'Ray' Review: Netflix’s anthology series based on Satyajit Ray’s short stories has its share of highs and lows

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review 

By Murtaza Ali Khan 

Since the grand success of the opening season of Sacred Games back in 2018, Netflix India has been struggling to produce something of the same pedigree. On one hand, Netflix has emerged as one of the forerunners at the leading international forums, including the Oscars and the Emmys, but its Indian catalog is nowhere near in comparison. That, however, isn’t due to a lack of trying as it’s evident from offerings such as Delhi Crime, Bulbbul, Paava Kadhaigal, Taj Mahal 1989, and Bombay Begums. But, for some reason, Netflix India has not managed to keep up the same level of consistency as their major OTT rival Amazon Prime Video whose Indian catalog is easily their strongest bet in the global race for digital content supremacy. Post Sacred Games, Netflix India is still looking for something to hold on to—a bankable title that can become their Mirzapur or The Family Man. The new anthology series Ray, therefore, holds a lot of promise for Netflix India, which must be hoping that it becomes something like Black Mirror for the Indian audiences. After all, the celebrated Indian auteur and writer Satyajit Ray, just like his cinema, exhibited a remarkable variety in his short stories as well, ranging from comedy to satire to psychological thriller to science fiction.

Naturally all of Satyajit Ray’s short stories cannot be accommodated in a single season and so it is safe to assume that Ray is going to be a multi-season anthology series. The fact that Netflix seems heavily invested in the idea only confirms how dearly the OTT giant is looking for something that can become the centerpiece of its future strategy in India. Now, the first season of Ray which recently premiered consists of four segments: Forget Me Not (based on Ray’s short story Bipin Chowdhury'r Smritibhrom), Bahrupiya (based on a short story titled Bahurupi), Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa (based on Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram), and Spotlight (based on a short story of the same name). As one would expect these segments are not the exact adaptations of Ray’s stories. The screenwriters Siraj Ahmed (Forget Me Not and Bahrupiya) and Niren Bhatt (Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa and Spotlight) have found a middle ground of sorts while reworking with Ray’s original short stories. Ray’s Bipin Chowdhury'r Smritibhrom, for example, has no female character. Forget Me Not (directed by Srijit Mukherjee), on the other hand, has a bunch of very interesting female characters. Also, it's been set in the contemporary times. Similar liberties have been with the other stories as well.

Abhishek Chaubey’s directorial Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, starring Manoj Bajpayee as a singer named Musafir Ali and Gajraj Rao as a wrestler turned sports journalist Beg aka Jenga, is perhaps the best example of how a fascinating literary story can be remodeled and embellished decades later to suit the needs of a different medium. Chaubey has got a rare talent when it comes to handling Urdu Adab as a subject matter. If Dedh Ishiqa served as a testament to Chaubey’s penchant for Urdu poetry then Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa succeeds in quelling any nagging doubts that among the current crop of filmmakers it is Chaubey who understands the nuances of Urdu Adab the best. Laced with timeless poetry of Mirza Ghalib and evergreen ghazals of Ghulam Ali, Ray’s Barin Bhowmik-er Byaram attains a new high in the hands of Chaubey who also succeeds in eliciting masterful performances from Bajpayee, whose command over Urdu is exemplary, and Rao, who just seems to get better with each new performance.

While Ray’s original story is far more believable, Forget Me Not operates in a zone that requires the viewer to suspend the disbelief again and again. As someone who is capable of remaking a fascinating film like Rajkahini as a snoozefest like Begum Jaan, Srijit Mukherjee’s work as a director is always very interesting. The best part about Forget Me Not is Anindita Bose’s mystery woman character. Also, Ali Fazal shines in the role of a cut-throat corporate shark who prides himself on his vivid memory and his accolades until a chance encounter with a beautiful woman sends him down a vortex of self-doubt as he fails to remember her.

Bahrupiya, the second segment directed by Srijit Mukherjee, follows a prosthetics artist who uses his skills to get back at people who he feels wronged him in life. Kay Kay Menon yet again proves why he is one of the best actors in the country. Some of the scenes that he shares with Bidita Bag (a completely turnaround from her light-hearted performance in Teen Do Paanch) who plays his muse in the segment are exhilarating to watch. The fourth and final segment titled Spotlight, directed by Vasan Bala, is also the weakest of the lot. As an intended critique on stardom and self-styled godman/godwoman, Spotlight only works in parts. But Bala’s quirky storytelling style with all its flair and shenanigans makes it a fun watch. Radhika Madan yet again proves to be a scene stealer. Fortunately for Bala, the odd casting choice of Harshvarrdhan Kapoor doesn’t prove to be destructive. Chandan Roy Sanyal is solid as ever. Overall, the anthology series has its share of lows. But, despite its inconsistencies, it is not without merit.

A version of this review was first published in The Daily Guardian.

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