Spoilers ahead about major plot points in ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ from the anthology film ‘Ray’.
The Netflix anthology film Ray, intended as a tribute to Satyajit Ray in his centenary year, has at least one crowd favourite. Abhishek Chaubey’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, based on Ray’s short story Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment, has escaped the mostly withering response accorded to the other three episodes.
Chaubey’s film, written by Niren Bhatt, revolves around a ghazal singer in the habit of swiping objects from other people. Musafir Ali isn’t a thief but a kleptomaniac, a condition he has been cured of but is forced to confront when he meets one of his old marks during a train journey.
Although former wrestler Aslam Baig can’t place Musafir, he remembers the disappearance of his watch all too well. Musafir spends the train ride in agony until he decides to return the timepiece.
Ray’s short story ends on a characteristic twist.
Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa stars Manoj Bajpayee as Musafir and Gajraj Rao as Aslam, with walk-on parts for Raghubir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa. The film gains a theatrical quality with the use of what Chaubey calls “magic realist” interludes. Musafir frequently leaves his train compartment and walks into other worlds, including concert halls packed with adoring fans.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Chaubey revisited the device of the dream-like sequences as well as clarified the identity of the singer behind Musafir’s voice. Despite not being credited, the silken-smooth voice with which Musafir wows his fans does indeed belong to the Pakistani legend Ghulam Ali, Chaubey said. Excerpts from an interview.
Was Satyajit Ray’s ‘Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment’ your personal choice too? If not this story, what would you have liked to adapt?
The producers had a bank of stories that they had the rights to. I have read most of Ray’s stories, and I had a few favourites. They weren’t among these. They include Ratan Babu and that Man and A Strange Night For Mr Shasmal.
I was drawn towards Barin Bhowick’s Aliment, I could see its comedic potential. It was a hard one to translate. It is set primarily inside a train compartment and is a first-person narrative. But it also made me think that I could be imaginative. I had the possibility of playing around a lot.
I had already chosen the setting for the story. I was happy to shoot in Bangla, but they [the producers] didn’t want that. I worked out a screenplay and pitched it to Niren Bhatt and he was drawn to it instantly.
I shot the film in November 2020, during the pandemic.
Ray’s stories have a crisp and spare quality, which can pose challenges for adaptation.
This story naturally came with its own restrictions. It was a first-person narrative. It is fairly easy to do in literature because you can talk about what is going on inside somebody’s head and what is going on outside.
It was a fun challenge to achieve it cinematically. Niren and I got along very well even though we hadn’t met before. He got on to what my intentions were.
I wanted to stick to the comedy of manners and talk about a certain sub-culture, but also solve the problem with doses of magic realism and surrealism. It was a question of controlling it and not getting too taken by it. The other challenge was to write the characters and dialogue well. Niren excelled in doing that.
It would have been more challenging if I had picked another kind of story. This one was fairly light in touch. That gave me the freedom to explore the film cinematically and not cram it with plot.
You have tweaked the ending of the source material.
We did one draft and we weren’t happy with the ending. It works for the original short story. But we were also looking at it as an individual film. We gave the screenplay to people to read. We also got feedback that we could so something to the end and make the experience a lot better.
Niren came up with the idea. I was scared at first because I thought we are getting ahead of ourselves. Then he wrote it out.
The film is set in the worlds of Urdu poetry and the ghazal, which you have explored partially in ‘Ishqiya’ and fully in ‘Dedh Ishqiya’. This world has great language, a performative quality, the ability to tell sweet lies through words. Are these among the reasons you are attracted to this setting?
I actually didn’t have any intentions of repeating this sort of setting after Dedh Ishqiya. When this story came into my lap, I had to find a parallel for the Bengali bhadralok sub-culture, if I may call it that, in the Hindustani-speaking space.
If I made the singer sing filmi songs, it would have been generic. I had to think of a parallel that would find resonance with the original story. The ghazal is a unique form of music, and it has its idiosyncrasies that can be exaggerated for comedy. It can also evoke a certain kind of feeling, a sense of nostalgia, a context of time and place.
Having done a film in that space before, it gave me stronger ground. I like this world, I belong to Avadh, and I have seen this culture a little bit. I understood it instinctively. Also, I didn’t take it too seriously and had a bit of fun with it.
Musafir’s singing voice belongs to Ghulam Ali, right?
Yet, it is his rendition. This is one of his most popular ghazals.
I was very sure that I wanted to use the original voice and not redub it. This is a very popular ghazal. It was everywhere when I was growing up, it could evoke serious nostalgia. I knew some uncles and aunts would be sitting with pegs and watching this movie and be transported back to the time.
The lyrics too fit the film’s theme.
Yes, and it’s a great comedic title, like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.
Tell us about the moving sets, which help you break out of the fixed location of the train as well as enhance the narrative’s dream-like quality.
If there was no pandemic and restrictions on shooting, I would probably have shot on an actual train and found other ways of doing what I wanted to do. Shooting on a set was a foregone conclusion.
The film naturally offered the possibility of exploring sets. The idea came in one of the early drafts, that the stage was like a train compartment. When we wrote the first draft, it was just a transition, we hadn’t figured out how we were going to do it. Then I figured we could do moving sets, put the sets on platforms with movable wheels. I would get on calls with my production designer Aditya [Kanwar] and director of photography Anuj [Rakesh Dhawan] and throw ideas at each other. Aditya would also tell me what was possible and what wasn’t.
Sets in movies come from theatre, don’t they? I remember telling my team, this could make a very good stage play too. It’s the first time I was doing something like this, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it 10 years ago.
Filmmakers working out of Bombay in today’s day and age have an over-reliance on visual effects. I have absolutely nothing against it, but I personally use visual effects as a last resort. The possibilities of achieving through camera and cuts and basic cinematic language are immense. Here was a wonderful opportunity to explore what I have always believed in. It freed me as a filmmaker.
Even if you are not a film person and are watching this film, it gives you a window into the cinematic language. It’s a fairly mainstream film, it’s my first true family film. The ins and outs are very clear, so you will still get it.
You got the cast you wanted?
I had worked with Manoj in Sonchiriya and really enjoyed it. I really like his commitment to the craft and yet not taking himself too seriously.
The original idea was that Musafair would be somebody younger. But I didn’t have room to compromise on the talent. I needed somebody whose craft was great.
The rest of the cast you see in the film, I have to give credit to Honey [Trehan], the casting director. Gajraj is somebody I have been dying to work with for the past 15 years at least, but I somehow never could. Aslam Baig is an ex-wrestler, and some great personalities came to mind, but I didn’t know how the hell I was going to make them act. When Honey suggested Gajraj, we solved the problem by creating his look. I had a guaranteed great actor on board.
I never imagined Raghubir Yadav or Manoj Pahwa in the roles they did. Honey pushed for them. I have always believed in working with new actors. Why get stars to do cameos? Honey said, just listen to what I am saying and don’t leave it to chance. I thank Honey for it.
How does ‘Ray’ speak to fans of Satyajit Ray’s films?
The only thing the series has in common with Ray is that he also made movies. We were interested in Ray as a short story writer.
My effort was to do justice to that story, to not deviate too much in terms of what Ray wanted in the tone and the message. Even in his thrilling and surreal and macabre stories, he always has his tongue in his check. I wanted to translate that fun and entertaining aspect. It’s also not empty, it’s talking about something universal.
There was never any intention of trying to imitate him as a filmmaker. There are glimpses of his cinematic style. The train is one of his favourite settings. The background music, especially when Musafir goes into the bathroom and talks to his audience, evokes Ray’s style of score. The mirrors too, we have seen in Ray’s films. Also the gentleness of the characters, the empathy he had for people.
Which of Satyajit Ray’s Ray’s films have stayed with you?
Of all the masters, I feel closest to him for obvious reasons – he is our own.
The favourite film keeps changing depending on what time of my life I am in. These days, it’s Mahanagar and Pratidwandi. You can see Ray in 1963 and 1971, both films set in Calcutta, one with so much empathy and kindness and one with so much anger. I think about Pratidwandi a lot, especially with what is going on in the world and the country today.
Given the rising restrictions on the freedom of expression, how motivated are you to keep making films?
When the times are bad, films become more popular – a case in point was World War II.
It is not necessary that what you make has to be overly political. Nothing is apolitical as such. You can make genre films, but your beliefs have to be right. As long as you can talk about your point of view honestly, I think this is a great time to make movies.
Of course, censorship and the government tightening screws on filmmakers is terrible, but we have to know that this is a cycle and it is our dumb luck that we are around while all that is happening. We have to find ways to make our movies. People are making movies in Iran and China. Why can’t we?
A sustained movement of filmmakers needs to happen, but we also have to keep making movies. We just have to.