Satyajit Ray’s fiction is both boon and burden for potential adaptors. The stories that Ray wrote alongside directing films are characterised by economy, memorable characters, humour tinged with darkness and denouements that resemble a quick and precise jab of the knife. Sometimes covering only a few pages, the fiction belongs to a specific place and time (Bengal between the 1960s and the 1990s). It is spare enough for future filmmakers to add new layers and meaning, but also detailed enough to discourage deviation or adventure.

Brave, then, is the contemporary writer and filmmaker who believes that they can take the master’s fiction in new directions. Ray, created by Sayantan Mukherjee for Netflix and comprising four films, predictably throws up mixed results. One retelling is outstanding. Another plays out like a remix. The remaining two come close to capturing the general drift of their source material.

Ray (2021).

Ray opts for halaal over jhatka, the incision that gradually drains out the blood to the single slash of the knife. This approach is best expressed by Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, based on Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment.

Chaubey fruitfully celebrated the teasing romance of Urdu poetry and music in his 2014 movie Dedh Ishqiya. Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, written by Niren Bhatt, transports the story of a fateful encounter between a singer and a past acquaintance to the universe of the Urdu ghazal. It’s the only period film in the lot, set in the age of cassette tapes, long-distance train travel and an appreciation for unhurried conversation.

A train journey reunites popular ghazal singer Musafir Ali (Manoj Bajpayee) with former wrestler Aslam Baig (Gajraj Rao). The two men are linked by an object and a secret, leading to a sly battle of wills.

Deftly written and directed, Chaubey’s droll tribute extends beyond his respect for the cadences of the original story. Ray’s use of mirrors and surreal dream sequences in his films inspire several imaginative flashbacks in Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa. Musafir’s past is depicted as a series of tableaux, in which the walls of the train compartment appear to melt away and segue seamlessly into other rooms and other wonders.

Anuj Rakesh Dhawan’s vivid frames and Aditya Kanwar’s impressive production design complement the twinkly-eyed performances by Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao. Nearly every Netflix omnibus film has one standout entry that compensates for the drawbacks in the others. In Ray, that honour belongs to Hungama, which relocates and reimagines the original setting without causing any damage.

One mystery lingers: does Musafir Ali’s singing voice belong to the renowned Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali, whose version of the titular Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa is the most well-known? By omitting the actual singer’s name, the credits leave us none the wiser.

Manoj Bajpayee and Gajraj Rao in Ray (2021). Courtesy Tipping Point/Colosceum Media/Netflix.

There’s always room for inspiration, claims a quote attributed to Ray in Vasan Bala’s Spotlight. Bala’s contribution, written once again by Niren Bhatt, does not veer from its source as much as run far from it.

Satyajit Ray’s Spotlight is about an elderly gent whose claim of being 126 years old draws away a small town’s attention from a matinee idol’s arrival for a film shoot. Ray’s fiction contained barely disguised contempt for the Mumbai dream factory and its frippery and forgettable products.

Bala’s Spotlight is about one such product. Popular actor Vikram Arora’s reputation is based on his ability to carry the same expression in every one of his films. The vacuous and thin-skinned Vikram (Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor) arrives in a town in Rajasthan with his manager Roby (Chandan Roy Sanyal), only to find himself being upstaged by cult leader Didi (Radhika Madan).

Admirers of the makers’ chutzpah, at the very least, might still be hard-pressed to react favourably to yet another self-reflexive film about the vagaries of stardom. Despite being littered with references to Ray’s films, the new-age Spotlight is pure Bollywood, seeking to mine humour from insider jokes and vaguely allegorical allusions.

Designed as a showcase for Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor’s still-evolving screen presence, the harum-scarum adaptation only underscores Satyajit Ray’s views on the Bombay film world. Tedium is promised and delivered in full. Perhaps Bala, the director of the superb Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, needed a larger canvas to explore his ideas.

Radhika Madan and Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor in Ray (2021). Courtesy Tipping Point/Colosceum Media/Netflix.

The unmistakably Bengali flavour of Ray’s stories, which emerged through vignettes revolving around chance encounters and moral dilemmas, barely peeps through in Srijit Mukerji’s Bahurupiya. Kolkata serves as window dressing for a sordid adaptation of Chameleon, in which maquillage is indistinguishable from make-believe.

Mukerji’s interest in prosthetics were evident in his Bengali films Vinci Da, about a serial killer, and Gumnaami, featuring a heavily made-up Prosenjit Chatterjee as Subhas Chandra Bose. In Bahurupiya, Kay Kay Menon’s dweeby Indrashish receives a make-up kit as inheritance and proceeds to put it to devious use to take revenge on his tormentors.

Siraj Ahmed’s kinky adaptation might just cause Ray’s ashes to take a spin in the ether. Bidita Bag has the sorry job of playing Indrashish’s object of desire and mouthing inane lines about bedroom behaviour.

The film belongs to Kay Kay Menon’s pursed lips and explosive rendition of Indrashish’s dangerous repression. Dibyendu Bhattacharyya has a lovely cameo as a spiritual healer who slices through Indrashish’s layers.

Kay Kay Menon in Ray (2021). Courtesy Tipping Point/Colosceum Media/Netflix.

Mirrors, beloved by Ray, are a motif in every one of the episodes. In Srijit Mukerji’s Forget Me Not, based on Bipin Chowdhury’s Memory Lapse, every surface glimmers with truth and artifice.

Mukerji’s slickly filmed episode, written by Siraj Ahmed and lensed by Swapnil Sonawane, stars Ali Fazal as an alpha male businessman. In the habit of making grand entries into boardrooms and condescending to everyone around him, Ipsit is ripe for comeuppance. It’s delivered slowly and painfully, through a barely visible nick.

Ali Fazal is in good form as the obnoxious entrepreneur who declares that “There’s a lot of opportunity cost in college memories.” Among the noteworthy actors is Shweta Basu Prasad as Ispit’s loyal secretary Maggie.

Ali Fazal in Ray (2021). Courtesy Tipping Point/Colosceum Media/Netflix.

Like Bahurupiya, Forget Me Not includes an element largely missing from Ray’s fiction: women. Ipsit’s behaviour drags the original story into the current gender war, adding a recognisable frisson to the memory loss suffered by Ray’s character.

Women feature prominently across the adaptations, but the series lacks female directors or writers who might have viewed Ray’s stories in a different light. The Netflix anthology has been described as the first season, which suggests that a second chapter could easily correct this oversight.

Also read:

Feluda is one of Satyajit Ray’s greatest creations but is he too brilliant for the movies?

Flashback: Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku and his lost project ‘The Alien’

Why we should remember Satyajit Ray (also) for the horror stories he wrote