asleep viewers will see coming. In the meanwhile, Mahadevan rolls out wry humour and a cute kitten alongside addressing the Bengali addiction to fish versus Gujarati vegetarianism.
The film is set in the pre-cellphone era, presumably to stay true to the milieu in which Ray wrote his stories alongside directing duties. The adaptation is deeply respectful of its source material, daring to add just an extra dollop of sweetness to Ray’s characteristic tartness.
Handsome production values boost the telefilm-like visuals. Time moves very slowly in The Storyteller, and not just because the principal characters are elderly and the notion of oral narration requires a slow pace. Kireet Khurana’s plodding screenplay and Mahadevan’s overly spelt-out direction can barely justify stretching an episode within an anthology film into a full-length feature.
Ray’s skill with upending expectations and character detailing partially survive the journey from page to screen. Apart from the leads, the film has charming cameos by Revathi and Tannishtha Chatterjee.