Ray of fuckin' Sunshine

The thing about consuming art in the form of moving images is that you’re constantly dick-measuring inspired works against that of originals by stalwarts. It doesn’t help the case when the said work is inspired by the works of one of the greatest auteurs of all times—Satyajit Ray.

Netflix India’s latest anthology, Ray (2021), has garnered all kinds of attention—good, bad, ugly. Truly, it’s worth the discussion because of the diverse opinion across the board and how each one of those is dick-measuring Ray against the existing body of Satyajit Ray’s works (in his capacity as a producer, director, writer, and an artist to reckon with).

For the uninitiated, Ray is a collection of four shorts directed by three directors, adapted into a screenplay by two writers, and inspired by one mega artist. Which is the first pimple on the butt cheek of development— Satyajit Ray has not made these shorts and they are naturally nothing like his work, can we calm with the hate? They are claiming to be inspired works of art.

Featuring stars with serious acting chops including Kay Kay Menon, Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, the surprise package includes Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor, Shweta Basu Prasad, and Ali Fazal. Ray breaks a leg in its attempt at being a contemporary introduction to the works of Satyajit Ray, adapted for the OTT platform. Consume the works of these artists in each of these short films for a contemporary take on the legend's work and accept that there will be further attempts to revive interest in his works, to be shared among a different audience base and mediums than the ones where Ray himself worked on.

With a runtime of nearly four hours, the films— Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa (Abhishek Chaubey), Forget Me Not and Bahrupiya (Srijit Mukherji), and Spotlight (Vasan Bala)— are in no way structured for a day-long binge watch. There is a keen sense of distinction and detail in each work and going over them in a single sitting is not recommended even by serious consumers of Netflix (aka yours truly). For one, this is not a pack of potato chips that is easy to binge on. Ray is a lot like, an exquisite meal to be enjoyed over sittings and days to fully relish and consume. Embellished with Easter eggs, Ray is a delight to be enjoyed on a day off when you want to be consumed by contemporary filmmaking and not be bored out of your mind consuming a one-night binge stand of a cringe reality TV show.

The commonality between each of the four shorts is the point of view of the lead male character. It’s charged with judgments; the way each of these stories progresses, they enable a form of distinction between the existing judgment of the leading male character and that of the audience. I can leave this statement with a blanket term and call all these shorts, “thought-provoking”, but they are far more complex and layered than that.

Each short haunts you and leaves an aftertaste of dissonance in your mouth—things are not always as they seem, people are never what they appear initially and nobody is either an absolute #000000 or #FFFFFF. Whether it’s Rama Ipsit Nair starting out as a man on a mission to a man with ill-intentions or Indrashish Shah writing himself in and out of sympathy; the stories play out in a note of curious solitude, only to leave the audience out of tune with radical ambiguities questioning companionship, trust, faith, and judgment calls.

As someone who’s wary of the anthology format, I enjoyed consuming each one thoroughly for their writing, execution, and acting. If Behrupiya pays a lazy ode to Calcutta of Ray’s then, Spotlight brings out India now with an intriguing attempt to paint the socio-political scenario of the bhakt brigade and how it affects the individual and the society. To think, this is not something Ray would approve of is to be delusional. Sure, Ray himself may differ on the style of the shorts, but among the directorial trio, Vasan Bala, Abhishek Chaubey, and Srijit Mukherjee, all of them have given shape to the phantasmagorical of Ray’s works in extending beyond the absolute unit of reality.

Niren Bhatt and Siraj Ahmed have offered an insight into what makes our world today with elements that have existed across time within the Indian sub-continent. Between stardom, grief, office politics, jealousy, spirituality and commercialization, loneliness and crippling self-doubt, Sayantan Mukherjee (showrunner) did a fine job in curating and enmeshing Ray into a refresher for Gen Z, who can’t be bothered with what’s on Mubi for the sake of their brand. At the very least, film school aspirants will acquaint themselves with this version of Ray in the form of Ray, which is always a litmus test for how cool/blasé a work of art truly is.

If nothing else, acknowledgment where it deserves— everyone in the project has looked dope and a special mention to Ali Fazal, who delivered the beddable eye-candy, genius baddie (Tony Stark who?) role to the T and made me question if he was the same forlorn dude with the guitar in Fukrey (2013).

Each short in Ray has something of value to offer, and then more. Spotlight, which is my absolute favourite, bowled me over with its writing and acting both. Vasan Bala had me at Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018) with Gulshan Devaih (who deserves the world) and I was convinced it was perhaps his best. In Spotlight, there is equal part style and essence, both of which made Ray himself stand out in his time for all his worth. The writing is witty and laden with self-burns, references, and tropes from Bollywood and Hollywood, only for you to catch on, making Spotlight a treasure hunt for cinephiles.

Initially, what seems like an extension from his role in AK vs AK, Harsh Varrdhan Kapoor has outdone himself as Vik, an irreverent and insecure actor seeking validation in the form of acknowledgment by dick-measuring his popularity against Didi, reprised by Radhika Madan, who delivers a punch to the gut kinda performance herself. I couldn’t pick between the Vik doing push-ups (dear god, so fucking hot) or relaying a horrified face while living through what was worse than a “Lynchian nightmare”. More than anything, pitting Harsh against geniuses like Manoj Vajpayee, Gajraj Rao, Kay Kay Menon and watching him deliver this role proves he has a lot to offer (including the fine outfits). Chandan Roy Sanyal as Robi is every bit shrewd, sharp, and wheeler-dealer sexy who compliments Vik’s role as the more deserving partner in irreverence than Anuya (Akanksha Ranjan Kapoor), Vik’s girlfriend.

Spotlight also reminds and politely points at the obsession this country has with religion and cinema and how between these two (the third is cricket, not mentioned in the short), religion always triumphs. Most of all, what works in Spotlight is the self-awareness in the form of lines and reminders, and an ode to Ray himself with iconic individual looks and lines.

There has to be a conversation with Sayantan Mukherjee on the absence of front-running women and the limitation of the female characters written. While Maggie of Shweta Basu Prasad and Anuya of Akanksha Ranjan Kapoor may have held the audience captivated in their limited role, there was a craving for more and a sense of limiting their role to allow the others to shine. So much of it is implicit in the screenplay, but it does not reflect as well as a character written for Ali Fazal as Rama Ipsit Nair or Kay Kay Menon as Indrashish Shah. With the performances delivered by the whole cast, there was a sense to demand more from the women. I want to see Shweta as Maggie in a series dedicated to her revenge planning and follow Akanksha Ranjan Kapoor in The Game of Capturing Power (so much fun!) and see her be free from the shackles of pretentiousness, within which Vik resides.

There was something of value that was said in Spotlight that I hold true to the essence of the anthology as well. “Fuck reviews”, Anuya tells Vik to remind him of his worth outside of what's being said. I fully agree with her. Fuck reviews, especially if they think Ray isn’t even a sliver of sunshine on Satyajit’s genius, and limit themselves to pointing the flaws of the anthology alone. Agreed, nothing can ever hold a candle to Ray’s work, and for a good reason at that. But artists can attempt to do a legitimate work of art in itself and stand for what they try to deliver, a homage to the legendary artist himself. Ray for Ray makes the whole world shine and all that.

 The anthology is available for streaming on Netflix in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.