Ray review

Edgar Allan Poe once said, ‘A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.’ The consequence is almost always a sharp conclusion characterised by moral, surprise or wit.

When it takes the form of a film though, a story seeks a balance between seeing, sensing and anticipating. But for all their imagination fuelling attributes, literary and cinematic are two distinctly different mediums. Marrying the fixed to the fluid poses a real challenge for any film-maker, the idea behind turning four of Indian auteur Satyajit Ray’s short stories into Netflix’s brand new anthology series called Ray.

Directors Srijit Mukherji, Abhishek Chaubey and Vasan Bala’s vision for the film-maker’s writing meets with varying degree of success.

Ray’s stories are benign, breezy, slice-of-life treading on the peculiar. In a matter of a few pages, the author lucidly expresses the vagaries and fallibility of the human condition. Their adapted avatar, lasting an hour each, envisions the core of each story in a contemporary context.

Of the four, Srijit Mukherji directs two and adopts a conspicuously dark tone.

His Forget Me Not, based on Bipin Chowdhury’s Lapse of Memory has a one-line brief — Ipsit Nair (Ali Fazal) cannot remember. Mukherji milks a cocksure corporate hotshot’s selective amnesia to the point of monotony. Only a bombshell of a takeaway can pull off such prolonged confusion. But Forget Me Not‘s flimsy punchline cannot provide the vindictive mood it sets itself up for.

Watchable entirely on the strength of an able Ali Fazal’s growing exasperation, the segment could have made for a glorious allegory for gaslighting.

Mukherji’s next, Behrupia, channels Ray’s make-up expert protagonist from Chameleon. Kay Kay Menon plays a complex-ridden agnostic dismissed by the world using his unexpected inheritance and knowledge of prosthetic make-up to reckless effect.

Targeting his mean boss, casual sex partner and an all-knowing mystic, the lines between the man and the mask soon blur. Full of grisly sex scenes and bizarre posturing, Behrupia is unbearably pretentious from start to finish. It’s a pity to watch one of Ray’s best stories reduced to an arty-farty ordeal.

Hungama Kyun Hai Barpa is your reward for enduring it.

Abhishek Chaubey’s whimsical adaptation of Barin Bhowmick’s Ailment is a clear winner of this anthology and truest to Ray’s soul.

Set inside a swanky first-class train compartment traveling from Bhopal to Delhi, it follows the curious exchange between Musafir Ali, a boastful ghazal singer (Manoj Bajpayee) modelling himself on Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali, and Aslam Baig, a former wrestler bestowed with titles like Rustom-e-Patparganj, Kesari Karkardooma, Jenga Pehalwan turned sports journalist (Gajraj Rao).

Drawing its title from Daagh Dehlvi’s classic ghazal synonymous with Ghulam Ali, the past, present and future collide across a disarming chain of events sparked off by an antique pocket watch and an amusing psychiatric condition.

The latter is easier to pronounce than Rajesh Khanna’s diagnosis in Anand, we are told. Another Kaka reference pops up when Baig quotes his popular ‘kutti cheez‘ phrase.

Chaubey’s quirky humour, love for lyricism and comfort around Urdu speaking characters is unmistakable as is his ingenuity. It’s amply visible in the artistic manifestations of Musafir Ali’s inner voice, masterstroke cameos from Raghuvir Yadav and Manoj Pahwa or the joyous irony it arrives at towards its satisfying end. And the glorious jugaalbandi between Bajpayee and Rao, two actors at the peak of their abilities, carry Ray’s vision to another level.

Based on a short story of the same name, Vasan Bala’s Spotlight leaves a middling impact. More than his story it’s Ray’s belief in ‘improvisation’ that guides Bala’s take.

When the arrival of Didi (Radhika Madan), a god woman with 245 miracles to her credit, threatens to steal an insecure movie star’s (Harshvardhan Kapoor) thunder and coveted ‘Madonna’ suite, his petulant protests take a trippy turn ensuing in unexpected emancipation and artistic breakthrough.

Ray’s Spotlight is tempered with mild deceit and surprise, but Bala’s consciously random and audacious interpretation is peppered in pop-culture and parody.

Movie critic Rajeev Masand pitches in an appearance, the Director of Photography is named Byomkesh Bakshi, Bala doubles up as Director Ramen Malik, like a play on Rami Malek or a hat-tip to his fondness for martial arts movies, perhaps. There’s a stoned tribute to Ray’s movie titles while the wannabe hero fixates on everyone from De Niro to The Dude.

It’s a wacky concept and at the heart of it, Bala is boldly calling out the empty, clueless generation of Kafkaesque nightmare crying fools or hopelessly wholehearted blind bhakts. But Spotlight‘s energy is off and the farce never registers.

While Radhika Madan has a ball around Spotlight‘s idiosyncrasies and surreal elements, Harshvardhan is painfully lacklustre. He can neither convey the aura of a pampered star nor the mocking tone.

As an exercise, Ray is an effort worth encouraging. As a collaboration, it is a hit and miss.

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Sherni review

Early on in Sherni, officials and locals clash over one’s solution is another’s struggle of an ongoing village crisis. There’s a man-eating tiger on the loose and her appetite is wreaking havoc on a region whose layout of adjacently arranged fields and forests makes it difficult for man and beast to peacefully coexist.

Whether caused by creature or contagion, authority’s lack of empathy and callous schemes evoking angry responses from those at the receiving end of these decisions is a persistent sentiment in society.

Sherni shrewdly studies this imbalance and makes keen observations on the state of wildlife conservation at the hands of Indian bureaucracy. But at the heart of its man versus nature theme is a strong woman suffering fools.

As in his acclaimed Newton, Director Amit V Masurkar designs another stinging commentary on administrative apathy and mismanagement around an upright protagonist. Unlike Newton Kumar though, Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), the newly appointed District Forest Officer doesn’t exhibit any ‘imandari ka ghamand’.

A woman of few words, her silence and stares give us a good glimpse into her thoughts and person. Often interrupted through mid-sentences or entirely cut off, she makes sure to listen, especially to the voice of the suppressed. Balan has fared fabulously as a self-aware feminist before, but in Sherni, her actions speak louder than her words. It’s a refreshingly subdued portrayal that reiterates the power of spine in the absence of speech.

Vidya’s dignified composure is in stark contrast to her bungling boss (Brijendra Kala is a hoot as always) whose cowardice and sycophancy are a reflection of the babu‘s mentality. While poachers and politicians freely exploit a deeply corroded system, hapless villagers bear the brunt of ugly opportunism.

It’s a shabby way of doing things and Vidya refuses to turn a blind eye. There is no sanctimonious lecturing or dramatic outburst, the Sherni in the title doesn’t allude to romanticised roars but draws parallels against the art of survival. Vidya commits to becoming the change she wants to see by staying within the system and not abandoning it even when all her attempts to restore the ecosystem are snubbed by her male superiors and mansplainers. Only Sherni, written by Aastha Tiku, doesn’t colour her tenacity in heroism.

Masurkar’s worldview hinges on realistic not posturing. Precisely why even the most flawed characters in his stories seem like people not caricatures. The patriarchy Vidya encounters is embodied by dull, dissatisfied, entitled men (Kale, Neeraj Kabi, Sharat Saxena) whose ineptitude only magnifies in her stoic presence.

There are a few good men. As the zoology professor lending her a helping hand, Vijay Raaz conveys the enthusiasm of an environmentalist driven by passion not reward.

Though Sherni gently makes its point on gender bias during a family dinner when an emergency requires both to excuse themselves and the response of their respective folks is diametrically opposite. While we get a sense of Vidya’s lacklustre personal life, Masurkar leaves it unexplored.

When not running around circles, Sherni is an intriguing, sweeping (shot charismatically by Rakesh Haridas) journey alternating between a satire, thriller, drama and documentary, which hugely benefits from a pitch-perfect casting. Its superb mix of known, unknown, earthy and experienced actors, put together by Romil-Tejas, bring out the story’s layered texture and authentic soul.

Once again, Masurkar shows he is a master of understated irony. Despite the tiger menace looming large, the animal-loving ways of the locals remain unchanged, be it the caretaker’s affection for the wandering kitten or the shepherds risking themselves for their livestock. Sherni makes a compelling case for practical knowledge over desk rats by acknowledging the efforts of the unsung eco-specialists and their field experience around a committee full of bookish know-alls in a sly scene.

Sherni is a triumph — a sublime outcome of purpose and storytelling falling in place. But it’s also a forewarning towards the impending extinction of a glorious species if man’s thirst to control and cage all that’s wild and free isn’t quelled.

Sherni is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Review was first published on rediff.com.

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Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar review

Being emotional fools do not bode well for the protagonists of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar.

A hotshot banker (Parineeti Chopra) commits fraud to save her beau boss from bankruptcy. A loyal cop (Arjun Kapoor) learns that his monster-in-mentor’s garb sees him as mere collateral damage. A gullible old couple’s (Raghuvir Yadav, Neena Gupta) kindness is exploited by the aforesaid two in a bid to escape cops and colleagues hot on their trail.

In all the three scenarios, misplaced trust has landed them in a sticky spot. Except the titular duo — embodying Dibakar Banerjee’s cynical worldview — aren’t exactly a picture of virtue.

For all their distinction in economics and class, both Sandeep and Pinky are ultimately a dispensable statistic in Delhi’s ruthless, corrupt scheme of things where power brokers and corporate scamsters call the shots.

Its chilling evidence marks the opening scene where a late night drive’s crude revelry concludes in cold-blooded gunfire. ‘Doosri gaadi Maggi ho gayi (we bombarded the wrong car),’ scoffs the shady policeman (Jaideep Ahlawat) after ordering the screw-up to look like an act of terrorism.

A masterfully shot sequence that packs in Delhi NCR’s most unflattering aspects — toxic masculinity, road rage and state of police brutality in just a span of a few minutes. Banerjee’s shrewdness shows in how he links it with Sandeep and Pinky’s sudden shift in fortunes.

Realising they are the intended targets of this ambush-gone-awry draws unsettling reactions from the two — be it Pinky’s physical violence or Sandeep’s disturbing tolerance for humiliation. Regrettably, it negates whatever reversal of gender roles Banerjee is pushing for by giving them peculiar names.

A man nicknamed Pinky or a woman going by a masculine address is not uncommon in North of India. There are a good number of girls named Rakesh, Vinod or Sandeep. Ram Gopal Varma’s Daud, too, used the same ploy for the sake of quirk in Sanjay Dutt’s Uma Parvati and Urmila Matondkar’s Daya Shankar while Paresh Rawal was, what do you know, Pinky.

But even if Sandeep wears the pants and knows her finances and Pinky rolls the rotis and dances a storm, he is still shown as her protector. It’s disappointing as is Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar‘s confused focus and stiff disposition.

There is not as much running around to make it a road movie. The whistle blowing on bank frauds is cursory. The running rot of the system isn’t too deeply dwelt upon. We get a sense of Pinky’s disenchantment but never quite the cause of it. Mostly though, it is the clinical response to Sandeep’s horrifying agony that left me perplexed to the core.

If Banerjee’s gruesome obsession with her suffering is supposed to make us see a deeper meaning into it, he has picked the wrong actor. To be fair, Parineeti talks numbers very well. Also, there’s an inherent warmth about her, the scene where she hugs a motherly stranger leading to an outpour of emotions is a rare glimpse into her vulnerability. But the stony-faced appearance she otherwise acquires fails to convey any of the regret and resentment. Arjun Kapoor is suitably gruff and grim but fizzles out in a role that needed an actor whose thoughts can be heard.

Co-written by Banerjee and Varun Grover, there is still lots to applaud — Anil Mehta’s sublime frames capture the mood and momentum befitting a plot powered by conversations, its ingenious celebration of Salman Khan’s cult (the Faraar in the title alludes to him) and the brotherhood of the bracelet.

There is Neena Gupta and Raghuvir Yadav’s endearing elderly couple slipping seamlessly under the skin of their middle-class values and woes. Also the peripheral characters inhabiting Indo-Nepal borders, juggling the rights and wrongs while assisting Sandeep and Pinky in their risky endeavours add to its slice-of-life, oddball appeal.

Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar is an intriguing mess.

Though it is never said aloud, Banerjee’s protagonists are abused, oppressed, individuals whose rough edges stem from the damage they have endured transcending class and social distinction. Without any moral scrutiny he contemplates on the nature of crime, how it is both by design as well as desperation. Pity, he opts for traditional Bollywood tropes to find a breakthrough.

Review was first published on rediff.com.

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